UK, US, Israel “step up plans for Iran attack amid fresh nuclear fears”

November 03, 2011

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits the Natanz nuclear facility

This dispatch concerns Iran’s nuclear program.

 

CONTENTS

1. Have non-military actions now been exhausted?
2. “UK military steps up plans for Iran attack amid fresh nuclear fears” (Guardian, Nov. 3, 2011)
3. “Netanyahu seeks cabinet support for Israeli strike on Iran” (Daily Telegraph, Nov. 3, 2011)
4. “China’s Iranian gambit” (By Michael Singh and J. Newmyer Deal, Foreign Policy, Oct. 31, 2011)


HAVE NON-MILITARY ACTIONS NOW BEEN EXHAUSTED?

[Note by Tom Gross]

There are renewed press reports concerning Iran’s nuclear program, and the threat it poses. The articles below from today’s print editions of The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph first appeared on their websites yesterday evening.

For many years, U.S., British, German, Israeli and other intelligence agencies have used various methods in an attempt to stop or slow down Iran’s nuclear program. It seems that these have been exhausted and more decisive measures may now be required before it is too late.

***

Among the dispatches outlining some of these previous successful efforts to slow down Iran’s nuclear weapons program, please see this dispatch.

***

And among other previous dispatches on the Iranian nuclear issue, please see:

* “Nuke could wipe Israel out in seconds”; “Saudis give nod to Israeli raid on Iran”
* “Why Israel will bomb Iran” (& “The myth of meaningful Iranian retaliation”)
* “Obama, and the world, in 2012, after he fails to deal with Iran”
* Mossad’s hidden successes against Iran so far – but they are not enough

I attach three articles below.

-- Tom Gross


FULL ARTICLES

UK MILITARY STEPS UP PLANS FOR IRAN ATTACK AMID FRESH NUCLEAR FEARS

UK military steps up plans for Iran attack amid fresh nuclear fears
British officials consider contingency options to back up a possible US action as fears mount over Tehran’s capability
By Nick Hopkins
The Guardian
November 3, 2011

Britain’s armed forces are stepping up their contingency planning for potential military action against Iran amid mounting concern about Tehran’s nuclear enrichment programme, the Guardian has learned.

The Ministry of Defence believes the US may decide to fast-forward plans for targeted missile strikes at some key Iranian facilities. British officials say that if Washington presses ahead it will seek, and receive, UK military help for any mission, despite some deep reservations within the coalition government.

In anticipation of a potential attack, British military planners are examining where best to deploy Royal Navy ships and submarines equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles over the coming months as part of what would be an air and sea campaign.

They also believe the US would ask permission to launch attacks from Diego Garcia, the British Indian ocean territory, which the Americans have used previously for conflicts in the Middle East.

The Guardian has spoken to a number of Whitehall and defence officials over recent weeks who said Iran was once again becoming the focus of diplomatic concern after the revolution in Libya.

They made clear that Barack Obama, has no wish to embark on a new and provocative military venture before next November’s presidential election.

But they warned the calculations could change because of mounting anxiety over intelligence gathered by western agencies, and the more belligerent posture that Iran appears to have been taking.

Hawks in the US are likely to seize on next week’s report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is expected to provide fresh evidence of a possible nuclear weapons programme in Iran.

The Guardian has been told that the IAEA’s bulletin could be “a game changer” which will provide unprecedented details of the research and experiments being undertaken by the regime.

One senior Whitehall official said Iran had proved “surprisingly resilient” in the face of sanctions, and sophisticated attempts by the west to cripple its nuclear enrichment programme had been less successful than first thought.

He said Iran appeared to be “newly aggressive, and we are not quite sure why”, citing three recent assassination plots on foreign soil that the intelligence agencies say were coordinated by elements in Tehran.

In addition to that, officials now believe Iran has restored all the capability it lost in a sophisticated cyber-attack last year.The Stuxnet computer worm, thought to have been engineered by the Americans and Israelis, sabotaged many of the centrifuges the Iranians were using to enrich uranium.

Up to half of Iran’s centrifuges were disabled by Stuxnet or were thought too unreliable to work, but diplomats believe this capability has now been recovered, and the IAEA believes it may even be increasing.

Ministers have also been told that the Iranians have been moving some more efficient centrifuges into the heavily-fortified military base dug beneath a mountain near the city of Qom.

The concern is that the centrifuges, which can be used to enrich uranium for use in weapons, are now so well protected within the site that missile strikes may not be able to reach them. The senior Whitehall source said the Iranians appeared to be shielding “material and capability” inside the base.

