Spying Iran's Nuclear End Game
As John le Carr’e’s Cold War spy movie Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy opens to rave reviews in London, so the story of Iran’s nuclear program is taking on a dark le Carr’e-esque ‘keep-em-guessing’ undercurrent. Probably how Teheran’s ‘cloak and dagger’ regime prefers it. The question is: whose intelligence (pun intended) would it fool?
Iran’s nuclear activities happen to be in the shadow of the post-Fukushima world which, among other things, includes Germany’s knee-jerk reaction to dump its nuclear program. And presently, the nuclear explosion at Marcoule, France is making news – not least for the problems it is likely to create for the vital implementation of nuclear policies in places such as Britain. Plenty on our nuclear radar to keep us busy then.
Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic’s first nuclear power plant finally opened for business this month garnering surprisingly few headlines. While for some, Iran’s nuclear ambitions remain unclear with the real stories currently in Germany and France, just as in a le Carr’e novel, there is a growing abundance of tantalising ‘clues’ that suggest a more significant master plan taking shape out east. All along, there is this widespread suspicion that a nuclear reactor in Iran is not just for power generation in the first place so the same soul searching now gripping several countries simply does not apply.
Just before midnight on Saturday September 3, the Russian-built, Bushehr nuclear plant finally began trial producing 60 megawatts of power to the country’s power grid. Just nine days later, however, senior Iranian and Russian officials were in attendance as the $1 billion plant officially opened shifting gear to deliver between 350-400 megawatts, around 40 percent of the plant’s proposed capacity. The 1,000 megawatt facility is scheduled to operate at 100 percent capacity by December 2011. Thereafter Iran proposes a network of similar plants that will help Iran “abandon its reliance on fossil fuels”.
Ironically, if people could trust Iran, there is quite a rational reason for the country to develop nuclear power. That would free quite a bit of fossil fuels now used in power generation. Iran with massive oil and natural gas reserves but with a burgeoning population has been dependent for years on the importation of foreign refined gasoline to run its cars. Sanctions and a woefully inefficient energy management have prevented Iran to develop its fossil fuel reserve potential.
As the Bushehr trial got under way in early September, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told AFP that the, “agreement with Iran on Bushehr means that Russia will provide fuel for Bushehr and will take back the spent fuel”. So there it is. Russia is pencilled in both to provide the enriched uranium Bushehr needs and will also remove the spent fuel rods. Unfortunately for those weary of Iran, uranium enrichment in that country is about to be stepped up.
Alluding to Russia’s role in dealing with Bushehr’s enriched uranium, U.S. State department’s Nuland also stated that it, “underscores the point that Iran doesn’t need its own enrichment facilities”. She was referring to Iran’s defiant message in June this year that it would be moving its 20 percent enriched high-grade uranium from its Natanz site to the underground mountain bunker site at Fordow, near the city of Qom. And, just for good measure, Iran announced it would also increase its enriched uranium capacity. Western intelligence only detected the Qom bunker site in September 2009 and concluded, given Iran had kept the site top secret, it provided clear evidence of covert nuclear work.
Nuland further sets the ball of current diplomatic concern rolling, stating: “Iran is now the only country in the world with an operating power reactor that has not ratified the Convention on Nuclear Safety, a fact she finds “quite troubling”.
Enter Yukiya Amano, head of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear agency who has announced plans to publish new information backing his “increasing concern” that Iran is in fact working on a nuclear warhead. It seems that before going public, Amano first had to square things with the agency’s 35 board member nations. The IAEA’s next detailed report on Iran’s nuclear developments was formally due in November; the Bushehr launch may, however, force a pre-emptive ‘publication’ strike.
Clearly an increasingly twitchy Israel is weighing its options. Last month former United States Vice President Dick Cheney upped the diplomatic ante in an interview with U.S. Newsmax magazine. Asked about the possibility of an Israeli attack, Cheney said, “Iran represents an existential threat, and the Israelis will do whatever they have to do to guarantee their survival and their security.” Pressed on his source, Cheney maintained he was not quoting any individual Israeli but was summing up conversations he had recently had with “a number of Israeli officials” who “correctly perceive Iran as a basic threat.”
Israel’s nerves are bound to fray further as they await the IAEA’s “new evidence”. But then there’s also the issue of the “bizarre article” on an Iranian Revolutionary Guard website. As Julian Borger’s Global Security Blog at the UK’s Guardian newspaper rightly points out, “Any mention of an Iranian nuclear weapon is taboo in the Islamic Republic”. So why, Borger asks, has an article (in Farsi) appeared on the Gerdab website, a site run by revolutionary guards, that suggests to domestic readers that the impact of an Iranian nuclear weapon test would just amount to another “normal day” in Iran? Borger’s goes on to provide an extensive translation of the article that appears, as Borger suggests, to “have the look of a kite being flown …to get Iranians used to the idea of a nuclear test, and less fearful of international reaction” in its wake. As Borger observes, the article “hammers home the message that an Iranian nuclear test will not lead to disaster” and that “life will go on as before”.
While world leaders continue to be perplexed as to Iran’s ultimate nuclear ambitions, we might wonder why Iran with the world’s second largest natural gas reserves has not develop them and, instead, it has opted for a fast-track a nuclear power program, essentially one that it does not need. As we wait to hear the IAEA’s “concerning” evidence, it seems that it is far from difficult to discern Iran’s real master plan which involves catapulting itself to superpower status, assume technological pre-eminence in the Islamic world and, for good measure, fulfil its openly stated ambition to “wipe Israel off the map”.
The fact is, however the West and Israel play it from here – as last year’s Wiki-leaks releases made abundantly clear – Iran’s Arab neighbors fear Teheran’s regional ambitions every bit as much as Israel does. Anti-Israeli scimitar-rattling apart (purely for domestic consumption), Arab leaders would be just as pleased to see Iran’s nuclear uranium enrichment facilities ‘closed down’. While Iran continues to believe its bunkers to be bomb-proof, U.S. General David Petraeus is already on record countering that assertion that even if it moved below ground, “Washington had developed a contingency plan for dealing with Iran”s contentious nuclear program”.
The mystery surrounding Teheran’s nuclear plotting looks, finally, to be heading for its intriguing denouement.