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News | Parchin Claims Debated; MKO Delist Mooted; 'Mossad Agent' Hanged


16 May 2012 11:00Comments

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ParchinImage.jpg11 a.m. IRDT, 27 Ordibihesht/May 16 The Associated Press has released a digital rendering of an "explosives containment chamber" at Iran's Parchin military complex of the sort used in the testing of nuclear devices. Yukiya Amano, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), asserts that this constitutes "credible evidence" Iran is pursuing nuclear weaponization. The Israeli and U.S. intelligence communities contend that the Islamic Republic halted weaponization efforts in 2003.

The report notes that the graphic was provided by "an official of a country tracking Iran's nuclear program" from "an IAEA member country that is severely critical of Iran's assertions that its nuclear activities are peaceful." The graphic was reportedly rendered digitally based on attestations from someone who had purportedly "seen the chamber at the Parchin military site." The anonymous official did not tell the AP anything more than that, asserting that further elucidation "would endanger the life of that informant."

Previous claims about the "test chamber," first reported in an IAEA briefing last year, have drawn criticism given the paucity of evidence for its existence; regardless (or, perhaps, as a consequence), the new graphic has been cited by top U.S. and Israeli politicians. Most notably, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), referred to it in statements concerning Iran's nuclear program. Barak, who went on Israel's Army Radio this week to reiterate his opposition to any diplomatic solution that lets Iran continue enriching uranium, commented that the image is "part of the information known to all leading intelligence agencies in the free world for some time." Ros-Lehtinen cited the AP report in a press release reiterating a call on the Obama administration to expand sanctions against Iran and commit to not embracing "containment" of a nuclear Iran as a policy option, a position supported by a large bipartisan majority in Congress.

The debate over whether this graphic constitutes a "smoking gun" for critics of Iran's nuclear program comes on the heels of expanded American and Israeli media coverage of an unnamed IAEA member state's satellite photography reportedly taken of a sensitive compound at the Parchin military complex. These allegations were advanced in March 2012 by anonymous IAEA officials citing documentation and photographs provided by undisclosed member states of "earth-moving equipment" and large volumes of water around a particular building. The sources asserted that the building in question must be undergoing cleaning because it had contained a "neutron device used to set off a nuclear explosion" at some point. Some Iran watchers believe that activity at this complex seen in the photographs shows an attempt by the Iranians to remove traces of radioactive material at the site ahead of a potential IAEA visit.

David Albright, director of the Institute for Science and International Security, is one observer who believes that the images show a concentrated Iranian cleanup effort, though his organization has still not concluded that Iran is actively pursuing weaponization. In contrast, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies asserts that not only is Parchin likely being cleaned up, but also that Iran has "covered every major aspect of a nuclear-armed missile program." He bases his assessment on a series of IAEA reports that cite intelligence from unnamed member nations arguing that from the early 2000s there has been "a link between nuclear material and a new payload development program" at the program's highest levels. Cordesman also believes that Western intelligence services and militaries are not taking into account the role nuclear weapons would occupy in Iranian leaders' "overall strategic and military goals and force posture." The full report can be read here.

Though Cordesman advises that foreign military and intelligence services must not "disregard" Iranian saber-rattling, he does not believe that Western military strikes would derail the program at this stage:

In the case of arms control, this again highlights the need for comprehensive control, inspection, and verification measures. It also illustrates the need for incentives strong enough to motivate Iran to give up its nuclear efforts in spite of its broader strategic and military needs. In the case of preventive strikes, it means recognizing that even a major first round of strikes is unlikely to have a lasting effect and might well push Iran into a far larger nuclear effort unless Iran realizes that any such effort would result in follow-on attacks.

In contrast, former IAEA inspector Robert Kelley and the Arms Control Association's Daryl Kimball have cast doubt on the Parchin reports advanced by the IAEA. "It only takes a few atoms of these trace materials to show up around the site," Kimball told the Los Angeles Times when the photographs were released, adding that any cleanup effort is "is unlikely to work." Kelley recently told the Inter Press Service that the IAEA "will find uranium particles at a site like this if they ever were there." He has previously questioned the agency's fixation on Parchin since any uranium stored or experimented on there would be easily picked up by sensors no matter how thorough a cleaning the Iranians could effect, and he is very critical of the agency's handling of the issue of Parchin access. Other former IAEA officials, though less skeptical than Kelley, have also expressed surprise that the agency would want to return to the Parchin site and demand access during negotiations.

Meanwhile, as the debate continues among Beltway think tanks, the European-based National Resistance Council of Iran (NRCI) asserts that the Iranian government has brought together dozens of top personnel in a crash program to build a nuclear weapon. The Institute for Science and International Security, though far more wary of Iran's nuclear intentions than many other observers, nonetheless suggests that the NCRI report must be taken with a grain of salt because it has "a huge incentive to say there is a nuclear weapons program that is making great progress." The NRCI is an émigré group sometimes described as the "political wing" of the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization (MKO), which is listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. Neither the MKO nor the NRCI are considered foreign terrorist organizations by the European Union following a successful lobbying campaign several years ago to have them delisted.

MKO eyes removal from U.S. list of terrorist groups

RajaviThundersticks.jpgThe terrorist designation the U.S. State Department placed on the MKO in 1997 may be changing soon, reports the Wall Street Journal. (The image at left shows a rally by MKO supporters, wielding thundersticks that read "Mullahs No" and "Rajavi Yes." Masoud Rajavi, the sole surviving member of the group's first central committee, established in 1968, is known as the MKO's Supreme Leader. Maryam Rajavi, his wife, is the so-called "president-elect of the resistance.") The Journal suggested that the MKO may end up getting removed from the State Department's list as part of a bargain with the group to relocate its Iraqi exiles from their longtime Kurdistan base to an ex-U.S. military base built during the occupation of Iraq:
The U.S. officials said Mrs. Clinton would make her final decision on the MeK's status no less than 60 days after the last MeK [MKO] member is relocated from Camp Ashraf to a new transit facility near Baghdad International Airport. The U.S. is working with the United Nations to resettle Camp Ashraf residents in third countries. Roughly 1,200 people remain at the camp from an earlier population of over 3,000.