Another Whitehall official, with knowledge of Britain’s military planning, said that within the next 12 months Iran may have hidden all the material it needs to continue a covert weapons programme inside fortified bunkers. He said this had necessitated the UK’s planning being taken to a new level.

“Beyond [12 months], we couldn’t be sure our missiles could reach them,” the source said. “So the window is closing, and the UK needs to do some sensible forward planning. The US could do this on their own but they won’t.

“So we need to anticipate being asked to contribute. We had thought this would wait until after the US election next year, but now we are not so sure.

“President Obama has a big decision to make in the coming months because he won’t want to do anything just before an election.”

Another source added there was “no acceleration towards military action by the US, but that could change”. Next spring could be a key decision-making period, the source said. The MoD has a specific team considering the military options against Iran.

The Guardian has been told that planners expect any campaign to be predominantly waged from the air, with some naval involvement, using missiles such as the Tomahawks, which have a range of 800 miles (1,287 km). There are no plans for a ground invasion, but “a small number of special forces” may be needed on the ground, too.

The RAF could also provide air-to-air refuelling and some surveillance capability, should they be required. British officials say any assistance would be cosmetic: the US could act on its own but would prefer not to.

An MoD spokesman said: “The British government believes that a dual track strategy of pressure and engagement is the best approach to address the threat from Iran’s nuclear programme and avoid regional conflict. We want a negotiated solution – but all options should be kept on the table.”

The MoD says there are no hard and fast blueprints for conflict but insiders concede that preparations there and at the Foreign Office have been under way for some time.

One official said: “I think that it is fair to say that the MoD is constantly making plans for all manner of international situations. Some areas are of more concern than others. “It is not beyond the realms of possibility that people at the MoD are thinking about what we might do should something happen on Iran. It is quite likely that there will be people in the building who have thought about what we would do if commanders came to us and asked us if we could support the US. The context for that is straightforward contingency planning.”

Washington has been warned by Israel against leaving any military action until it is too late.

Western intelligence agencies say Israel will demand that the US act if it believes its own military cannot launch successful attacks to stall Iran’s nuclear programme. A source said the “Israelis want to believe that they can take this stuff out”, and will continue to agitate for military action if Iran continues to play hide and seek.

It is estimated that Iran, which has consistently said it is interested only in developing a civilian nuclear energy programme, already has enough enriched uranium for between two and four nuclear weapons.

Experts believe it could be another two years before Tehran has a ballistic missile delivery system.

British officials admit to being perplexed by what they regard as Iran’s new aggressiveness, saying that they have been shown convincing evidence that Iran was behind the murder of a Saudi diplomat in Karachi in May, as well as the audacious plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, which was uncovered last month.

“There is a clear dotted line from Tehran to the plot in Washington,” said one.

Earlier this year, the IAEA reported that it had evidence Tehran had conducted work on a highly sophisticated nuclear triggering technology that could only be used for setting off a nuclear device.

It also said it was “increasingly concerned about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed nuclear-related activities involving military-related organisations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.”

Last year, the UN security council imposed a fourth round of sanctions on Iran to try to deter Tehran from pursuing any nuclear ambitions.

At the weekend, the New York Times reported that the US was looking to build up its military presence in the region, with one eye on Iran.

According to the paper, the US is considering sending more naval warships to the area, and is seeking to expand military ties with the six countries in the Gulf Co-operation Council: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

 

NETANYAHU SEEKS CABINET SUPPORT FOR ISRAELI STRIKE ON IRAN

Benjamin Netanyahu seeks cabinet support for Israeli strike on Iran
The Daily Telegraph (London)
November 3, 2011

www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/israel/8864696/Benjamin-Netanyahu-seeks-cabinet-support-for-Israeli-strike-on-Iran.html

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, is seeking cabinet support for a military strike on Iran, Haaretz newspaper has reported after days of speculation on plans for such an attack.

The report, citing a senior Israeli official, said Mr Netanyahu was working with Ehud Barak, the defence minister, to win support from sceptical members of the cabinet who oppose attacking Iranian nuclear facilities.

Israel test-fired a ballistic missile from a military base in central Israel on Wednesday, Israel Radio said.

The report said the launch was carried out from the Palmachim facility. It quoted a Defence Ministry statement as saying the launch was aimed at testing the missile’s propulsion system. Israel has Jericho missiles widely believed to be capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

The reports of Mr Netanyahu pushing for a military strike on Iran came after days of renewed public discussion among Israeli commentators about the possibility that the Jewish state would take unilateral military action against Iran.

