Tehran’s Last Chance…

Israel has been doing everything in its power to stop Iran’s atomic program, from targeted killings to computer worms. Now, a bombing raid on Iran’s nuclear facilities may be just months away. But an Israeli attack could have the effect of strengthening the regime — and make it more determined than ever to build the bomb. By SPIEGEL Staff.

Israel, Iran and the Battle for the Bomb

Twelve hours is an agonizingly long time for endurance athletes as they punish their bodies, pushing themselves to the ultimate limit in events like triathlons or mountain bike races.

 

Twelve hours is also an agonizingly long time for politicians, acting under the pressure of an ultimatum, to prevent a war that would mean the inevitable deaths of large numbers of people.

In 1914, the German Reich gave the Russians 12 hours to stop mobilizing their troops. In 1956, the French and the British gave then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser the same amount of time to withdraw his troops from the Suez Canal, which he had just nationalized, and allow Israel to use the waterway again. A war ensued in both cases, partly because those who had threatened to use military force knew that it would hardly be possible to comply with their demands so quickly. In other words, they wanted the situation to escalate.

An Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would apparently also involve a 12-hour lead time. According to intelligence sources in Tel Aviv, Israeli politicians told Martin Dempsey, the US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the Israeli leadership intends to give the White House only half a day’s notice once it has decided to proceed with a military strike. In other words, Israel wants to be sure of two things: on the one hand, that US President Barack Obama is not taken completely by surprise by a possible attack, and on the other that he is not in a position to seriously question his ally’s decision and undermine it with diplomatic efforts.

Is this how a country should treat its most important ally? Is this the way it should pressure the very power on whose goodwill it depends?

The dispute over whether Iran can be deterred from its shadowy nuclear ambitions through diplomacy and sanctions or solely through a military strike will be the dominant issue in Washington this week.

Already in Turmoil

The hawkish Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet with Barack Obama, the world’s most powerful man and a man who Netanyahu has often humiliated in the past with his pigheadedness. These two unequal leaders, who clearly dislike each other, plan to talk about war and peace, and about a region that is already in turmoil.

Of course the meeting, which is already being described as historic before it has even taken place, is about Iran. Most of all, however, it will be a tug of war between Israel and the United States, which are deeply divided in the debate over the possibility of Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons.

Obama doesn’t want Iran to get the bomb, but he also doesn’t want war. Netanyahu, on the other hand, is prepared to do anything to put Tehran in its place. He will ask the US president to take a tougher stance on Iran. Obama’s insistence that “all options are on the table” is no longer enough for Jerusalem. Netanyahu wants Obama to put his cards on the table. He wants Obama to clearly identify the “red line” that Iran would have to cross for Washington to participate in a military strike or at least support a strike by Israel — or to let him know if Israel would ultimately be on its own if it decides to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.

In interviews leading up to the meeting, Obama has already affirmed that he will support Israel and instruct the US military to destroy Iran’s nuclear program if need be. “I don’t bluff,” he warned.

There is still no absolute proof — the famous “smoking gun” — that Tehran is actually developing a bomb. Even the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), hasn’t been able to furnish such evidence. There are indications on which the IAEA bases its assumptions, including a large number of observations by IAEA inspectors, as well as reports provided to the agency by individual intelligence agencies. Based on this information, the IAEA concludes that it cannot rule out that the Iranian nuclear program has a “military dimension.”

The Same Trap

Do these indications justify a war, one that could take an already unstable region to the brink of disaster? The experiences from the Iraq war suggest that caution is advisable. The campaign against former Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein was conducted on the basis of false evidence. The weapons of mass destruction he had allegedly produced and stockpiled never existed. Obama doesn’t want to walk into the same trap.

In reality, it would seem as though the war between Israel and Iran over the Iranian nuclear program has been underway for some time. It is an undeclared war, a shadow war, which Jerusalem is thought to have begun four years ago. Israeli hit squads are thought to have killed Iranian nuclear scientists in Tehran using magnetic bombs, Israeli agents have attacked and leveled Iranian Revolutionary Guard bases and computer viruses were used to cripple Iranian nuclear technology.

Now the Iranians are trying to strike back. Three weeks ago, car bombs targeting Israeli diplomats exploded in India and Georgia, and Iranians were arrested in Bangkok and Malaysia after the bombs they had intended to use exploded early, while they were still in hiding.

