Iran has embarked on “activities related to possible weaponization,” said American sources Thursday, Dec. 22, thereby accounting for the dramatic reversal of the Obama administration’s wait-and-see attitude on attacking Iran. The change was articulated this week by US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint US Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey.
DEBKAfile’s Washington sources report that the Islamic Republic crossed the red line President Barack Obama had set for the United States, i.e., when Tehran begins using the technologies and fissile materials (enriched uranium) it has amassed for assembling a bomb or missile warheads. This marks the moment that Iran goes nuclear and only a short time remains before it has an operational nuclear weapon.
Washington has always claimed that when the order to build a weapon was given in Tehran, the United States would know about it within a short time.
The US stealth drone RQ-170 was sent into Iranian airspace for the first time to find evidence to support this suspicion. On Dec. 4 the Iranians downed the unmanned reconnaissance craft by intelligence or cyber means not yet fully clarified. The US – and most probably Israel too – then turned to other intelligence resources to find out what Iran was up to. According toDEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources, they found evidence that Iran has in fact begun putting together components of a nuclear bomb or warhead.
The defense secretary put it into words when he said Tuesday, Dec.: “Despite the efforts to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program, the Iranians have reached a point where they can assemble a bomb in a year or potentially less.”
The next day, Gen. Dempsey said, “My biggest worry is they will miscalculate our resolve. Any miscalculation could mean that we are drawn into conflict, and that would be a tragedy for the region and the world.”
Dennis Ross, until last month President Obama’s senior Middle East adviser, and key architect of White House policies on the Iranian nuclear program and understandings with Israel on this issue, said Israel has four causes for concern about uranium enrichment in the underground nuclear facility at Fordo near Qom and other developments:
1. Iran’s accumulation of low-enriched uranium, its decision to enrich to nearly 20 percent “when there is no justification for it.”
2. The “hardening” of Iranian nuclear sites, largely by moving facilities underground.
3. Other activities related to possible weaponization.
4. Israel suspects that Fordo is not Iran’s only buried facility and that nuclear “weaponization” is ongoing surreptitiously at additional underground locations. “I would not isolate Qom and say this alone is the Israeli red line to spur a military response.”
Our military sources report that all these developments were covered in the short and epic conversation between President Barack Obama and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak at the Gaylord Hotel in Maryland on Dec. 16. It ended with accord on the US and Israeli responses to the new situation arising in Iran.
The White House has since accepted the Israeli assessment of Iran’s nuclear bomb time table and endorses the conviction that unless Iran retreats from its decision to build a nuclear bomb and steps back from the process it set in train this month, the only option remaining will be a military strike to disable its nuclear program.
Following the Maryland encounter, DEBKAfile’s sources report a procession of prominent US officials visiting Israel to tighten coordination between the US and Israel on their next moves. Lt. Gen. Frank Gorenc, commander of the US’s Third air Force, was one of those visitors. He came to organize the biggest joint military exercise ever held by the US and Israel, as part of the shared response to Iran’s steps.
Tuesday, Dec. 20, saw the arrival of Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s right-hand, together with Robert Einhorn, a State Department special adviser on nonproliferation. The two came to tie up the diplomatic ends of the decisions reached by President Obama and Defense Minister Barak at their Maryland meeting.