Haaretz said that Mr Netanyahu and Mr Barak had already scored a significant win by convincing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to throw his support behind a strike.

But the newspaper cited the senior Israeli official as saying there was still “a small advantage” in the cabinet for those opposed to an attack.

Among those still opposed, Haaretz said, are interior minister Eli Yishai of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, intelligence minister Dan Meridor, strategic affairs minister and Netanyahu confidant Moshe Yaalon, and finance minister Yuval Steinitz.

Media reports say any strike is also opposed by army chief Benny Gantz, the head of Israel’s intelligence agency Tamir Pardo, the chief of military intelligence Aviv Kochavi and the head of Israel’s domestic intelligence agency Yoram Cohen.

Iran is on alert and will “punish” any Israeli strike against it, its armed forces chief of staff, General Hassan Firouzabadi, warned later on Wednesday.

“We consider any threat - even those with low probability and distant - as a definite threat. We are on full alert,” he said, quoted by Fars news agency.

“With the right equipment, we are ready to punish them and make them regret (committing) any mistake,” he said.

On Monday, Mr Barak was forced to deny media reports that he and Netanyahu had already decided to launch an attack against Iran over the opposition of military and intelligence chiefs.

“It doesn’t take a great genius to understand that in 2011 in Israel, two people cannot decide to act by themselves,” he said.

“There are at the ministry of defence and the prime minister’s office thousands of pages of minutes of the discussions that have been had in the presence of dozens of officials and ministers,” he added.

On Tuesday, Mr Barak appeared to suggest in remarks to parliament that Israel could be forced to act alone against Iran.

“A situation could be created in the Middle East in which Israel must defend its vital interests in an independent fashion, without necessarily having to reply on other forces, regional or otherwise,” he said.

Haaretz said no decision had yet been taken on any military strike, and that a November 8 report from the International Atomic Energy Agency nuclear watchdog would have a “decisive effect” on the decision-making process.

The newspaper also cited Western experts as saying any attack on Iran during the winter would be almost impossible because of thick cloud cover, raising questions about when any military action might be launched.

Israel has consistently warned all options remain on the table when it comes to Iran’s nuclear programme, which the Jewish state and much of the international community believe masks a drive for nuclear weapons.

Iran denies those charges and says its nuclear programme is for civilian energy purposes only.

The renewed speculation about a potential attack on Iran, including public debate about the wisdom of any strike, was strongly criticised by several Israeli ministers, who called the discussion irresponsible.

Justice minister Dan Meridor, speaking to Israeli daily Maariv, called the public debate “nothing less than a scandal.”

“Not every issue is a matter for public debate,” he warned. “The public elected a government to make decisions about things like this in secret. The public’s right to know does not include the debate about classified matters like this.”

 

CHINA’S IRANIAN GAMBIT

China’s Iranian Gambit
Beijing is using the Islamic Republic to foil American interests in the Middle East. It’s time we wised up to this dangerous game.
By Michael Singh and Jacqueline Newmyer Deal
Foreign Policy magazine
October 31, 2011

(Michael Singh who served on President Bush’s National Security Council staff from 2005 to 2008, is a subscriber to this email list.)

The elections in Tunisia and the dramatic demise of former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi have pushed the allegations of an Iran-sponsored plot to assassinate the Saudi envoy to Washington on U.S. soil from the headlines. But countering Iran’s efforts to develop a nuclear weapon and exploit the tumult in the Arab world for its own gain is vital to securing U.S. interests in a rapidly changing Middle East, and remains an urgent priority of U.S. diplomacy around the world.

Inevitably, efforts to isolate Iran will refocus Washington and Europe’s attention on Beijing. Past attempts to persuade China to support new measures against Tehran – or even robust enforcement of existing ones – have met with little success, in large part due to a misunderstanding of Chinese motivations. Whereas Washington tends to see Beijing as torn between conflicting priorities, Chinese strategists see the Islamic Republic as a potential partner in their strategic rivalry with the United States. Unless Beijing can be convinced that the costs of obstructing U.S. efforts on Iran outweigh the benefits of doing so, the Chinese will be of little help. Shifting China’s calculus in this manner ultimately requires that the United States develop a credible military option to neutralize Iran’s nuclear-weapons aims.

For three decades, U.S. diplomats have failed to secure real Chinese cooperation in their efforts to prevent Iran from going nuclear. Although Beijing has formally supported U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions against Iran since 2005, it has at the same time actively undermined those measures by watering them down in council deliberations and then implementing them only weakly and unevenly. According to the Washington Post, a senior U.S. official handed over to his Chinese counterparts in October 2010 a “significant list” of Chinese firms thought to be aiding Iranian proliferation in violation of U.N. sanctions.