 

Events have been happening fast in the smoldering Israel-Iranian conflict. A new parliament was elected in Iran last Friday. Whether the supporters of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prevail could determine Tehran’s further handling of the nuclear conflict.

Behind closed doors at IAEA headquarters in Vienna this week, officials will debate the most recent report for the board of governors, which SPIEGEL has obtained. In the report, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano stresses his “serious and growing concerns” over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. He writes that he is dismayed over how massively Tehran has expanded its uranium enrichment capabilities.

It now seems likely that there will be an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, perhaps on the uranium enrichment facilities near the cities of Natanz and Qom, the conversion plant near Isfahan, the heavy water reactor under construction in Arak or the Bushehr nuclear power plant. According to off-the-record conversations with high-level politicians, military officials and experts from the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, it will happen this year, probably between the summer and the fall. Officials in Washington, on the other hand, anticipate a military strike as early as May, an assumption that Berlin also feels is absolutely realistic.

Part 2: Rattling the Sabers

The Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, who is very well connected among senior Israeli politicians, believes that Israel’s prime minister and defense minister have already reached an agreement on the need for military action.

Hardliner Netanyahu is unusually determined. Few things motivate the premier as much as the fear of what he calls a second Auschwitz. He has never believed Holocaust denier Ahmadinejad’s claim that Iran’s nuclear program is purely for civilian purposes, and he feels vindicated by the most recent IAEA reports. Netanyahu doesn’t take Ahmadinejad’s repeated threats against the existence of Israel as tactical rhetoric, but instead believes that the Iranian president is deadly serious. He draws parallels between Europe’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler and the current situation, and has said: “It’s 1938, and Iran is Germany.” This time, however, says Netanyahu, the Jews will not allow themselves to be the “sacrificial lamb” being led to the slaughter.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak is generally not among the ranks of those who seriously believe in a suicidal attack by Ahmadinejad on Israel. But he is also seen as someone who, like Netanyahu, categorically wants an attack. A nuclear-armed Iran is also unacceptable to Barak, and he too believes that doing nothing is ultimately more dangerous than attacking. “The moment Iran goes nuclear, other countries in the region will feel compelled to do the same,” he said. What happens, he asks, if Iran stretches a nuclear protective shield across Hezbollah in Lebanon, and what if terrorist groups get their hands on the bomb? “From our point of view, a nuclear state offers an entirely different kind of protection to its proxies. (…) The bottom line is that we must deal with the problem now.” Barak also claims that Iran could enter an “immunity zone” within the next nine months, which would mean that an Israeli attack would no longer be effective at that point.

Military exercises have been underway for some time. In November, elite pilots with the 117th squadron of the Israeli Air Force took off in 16 fighter bombers from an air base near Haifa for exercises over the Mediterranean, which included aerial refueling, low-altitude flight in formation and the simulated dropping of so-called “bunker buster” bombs. The Israeli military leadership also tested a technologically improved version of the Jericho III ballistic missile, which has a range of 6,500 kilometers (4,000 miles) and the capacity to carry a nuclear warhead.

Surrounded by Adversaries

In return, the Iranians threatened to retaliate against a possible attack with everything in their arsenal. At first, there was talk of a possible attack on Israel’s nuclear reactor near Dimona, in southern Israel. Tehran is issuing such warnings because the balance of power in the region has shifted in the last few months, and because Iran suddenly sees itself surrounded by adversaries.

Only a year ago, Iran was seen as the true beneficiary of the US engagement in the Middle East. US troops had eliminated two of the Iranian regime’s worst enemies, the al-Qaida terrorist network in Afghanistan, which had enjoyed the protection of the Taliban, and dictator Saddam Hussein in Iraq, who had despised the mullahs.

Today, however, the Taliban in Afghanistan are just waiting for the Americans to finally withdraw, and the revolutions that have erupted in the Arab world present a double threat to the regime in Tehran. First, they are a constant reminder to the Iranian opposition that its own revolt following the rigged 2009 election was a failure. Second, now that popular uprisings have brought about regime change in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Iran’s most important ally is also being shaken by unrest: the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The loss of Syria would be a triple calamity for Iran. Tehran would not only lose the Assad regime itself, but also its influence over the radical Islamic group Hamas, whose leadership has just withdrawn from Syria. It would also lose its supply route for Hezbollah, the strongest political force in Lebanon.