"The MeK's cooperation in the successful and peaceful closure of Camp Ashraf...will be a key factor in her decision regarding the MeK's [foreign-terrorist organization] status," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on Monday.

Western and Iranian diplomats are concerned that the MeK issue could draw serious recriminations from Tehran, which has been fixated on neutralizing the group. Many of Iran's top leaders, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, were targets of MeK attacks during the 1980s.

With that in mind, the Center for New American Security's Andrew Exum acidly quipped, "I guess Hizballah and LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba] just need to buy off more former administration officials."

Exum was unsubtly referring to the fact that

[t]he MeK has engaged in an aggressive legal and lobbying campaign in Washington over the past two years to win its removal from the State Department's list. The terrorism designation, which has been in place since 1997, freezes the MeK's assets inside the U.S. and prevents the exile group from fundraising.

Defenders of the MKO include former military officers, Bush administration national security officials, and big-name Democratic politicians. Critics of their collective efforts contend that the human rights abuses the group's members have suffered inside Iraq should be seen as separate from its status as a terrorist organization and that it continues to carry out targeted killings and bombings inside Iran (as reported earlier this year by NBC's Rock Center) and has not been held responsible for its activities in Iraqi Kurdistan during the 1990s.

The MKO's boosters have shelled out hefty speakers' fees to American politicians, fees that recently prompted a Treasury Department investigation into former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell. It is not clear what would happen with this investigation should a delisting occur; further Treasury scrutiny had been hinted at earlier in the spring, and it is not clear if delisting would grant retroactive immunity to any American citizens found to have taken or donated money to the MKO. The Obama administration has condemned the assassination of the Iranian scientists and denied it maintains any ties with the MKO, though presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, among other hawkish candidates and legislators, has been less moved to formally dissociate the United States from the group.

Al-Monitor suggests that a conclusive agreement has not been reached and that the carrot now being held in front of the MKO is no different from the ones offered in the past to persuade it to abandon its base in a now-hostile Iraqi environment:

"I have full confidence that everyone involved in that review and decision are fully cognizant of the implications for broader US policy issues, and I genuinely believe that these State Department officials would not be influenced in the least by the false presumption, cultivated by well-paid lobbyists, that the MeK has a useful role to play in Iran today," Brookings' Maloney said.

"There are simply no illusions about the MeK in any corner of the State Department, although unfortunately that is not the case with the Congress," she said.

National Iranian American Council director Trita Parsi fears that the lifting of the MKO's terrorist status would almost certainly be seen in Iran as a sign of bad faith and lead to a breakdown in the P5+1 talks. Those negotiations, set to resume on May 23 in Baghdad, seem to be aimed at a partial turnover of enriched uranium by the Iranians and greater IAEA monitoring of Iranian sites. Such a compromise is not supported by the Israelis, who have argued that Iran "must completely cease its enrichment activities inside Iran, including to levels of 3.5 percent" in addition to closing the underground Fordow complex, demands over which Israel says it will not bend. A delisting of the MKO could also affect ongoing discussions -- described broadly as "constructive" in Chinese and Iranian state media despite the tensions surrounding them -- between IAEA officials and Iranian diplomats in Vienna to allow the agency's inspectors access to Parchin.

Iranian negotiators, for their part, are very unlikely to accept such measures and are looking to make select concessions and reach a modus vivendi with the IAEA, rather than scrap the whole program. Hamid Reza Taraghi told the New York Times that "[w]ithout violating any international laws or the nonproliferation treaty, we have managed to bypass the red lines the West created for us," buttressing remarks from Iranian parliamentarian Alaeddin Boroujerdi to the Islamic Republic News Agency that "[a]nything outside this framework [the P5+1 talks] will not be accepted by Iran" and from another official to the Fars News Agency that "if suspension of enrichment is raised in Baghdad, the negotiations will fail." It has been suggested that in light of the blow dealt to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the recent parliamentary elections, the Supreme Leader's clique has more room to maneuver in negotiations, though it is far from clear that the West is ready to offer Iran a face-saving solution, such as lifting some sanctions in exchange for concessions on uranium enrichment or broader IAEA inspector access.

Alleged Israeli operative executed

JamaliFashiConfession.jpgSome commentators are wondering how U.S. officials could consider delisting the MKO without acknowledging the aforementioned NBC Rock Center report. Citing unnamed U.S. officials, that report implicated the group in assassinations and sabotage efforts allegedly organized by the Israeli Mossad. Those who have dismissed this report have charged the White House with leaking information to sympathetic reporters in order to undermine the Israelis' uncompromising position in an election year for the U.S. president. The report was not mentioned in the Wall Street Journal's coverage described above and it is not clear what, if any, effect it is having on the reported U.S. deliberations to delist the MKO.

It is clear that the Islamic Republic will continue to play up the alleged Mossad connection at every opportunity it can get. Iranian state television ran a report on May 15 showing the execution of Majid Jamali Fashi, the Iranian citizen "convicted of assassinating nuclear scientist Mas'ud Ali-Mohammadi in Tehran two years ago," reported BBC Monitoring Newsfile.

The state television channel's coverage, says the BBC, featured footage (pictured here) of the condemned man "confessing" his alleged training and financing by Mossad, as well as claims that the government had uncovered an Israeli spy network operating in the country. The broadcast reportedly ended with a photograph purporting to show Jamali Fashi on the scaffold.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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