The effects are pernicious. Increasing Chinese trade with Iran – projected to reach $40 billion in 2011, up from $30 billion last year, according to the Chinese ambassador to Iran – eases the pressure on Tehran and provides the Iranian regime with revenue, expertise, and other resources. It also leads to howls of protest by European and Asian firms that have curtailed their business with Iran only to see it backfilled by Chinese competitors.

Chinese trade with Iran is driven in large part by Beijing’s growing need for energy imports, and its desire to secure them by participating in oil and gas exploration, development, and other “upstream” activities of its overseas energy suppliers. Indeed, from a security perspective, Iran’s geographic position is unique – it is the only Gulf supplier that China can reach by both pipelines and sea routes. This diversification of supply lines helps reassure those in Beijing who most fear a foreign interdiction campaign or blockade that would cut China off from its energy supplies.

But the Chinese-Iranian love affair is not all about oil and gas. China has also provided Iran with substantial strategic and military assistance, through official and non-official channels. China provided critical support to the development of Iran’s nuclear program during the 1980s and 1990s and emerged in the 1980s as one of Iran’s principal arms suppliers, with transfers including cruise missile and ballistic-missile capabilities. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the value of these transfers reached more than $3.6 billion during those decades.

This support has continued and, in certain areas, seems to have expanded. For instance, news reports that arms from Tehran have found their way into the hands of militants in Iraq and Afghanistan mention not only Chinese-made anti-ship cruise missiles, but also sniper rifles, armor-piercing rounds, rocket-propelled grenades, anti-aircraft missiles and guns, mines, and other components for explosive devices. In a February op-ed, retired Adm. James Lyons, a former head of U.S. Pacific Fleet, wrote of the probable transfer from China to Iran of passive radar technology that could contribute to Iran’s recently announced anti-ship ballistic-missile program. According to Iranian media outlets, the same week as Admiral Lyons’s op-ed appeared, Maj. Gen. Wang Pufeng of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences was meeting with Iran’s defense attaché in Beijing to express China’s desire for expanded military ties.

Perhaps most alarming are the continuing allegations of Chinese support for Iran’s nuclear program. Earlier this year, China moved to block the release of a U.N. report that described suspected Chinese involvement in the transfer to Iran of aluminum powder used as a solid propellant for nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. Last week, China joined Russia in pressing the IAEA not to release damning information on Iranian military nuclear research. And last year, media sources covered the sale by Chinese firms of high-quality carbon fibers that would help Iran build better centrifuges.

China’s reluctance to pressure Iran is no secret in Washington. The conventional wisdom holds that Chinese policy is the result of a dilemma – Beijing, so the logic goes, is caught in a conflict between its interest in secure energy supplies and its interest in good relations with the United States and global nonproliferation. Writing in English-language outlets, Chinese foreign-policy intellectuals such as Wang Jisi have echoed this line. From the perspective of China’s Communist Party leadership, on which all Chinese scholars depend for their travel visas and permission to publish, it makes good sense to spread this notion in the hopes of eliciting more active American attempts at diplomatic persuasion or economic incentives.

This strategy has to some extent succeeded, as prescriptions for solving this “dilemma” rely heavily on carrots such as granting China official prestigious visits and greater inclusion in diplomatic deliberations. For example, Erica Downs and Suzanne Maloney argued recently in Foreign Affairs that the United States should “elevat[e] the bilateral diplomatic dialogue” and “ensure clear communication” with Beijing about sanctions.

In reality, however, such efforts by Washington appear to yield little. For years, a parade of high-level U.S. envoys – from State Department nonproliferation advisor Bob Einhorn to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to President Barack Obama himself – have trekked to Beijing on Iran-related missions, only to come up short. The truth is that it is China, not the United States, that has been reluctant to engage on Iran – Beijing has frequently declined to send high-level envoys to meetings of the so-called “P5+1” powers, choosing instead to send its nearest ambassador, or be absent entirely. China hardly seems eager for more dialogue on Iran.

The image of Beijing as a “reluctant partner” on Iran reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of China’s motivations. If China truly faced the dilemma described above, its nuclear and strategic assistance to Iran would make little sense. Rather than using its clout as one of Iran’s largest energy customers and vendors-of-last-resort to secure Iranian compliance with U.N. Security Council and nonproliferation norms, Beijing appears to fuel the very behavior that is most provocative to the United States and its allies – behavior that could destabilize the Middle East. Furthermore, other U.S. allies – Japan and South Korea, for example – have continued to obtain sizeable energy supplies from Iran while actively supporting the international sanctions regime.