The winners of this shift are Iran’s adversaries in the south, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf.

‘Cut Off the Head’

Netanyahu and Barak can depend on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates granting flyover rights to Israeli fighter jets. The Arab states in the Persian Gulf fear Iranian dominance of the region, backed by nuclear weapons, almost as much as the Israelis. Secret talks on the issue are believed to have already taken place. According to a diplomatic cable leaked by WikiLeaks, Saudi Arabian King Abdullah told the US ambassador in Riyadh four years ago that it was time to “cut off the head of the (Iranian) snake.”

So do all signs point to war? Aren’t there other ways to convince the Iranian leaders to back down, or is every form of military and economic pressure on Tehran counterproductive? In fact, shouldn’t the West learn to live with the possibility of an Iranian bomb, just as it once learned to live with the Soviet bomb?

No other problem, except perhaps the euro crisis, will affect international politics in 2012 as much as Iran and its presumed military nuclear program. Future decisions over war and peace will depend on Tehran’s next steps, but even more so on whether Israeli Premier Netanyahu and US President Obama can come to an agreement.

By now, Obama is no longer fully in control over how Washington should deal with Iran. Even if he is personally opposed to an attack, he can hardly afford a public veto and the resulting severe damage it would do to relations with Israel, because several of the Republican presidential candidates advocate a much tougher stance on Iran.

With the tightening of sanctions against Iran starting in July, the Iranian oil embargo and Tehran’s threat to block the Strait of Hormuz with mines, yet another escalation seems inevitable. European leaders discussed the possible consequences at last Thursday’s EU summit. European Central Bank President Mario Draghi warned German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the other 26 heads of state and government “against geopolitical stress” should the Iranians block the Strait of Hormuz. It could significantly drive up the price of oil and stoke inflation in Europe, Draghi said, with incalculable consequences for economic development in Europe. Germany, France and a few other European countries have already begun filling up their strategic oil reserves.

Monolithic Realm of Evil

The West paints a grim scenario of a nightmarish country that, proud of its history and self-confident to the point of arrogance, ignores international norms — a combination of high-tech weapons and a religion that fosters 1,300-year-old martyr legends that emphasize suffering. A country that, with the exception of its ties to Iraq and Syria, has largely isolated itself internationally. A wounded civilization whose leaders have declared war on the depraved West, and who fund radical groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. A monolithic realm of evil. This is how the hawks in the West view Iran.

Or are the others right, the ones who describe Iran as a place with several centers of power, and the leadership in Tehran as cool and rational rather than unpredictable and trigger-happy?

Iran is a regional power, more than four times as large as Germany and with almost as many people. It has the world’s fourth-largest oil reserves, after Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Canada, and it is also considered the fourth-largest oil exporter. Tehran derives more than $50 billion (€37 billion) in annual revenues from the sale of natural resources, although the money is distributed very unevenly. According to United Nations estimates, at least half of Iranians live below the poverty line.

Iran is a country of staggering contradictions. Formally, it has the institutions of a parliamentary democracy, and yet the “revolutionary leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who succeeded the country’s founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, ultimately controls all elected bodies.

Ali Khamenei is worshipped and treated as virtually infallible by his supporters, of which there are still many. But by no means does this translate into absolute power in everyday politics. Khamenei is constantly forced to consult with councils consisting of clerics, representatives of the people and military leaders, and now he also faces a serious challenge from the extremely self-confident President Ahmadinejad.

Part 3: Iran’s Collective Inferiority Complex

Particularly in his second term, which he owes to a decree by the revolutionary leader following the widespread protests over his reelection in 2009, Ahmadinejad has repeatedly refused to take Khamenei’s suggestions into account when filling government posts.

The power struggle between the revolutionary leader and the president is now being fought openly, but its outcome remains uncertain. Ahmadinejad’s current term officially ends in the summer of 2013. At this point, no one knows which side the majority of the newly elected parliament will take. The representatives of the people could topple or support the president.

It is also possible that the current parliament is already looking for a way to intervene in the conflict.

