Connecting the Nuclear Dots on Iran

Why the U.S. should fire top intelligence analysts.

With the IAEA discussing a dramatic new report from its nuclear inspectors in Iran, are some – such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - exaggerating the imminence of a nuclear-armed Iran? Or is the U.S. government hopelessly misleading us that the threat is manageable through sanctions and tough talk?

A series of extraordinary leaks in the Israeli press last week revealed an internal debate within Israel’s inner security cabinet over the need to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons sites.

According to these reports, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak favored the strikes; Vice prime minister and strategic affairs minister Moshe “Bogey” Ya’alon reportedly was opposed. The leaks came on the heels of the third test-launch of a Jericho 3 nuclear-capable strategic missile, and what Israel claimed were long-planned air force exercises over Sardinia to simulate an attack on Iran.

According to former CIA case officer turned novelist Chet Nagle, the Jericho 3 test may have been designed by Israel to send quite a different message than the one being played up in the press.

Any Israeli attack on Iran is sure to make of Israel an international pariah, Nagle argues. Plus, the likelihood of success – that is, in destroying or disabling all of Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities so they have nothing to launch on the morning after the attack – is low.

“If you’re going to go to all that trouble and be a pariah, why not take one of those Jericho missiles, and detonate it 300 miles above the surface and deliver an EMP strike on Iran?” Nagel says. “That would stop their clock – if it’s electric – as well as all those centrifuges and everything else. Then the Greens can take over the country and we can go back in and rebuild the grid.”

Nagel was speaking with me and other analysts last week at a briefing organized by EMPact America for Congressional staff. His comments, while purely suggestive in nature, hint at a much larger strategic truth: if Israel is going to attack Iran, they have to make sure they totally disable Iran’s ability to launch a nuclear weapon.

How better to achieve that goal than a nuclear electro-magnetic pulse strike that would take down Iran’s power grid – and with it, even secret nuclear weapons plants Israel might fail to hit otherwise?

EMP or not, Israel was certainly making a show of force in an effort to convince Iran to back off its nuclear plans. On that score, from what we see in public at least, Israel had little success.

According to Iranian press reports cited on Sunday by the Debkafile, top Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commanders in Iran were shaking their fists.

In one unsigned editorial from the IRGC’s Fars news agency, the Guards threatened to utterly destroy Israel with just four missiles if Israel dared to launch any kind of attack on Iran.

Which brings us to the question, what if Iran already had the bomb?

Former IRGC officer and undercover CIA spy, Reza Kahlili, believes Iran acquired nuclear warheads from a former Soviet republic at the end of the Cold War, and has designed its own nuclear warhead with the help of Ukrainian scientists.

As I reported in my 2005 book, Countdown to Crisis: the Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran, IRGC commander Gen. Mohsen Rezai traveled to North Korea in January 1993, seeking assistance in arming those warheads. My informant, a top advisor to Gen. Rezai who later defected (and who spoke with me), said the North Koreans agreed to provide that help.

From that day forward, Iran believed it had a nuclear deterrent – not a strike force, but at least a deterrent – and its behavior changed. The IRGC believed they could carry out aggressive acts against the United States, including a terror alliance with Osama Bin Laden and al Qaeda, and the U.S. would never strike back with any consequence, and certainly would not strike the Iranian homeland.

This week’s IAEA report is only the latest in a series of revelations from the UN nuclear watchdog in Vienna that has documented Iran’s long march toward nuclear weapons.

Despite these reports, nuclear skeptics continue to claim that Iran is hopelessly disorganized, incompetent, incapable, and lacking the will to defy the international community and deploy nuclear weapons.

Just three weeks ago, the same nuclear analyst quoted this week by the Washington Post to sound the alarm about the latest IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear weapons progress, David Albright, was telling folks how the Stuxnet virus had crippled Iran’s ability to enrich uranium.

As they say, what a difference a week makes.

We’ve had Indicators and Warnings of Iran’s nuclear weapons intentions going back twenty-five years.

In late 1986, the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency publicly announced it was signing a “consulting” agreement with a Pakistani metallurgist named AQ Khan. I wrote about this agreement at the time – and continued writing about these Indicators and Warnings as they became known.

In 1992, the Simon Wiesenthal Center asked me to compile this information into a monograph called Weapons of Mass Destruction: the cases Iran, Syria, and Libya. At that time, I was looking at patterns emerging from Iran's procurement of certain dual-use technologies that were needed for a centrifuge enrichment program.

It was clear to me then, as it was to many others, that Iran had a uranium enrichment program. But the U.S. intelligence community failed to connect the dots. Even in 2005 when I wrote a narrative version of Iran’s nuclear weapons development program in Countdown to Crisis, noteworthy scholars dismissed my information as “sensational” and based on “faulty sources.”

This week’s IAEA report shows beyond a doubt that Iran has cold-tested all the components of a workable nuclear weapon design, as I reported in June. It also shows Iran had significant assistance from a Russian nuclear weapons scientists, who for five years helped Iran to design a nuclear weapons trigger.

Rather than a haphazard effort, Iran’s nuclear weapons research was “managed through a program structure, assisted by advisory bodies, and that, owing to the importance of these efforts, senior Iranian figures featured within this command structure,” the IAEA report found.

The program was run out of a “Scientific Committee” under the auspices of the Defense Ministry’s Education Research Institute, the IAEA found.

The IAEA report also shoots down – yet again – the National Intelligence Council’s fatally flawed 2007 National Intelligence on Iran, which stated at the outset that Iran had stopped nuclear weapons research in 2003. The IAEA found that the research continued, underground and unreported.

And yet, in a recent talk to intelligence community retirees and other guests, the Director of National Intelligence, Lt. Gen. James Clapper, said his fingerprints were “all over” the 2007 NIE and that he stood by it one hundred percent.

How much more information do we need to understand that Iran is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons and threatening to use them against Israel and the United States? How many more dots do we need before our intelligence community and our political leaders connect them to read the words IMMINENT THREAT spelled out just like that, in capital letters?

Iran’s leaders believe the “end of days” is come, and that by annhiliating Israel with a nuclear weapon they can “hasten the return” of the 12th imam, the Imam Mahdi of Shiite Muslim eschatology.

But in response to Iran’s latest efforts, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the State Department would open a “virtual embassy” to Iran, and gave an interview to the BBC Persian service where she claimed the Obama Administration failed to respond to the June 2009 protests in Iran because their Iran advisors counseled them against it.

Here’s a novel thought: if our intelligence analysts, including those right at the top, fail to connect the dots, why don’t we just fire them?

Stay tuned.

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