The reality is that China – quite unlike Japan and South Korea – considers the United States its chief rival for influence in the Middle East and beyond. Viewed through this lens, Beijing’s policies toward Iran and the United States are not in conflict, as many analysts suggest, but are entirely compatible. The United States may see China as a key partner in isolating Iran, but China sees Iran as a potential partner in countering U.S. power.

China’s strategic thinking is laid out clearly in Chinese-language publications aimed at Beijing’s political and military elites. This literature differs significantly in tone and content from those produced for foreign consumption. For example, defense analyst Maj. Gen. Zhang Shiping, who is often described in the Chinese press as a “researcher” within China’s Academy of Military Sciences, argued in China’s Sea Power, an important 1998 book that was re-published in 2009 for the 60th anniversary of the Chinese navy, that Iran was a potentially desirable location for a Chinese military base in the Middle East.

Zhang’s sentiment has been echoed by other high-ranking Chinese military officers – including Dai Xu, an outspoken Chinese Air Force colonel and Yin Zhuo, a Chinese rear admiral – in discussions of how China can counter the perceived threat posed by democratic rivals like India and the United States and protect its interests in the face of American power projection in the Gulf and across the Pacific.

From this perspective, securing Chinese cooperation with U.S. efforts to pressure Iran is hardly the matter of a few good meetings. The cultivation of Iran’s security establishment and top-level leadership provides China with a strategically placed, regionally powerful client that can frustrate U.S. aims in a region where China seeks greater influence. For China, Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons may be a negative development, but it is preferable to a reorientation toward the West.

The U.S. Treasury Department’s penalties imposed on Chinese sanctions-defying entities have sought to force Chinese firms to choose between their U.S. business and their relatively smaller trade with Iran. However, this approach has not worked because, ironically, the United States, unlike China with America, truly does face a conflict between its Iran and China policies.

Beijing has good reason to doubt that the Obama administration would ever seriously jeopardize the U.S.-Chinese economic relationship, which has grown larger despite deep disagreements over not just Iran but also Taiwan, North Korea, the East and South China Seas, Tibet, and human rights. The Obama administration’s latest sanctions on foreign entities involved in the Iranian energy sector has likewise given Chinese firms a pass.

U.S. officials, most recently Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, have asserted that sanctions have led China to suspend new energy investments in Iran. This data point does not tell the full story, however: Existing China-Iran projects continue apace, and Chinese imports of oil from Iran increased 40 percent in January to August of 2011 compared with the same period the previous year. It seems that Beijing has been able to write off any diplomatic tensions caused by its business in Iran as an inevitable – and to date, largely low-cost – feature of the U.S.-China rivalry.

Although diplomatic cajoling won’t make much headway, Washington does have ways to induce Beijing to reassess its approach to Iran. Exercising these options, however, requires taking a step that the Obama administration has so far avoided: establishing a credible military threat to Iran. CCP strategists who judge Chinese interests as being well-served by current U.S.-Iran tensions would not make the same calculation in light of a credible U.S. threat to disarm the Iranian regime. Such a scenario would threaten China’s oil supplies and increase its energy costs, and could threaten Iran’s China-friendly regime. The United States need not dismiss or downplay the very real risks that would accompany conflict with Iran, but it must persuade Beijing and Tehran alike that this option is the alternative to full compliance with international sanctions.

Making this threat credible would not be a trivial feat, especially in the context of U.S. defense budget cuts and growing Iranian military preparedness. Iran’s nuclear program is growing increasingly advanced as well as difficult to strike – as demonstrated by the revelation in 2009 of a new enrichment facility under development underneath a mountain near Qom. On the other hand, Iran’s currently limited retaliatory options will only improve – especially given the precision strike capabilities that Iran has been developing – with Chinese assistance. Chinese strategists are careful students of U.S. military capabilities and movements, and convincing them of the credibility of the U.S. military option will be less costly now than it will be in the future.

The good news is that China’s position can be adjusted. There is no structural bond guaranteeing Beijing’s support for Tehran. The key to winning this geopolitical chess match is to recognize that China’s devotion to its own interests will trump any friendship with Iran. Only by presenting a challenge to those interests is Washington likely to divert Beijing from its current approach, which has done much to increase China’s access to energy supplies, boost its influence in a strategic region, and frustrate American ambitions in the Middle East.


All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.