In addition to an exaggerated self-confidence based on the country’s earlier history as a major power, the Persian soul is burdened by a sort of collective inferiority complex stemming from the proud nation’s inability to regain its former greatness.

This feeling is also fueled by Shia, the denomination of Islam to which almost all Iranians adhere. Of the 1.4 billion Muslims worldwide, no more than 15 percent are followers of Shiat Ali, the party of Imam Ali, who the Shiites recognize as the only true successor of the Prophet Mohammed. It is a faith that has been marked by betrayal and martyrdom ever since Imam Ali was assassinated in 661 A.D. and, a short time later, his son, the third imam Hussein, was killed in a battle near Karbala in present-day Iraq.

Shia Islam is also shaped by an immense expectation of salvation centered on the return of the 12th imam. The Shiites believe that this Mahdi, or guided one, will rid the world of all evil. No small number of believers are deeply convinced that his return is imminent, and that chaos and decline will only accelerate salvation by the Mahdi. The Iranian president, of all people, is an especially enthusiastic supporter of the Mahdi cult. The clerical establishment is sharply critical of many of his supporters, which it sees as sectarians.

Thirst for Worldly Power

Within the first years following Khomeini’s seizure of power in 1979, it was already clear how dangerous it was to underestimate the mullahs’ thirst for worldly power. Iran fanatically defended what has been the only attack to date on the country’s borders in the history of the Islamic Republic. Believing he could easily annex an oil-rich province, Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein attacked the theocracy in September 1980. Although the West, most of all the United States, armed the Iraqi dictator for his war against the hated mullahs, Saddam failed to subjugate the Iranians. After eight years of war and the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives, the two sides agreed to a ceasefire.

During that war, two organizations established their legendary reputation as the pillars of the Iranian regime, organizations that even today would be willing to make great sacrifices in defending Iran against attacks: the voluntary militia of the Basij, or “Mobilization of the Oppressed,” and the units of the Pasdaran, or “Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution.” These two groups demonstrated just how much they support the leadership in 2009, during the so-called Green Revolution. When millions of Iranians, led by cleric Mahdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, who had led the country as prime minister through the turmoil of the Iraq war, took to the streets to protest Ahmadinejad’s manipulated reelection, they were brutally attacked by Basij and Pasdaran troops. The reform movement hasn’t recovered from the wave of repression to this day.

But while the Basij deteriorated into a group of thugs long ago, the Pasdaran are still widely respected. And even though the Revolutionary Guards, with 125,000 men, make up only about a third of the Iranian armed forces, they are the backbone of the leadership — in every respect. Their commander, Mohammad Ali Jafari, 54, is considered one of the most powerful men in the country. In addition to the Pasdaran, he commands 300,000 reservists and the Basij, which has an estimated troop strength of at least 100,000 men. In times of crisis, the Basij can mobilize up to a million activists.

Some even believe that Jafari is more influential than the president. Both Khamenei and Ahmadinejad need the Guards and, for this reason, court their favor. Khamenei’s advantage is that he is entitled to appoint the Pasdaran commander, and he chose Jafari for the position in 2007. Ahmadinejad, who once served in the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, notorious for its foreign missions, also does everything in his power to secure the support of the Revolutionary Guard commander.

Core of the Regime

Jafari embodies a rare blend of the aesthete, revolutionary and businessman, steeled in the resistance against the former shah. As a young architecture student, he demonstrated against the ailing monarchy in 1978. He was arrested several times and tortured by the Shah’s secret police, the SAVAK. After the shah was overthrown, Jafari was one of the students who stormed the US Embassy in Tehran. Because of the courage he exhibited during the Iraq war and his logistical abilities, he quickly advanced to the rank of commander.

The Pasdaran is also the economic core of the regime, with Jafari controlling an enormous business empire. The Revolutionary Guards have been as relentless in taking control of their country’s economy as they were in striking back at Iraqi troops during the war.

About one in three delegates to the Iranian parliament, the Majlis, is aligned with the Pasdaran. The current speaker of the parliament, Ali Larijani, Iran’s former chief nuclear negotiator, was also a senior officer in the Revolutionary Guards, as was his successor as nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili. It makes sense that both men come from the Pasdaran, because Iran’s nuclear projects are an important focus for the organization.

Companies owned by the Pasdaran build the hidden tunnels, such as those for the planned Fordo enrichment facility near Qom, the stronghold of Shiite religious scholarship. The Pasdaran’s scientists are involved in enriching uranium, their elite troops protect the nuclear facilities and their leaders sharply warn the United States and its ally, Israel, against attempting to attack. “If their fighter jets manage to evade the Iranian air defense system,” the head of the Pasdaran air force, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, recently said, commenting on the threat of an Israeli attack, “our surface-to-surface missiles will destroy their bases before they land.” Naturally, the head of the alleged secret nuclear program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, is also a senior officer in the Revolutionary Guards.

No Signs

But not all possible targets whose coordinates the Israeli strategists have on their radar are remote bunker systems like the Fordo enrichment plant. The birthplace of the Iranian nuclear program is in the middle of the capital.

The Tehran research reactor is located in the northern section of the city of 13 million, where the Alborz Mountains seem almost close enough to touch and the air is relatively clean compared to the smog in the valley below. The nuclear complex, which the United States built in the 1960s, is surrounded by tall apartment buildings, shopping centers, restaurants and kindergartens. There are no signs to indicate that this is where the Iranian nuclear authority is headquartered. Fereydoon Abbasi-Davani, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, presides over this small, isolated world, with its own mosque, cafeterias, administrative buildings and research complexes. The professor was appointed to the position after surviving an attempted assassination.

The facility, where isotopes for the treatment of cancer patients are produced, is subject to IAEA supervision. But the international community is alarmed by the fact that Iran is enriching the fuel rods needed to operate the reactor to a level of about 20 percent, a concentration that puts the country a big step closer to possessing weapons-grade uranium.

The scientist who accompanied SPIEGEL journalists on a tour of the facility last year insisted that nothing untoward is happening in the laboratories. “My work is intended to save lives, not destroy them,” he said. Then he glanced over at the mosque and added: “May God protect us.”

Part 4: The Covert Proxy War

The complex in Israel where officials discuss hit squads, cyber warfare and conventional war objectives couldn’t be more inconspicuous, and it takes a while to notice the many surveillance cameras and hidden gun embrasures. This is to be expected, given that the mousy gray building in northern Tel Aviv, near the highway to Haifa, houses the Mossad, or “Institute,” the foreign intelligence agency of the Jewish state. The agency, which kidnapped Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann from Argentina, took bloody revenge for the massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich and later did the reconnaissance for Israel’s aerial bombardment of nuclear facilities in Iraq (1981) and Syria (2007), is also known in Israel as the “Eye of David.”

Now, many believe, Israel is waging a covert war against Iran’s nuclear program, one aimed at eliminating Tehran’s scientific elite. Most presume the killings are controlled from Mossad headquarters.

The first Iranian nuclear expert died in January 2007. Ardeshir Hosseinpour died of gas poisoning in the Isfahan uranium conversion plant, probably as a result of a leak caused by sabotage. A remote-controlled bomb killed Masoud Alimohammadi, a physicist, near his home in Tehran in January 2010. In November of the same year, a hooded motorcyclist attached a magnetic bomb to the car of Majid Shahriari, an expert on neutron transport, in the midst of Tehran traffic. He was killed instantly.

Darioush Rezaeinejad, a nuclear scientist, was killed with a shot to the head in July 2011. Only a few weeks ago, one of the young stars of the Iranian nuclear program, Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, 31, a director of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, died in a Tehran bombing.

The Israeli intelligence service has not officially taken responsibility for any of the deaths. Traditionally, the Mossad does not comment on such attacks. Unofficially, however, experts leave little doubt as to who should be given credit for the killings.

Inexplicable Failures

Hardly anyone in Israel questions the liquidation of Iranian scientists, a method that is highly dubious under international law. And in keeping with a recommendation from the Talmud (“If someone is coming to kill you, rise up first and kill this person”), a large majority also endorses another form of warfare: the digital attack.

For several years, Iranian nuclear scientists have complained about inexplicable failures in the nuclear facilities. Three Revolutionary Guard aircraft crashed as a result of malfunctions in the computerized control system. But an uncanny war descended on Iran on a much larger scale in June 2009, in the form of a miracle weapon called Stuxnet. The computer worm burrowed its way into many of the roughly 8,000 centrifuges at the uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, manipulating them to the point of self-destruction. It took Iranian scientists months to find an antidote to the cyber war. Meanwhile, Israeli experts are developing a new worm that they intend to smuggle into the Iranian systems. But while cyber attacks may be an effective tool against Iranian nuclear facilities, they can only delay development.

This is especially true now that the Iranians have begun operations at a second underground production facility for enriched uranium in Fordo near Qom, in addition to the one near Natanz. The IAEA (and, therefore, the Mossad) knows that Iranian engineers have produced neutron sources that can be used to trigger a nuclear explosion, and that they have completed work on the development of a nuclear detonation mechanism. In principle, it also knows where all of this was done. But experts also believe that Iranian scientists have duplicated most of the particularly important steps toward acquiring an atom bomb in hidden locations.

Only one person can issue the order to assemble the bomb: the revolutionary leader himself. But based on everything Western intelligence agencies know, Khamenei hasn’t given this order yet. He appears to be keeping all of his options open. Only a few days ago, he insisted once again that the weapon of mass destruction is “haram,” or forbidden for religious reasons. Tehran has also repeatedly stated that the documents on which the nuclear inspectors base their conclusions are forged, namely by those who want regime change in Iran: the Israelis and their allies in Washington. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi accuses IAEA Director Amano of allowing himself to be manipulated.

A Puzzle

In Tehran, presidential advisers are handing around IAEA reports that are supposed to prove that Iran, contrary to all other claims, is indeed willing to cooperate. Is it a serious offer? Or are the Iranians just playing for time?

Iran’s nuclear program is like a puzzle. The individual parts — uranium enrichment, the trigger system and the missile technology with which the bomb would be flown to its target — are prepared, organized and laid out for use in Tehran, Natanz and Fordo.

Perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle at the moment is the uranium enrichment facility in Fordo. There, Iranian scientists have installed several hundred centrifuges in two cascade groups, which continually enrich uranium hexafluoride, eventually reaching an enrichment level of 19.75 percent.

The centrifuges, made of shiny, hardened steel, function like giant salad spinners. Aside from a plutonium reactor, the use of centrifuges is the only possible route to creating a bomb.

The trick is to gradually increase the concentration of isotope 235 in the uranium to levels of up to 90 percent, which are necessary for the abrupt chain reaction needed for an atomic explosion to take place. There is a rotor inside the centrifuges, and the gaseous uranium hexafluoride is centrifuged until the heavy, worthless isotope accumulates along the outer wall, leaving the usable isotope in the center. The gas is conducted from one machine to the next, and the enrichment level increases as it is repeatedly centrifuged. A level of 3.5 percent is sufficient for fuel rods in a nuclear power plant, 19.75 is needed for medical purposes, and about 90 percent for a bomb.

All of this is currently happening underground in Fordo, under the supervision of the IAEA. But because the final steps occur more rapidly than the initial ones, it is less challenging to advance from an enrichment level of 19.75 percent to the critical 90 percent level.

Natural Protective Shield

According to the Vienna-based IAEA inspectors, Iran has produced 5,451 kilograms of low enriched uranium gas in recent years. This would be enough raw material for four to five nuclear bombs, at least in theory. A portion of the uranium gas — 110 kilograms — has already been further enriched to 19.75 percent.

These figures prompted Israeli Defense Minister Barak to coin the term “immunity zone” in relation to Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran’s invulnerability begins at the point at which bombs could no longer stop the enrichment process in Fordo, because a natural protective shield of solid granite protects the centrifuges there. Besides, the existing stockpile of low enriched uranium is enough to allow scientists to continue working underground, even if the country is attacked from abroad. According to military experts, there is only one conventional bomb powerful enough to break through this granite shield. The bomb, known as the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), is a 13,600-kilogram bunker buster that the US military has developed specifically for use in Iran. Washington has deliberately not sold this weapon to Israel. The MOP is Washington’s trump card in the negotiations with Netanyahu. The Israelis argue that without this weapon they would have to attack six months earlier.

The Israelis assume that the Iranian scientists need at least another nine months to assemble the individual pieces of the puzzle and build the bomb — if the order came from Khamenei, that is. Western intelligence agencies, including Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, the BND, disagree with the Israeli assumption. They argue that in a best-case scenario the Iranians, assuming everything runs smoothly, would need at least 18 to 24 months to put the parts together. Another year would be needed to optimize the warhead to fit onto an intermediate-range ballistic missile.

Part 5: The Master of War and Peace

Can a regime like the one in Tehran be brought to its senses with bombs, as many of the hawks in the West believe? And will the population resist its own leadership?

It is indisputable that the Pasdaran, the regime’s most important pillar, will pay a high price. The current sanctions are already aimed primarily at the Revolutionary Guards. International travel bans have been imposed on their leaders, the trade embargo is directed against their businesses, in particular, and the oil embargo has drastically reduced their revenues from the oil business. In the event of a military strike, most of the victims would come from their ranks, because Pasdaran troops protect the nuclear facilities that would be targeted.

Upon closer inspection, however, the Pasdaran officers benefit from any escalation. Each additional tightening of the sanctions leads to a booming black market and boosts smuggling activities, thereby strengthening the shadow economy — which some Pasdaran leaders control even more than legal commerce.

Even high casualties would probably not convince the loyal servants of the regime to give in. In fact, the opposite is more likely. They would declare each of their dead to be a martyr. And with each martyr that the organization can boast, its standing within the population will only increase.

The president would probably also benefit from a military attack. Granted, he would be the clear loser in the internal conflict among the various power centers, because he has previously claimed that the West would accept Iran’s uranium enrichment. Each round of sanctions by the UN Security Council was a bitter blow to the president. An attack would be tantamount to a political disaster. But Ahmadinejad’s rivals, including parliamentary speaker Larijani and, most of all, Revolutionary Leader Khamenei, were also skeptical of the international community’s resolve not to back down.

Not Seeking Armed Conflict

An attack would silence all criticism, and the fight against Israel and its allies would force the entire population to close ranks. The Green Movement would hardly dare to object, and even the turf wars between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad would be forgotten.

With the first Israeli bomb, the revolutionary leader would rise up from the depths of everyday political life into which the president has pulled him. Suddenly he would become the master of war and peace.

And then Khamenei would undoubtedly have an excuse to instruct his experts to build the nuclear bomb.

Nevertheless, those who know Khamenei and his closest advisers well believe that the revolutionary leader does not seek armed conflict, notwithstanding all the belligerent rhetoric. There is talk in Tehran that Khamenei is placing his bets on the period after Ahmadinejad’s term as president ends, at which point a president acceptable to Khamenei will clean up the mess left behind by the zealots.

Experts also believe that a resolution of the nuclear conflict could be possible with a future president who enjoys the confidence of the revolutionary leader. If the international community were to recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium, the leadership in Tehran would allegedly be willing to accept “maximum transparency and confidence-building measures.” Then all options would indeed be on the table — in a peaceful sense, that is.

But given the most recent escalations, it is questionable whether Israel will give the leadership in Tehran that much time. This is why the meeting in Washington will be so important. Much will depend on whether Obama and Netanyahu are able to build trust in one another.

‘Iron-Clad Guarantee’

Netanyahu sees Obama as a spineless “peacenik” who would shy away from an attack and would ultimately allow Iran to build the atom bomb, just as Pakistan and North Korea have already done. Obama, for his part, sees Netanyahu as a liar and a deceiver who is trying to blackmail him by threatening to launch an attack before the US presidential election in November. In an election year, Obama would have little choice but to support Israel, or at least not to stand in its way.

It is a balancing act for Obama. On the one hand, he wants to intimidate Iran with the credible threat of a military strike. On the other, he wants to dissuade Netanyahu from going it alone.

To do that, however, he would have to provide the Israelis with an “iron-clad guarantee” that he himself will stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon — as long as he is still in a position to do so, says Amos Jadlin, who was head of Israeli military intelligence until the end of 2010. This means that Obama would have to clearly define the point at which the United States would attack Iran. Will he do that?

Not even former Republican President George W. Bush agreed to support Netanyahu’s predecessor when Israel attacked the Syrian reactor in 2007. In fact, he advised Israel against it.

The outcome? Israel destroyed the Syrian nuclear facility a few weeks later.

REPORTED BY DIETER BEDNARZ, ERICH FOLLATH, JULIANE VON MITTELSTAEDT AND HOLGER STARK

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan