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Photo Gallery: Iran's Cat-and-Mouse Game with the West

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'It's 1938, and Iran Is Germany' Israel's Patience with Tehran Wearing Thin

Iran's leaders continue to reject compromises over their nuclear program and are rebuffing the IAEA. The West is likely to respond with tighter sanctions, but that is unlikely to satisfy Israel, which has attack plans already drawn up.
Von Dieter Bednarz, Erich Follath und Christoph Schult

Six men are sitting around a table, deciding the future of the world. The men, who represent the US, Russia, China, France, Britain and Iran, are considering questions such as: Is Tehran really building a nuclear bomb? Do sanctions work, and if they do, how should they be intensified? Will bombing the Iranian nuclear facilities end up being the only real solution, and what would be the consequences?

The men are not politicians, but scientists and diplomats involved in a role-playing scenario. They are all Israeli citizens. That doesn't make the experiment, which took place two weeks ago at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, any less spectacular. The participants in this role-playing exercise, all of whom were very familiar with the issues involved, were capable of taking a completely different approach to what-if scenarios than politicians, because they cannot be held responsible for anything -- good or bad -- that results from their decisions.

The outcome of the experiment was supposed to be kept secret, but this much was leaked: The participant playing the United States emphasized negotiations and shunned confrontation for a long time, while "Iran" was convinced that it had excellent cards and viewed the risk of truly hard-hitting sanctions as slim. "Israel" initially pushed for international isolation and crippling economic sanctions by the United Nations, but then -- as a last resort -- threatened to attack.

Plans at the Ready

The results probably pleased Israeli Prime Benjamin Netanyahu, because they reflected the way he thinks. Although the premier is not yet prepared to deploy Israeli fighter jets to conduct targeted air strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities, the military has plans at the ready.

Netanyahu has said often enough that he will never accept an Iranian nuclear bomb. He doesn't believe Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he insists that Iran's nuclear program is intended solely for civilian purposes. But he does take Ahmadinejad -- a notorious Holocaust denier -- at his word when he repeatedly threatens to wipe out Israel. Netanyahu draws parallels between Europe's appeasement of Hitler and the current situation. "It's 1938, and Iran is Germany," he says. This time, however, says Netanyahu, the Jews will not allow themselves to be the "sacrificial lamb."

But even politicians who normally take a less extreme view, like Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, Israel's minister of intelligence and atomic energy, are now realizing that the situation is coming to a head. A narrow majority of the Israeli population currently favors bombing the Iranian nuclear facilities, while 11 percent would consider leaving Israel if Tehran acquires nuclear weapons.

Meridor says that his counterparts in the US government are reporting a sharp increase in the level of concern among Iran's moderate Arab neighbors. "Ninety percent of the conversations between the United States and countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia now revolve around Iran, while 10 percent relate to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," he says.

Decisive Stage

This concern is not limited to the region. In Washington and in the European Union -- and, more recently, in Moscow --, the focus has shifted dramatically toward Iran. After years of maneuvering and deception, and after a long period of missed opportunities, including on the part of the West, the conflict is moving toward a decisive stage.

In a SPIEGEL interview  in mid-November, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that she had no intention of taking the military option "off the table." Her German counterpart, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, attended a meeting at the Israeli Foreign Ministry last Tuesday, where he was briefed on the latest Israeli intelligence about the Iranian nuclear program. The next day in Vienna, while standing next to Nobel Peace Prize winner and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Mohammed ElBaradei, who is leaving office this week after heading the UN nuclear watchdog agency for 12 years, Westerwelle said that the international community's "patience with Iran" is "not infinite."

Tehran played a cat-and-mouse game with the IAEA for a long time. However, as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran has both privileges -- such as technical assistance in the civilian use of nuclear energy -- and clearly defined obligations. The regime has repeatedly failed to live up to these obligations, despite many efforts to build bridges, particularly on the part of ElBaradei. This incurred the wrath of the administration of former US President George W. Bush, who even had ElBaradei's telephone conversations tapped.

In its most recent internal report, dated Nov. 16, 2009 and marked "for official use only," the IAEA has adopted an unusually sharp tone. According to the report, the Fordo uranium enrichment facility near the city of Qom in northwestern Iran, which the UN inspectors only discovered in September, was "clearly reportable," because it had apparently been under construction for much longer than the Iranians had indicated. A possible military nuclear program, which the Iranian leadership has consistently denied, raises "alarming" questions, according to the report, while Tehran continues to refuse to permit unannounced inspections. In summary, the report states: "Iran has not fulfilled its obligations. Its behavior is not conducive to the establishment of trust."

Just a Year Away from the Bomb?

Behind the scenes in Vienna, there are grave concerns over news that Iran could be well on its way to developing a Shahab-3 midrange missile that could be upgraded to carry nuclear weapons and could reach Tel Aviv. Iranian scientists are believed to have successfully simulated the detonation of a nuclear warhead. Detonation is one of the most technologically challenging problems in the construction of this type of nuclear weapon. Experts believe that it could take Iran as little as a year to acquire the expertise and a sufficient quantity of highly enriched uranium to build a real nuclear warhead.

Intelligence reports about a restructuring in the Iranian Defense Ministry are no less alarming. According to those reports, a "Department for Expanded High-Technology Applications" (FEDAT) is now under great pressure from the government in Tehran to push ahead with a military nuclear program. According to an organizational chart of FEDAT that SPIEGEL has obtained, the department is divided into sub-departments for uranium mining, enrichment, metallurgy, neutrons, highly explosive material and fuel supply ("Project 111"). FEDAT is headed by the mysterious Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi, one of the key officials the IAEA wants to interview, although Mahabadi has so far refused to talk to the agency.

Repeated Overtures

US President Barack Obama has made many overtures to Iran. He has admitted to historical mistakes, such as the 1953 CIA-backed coup that toppled liberal Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. In a video message to the Iranian people coinciding with the festival of Nowruz, which marks the beginning of the Iranian new year, Obama spoke of the great civilizing achievements of the Persian nation. He abandoned Washington's demand that Tehran give up uranium enrichment altogether, which had been a precondition to negotiations under his predecessor, George W. Bush.

And he proposed, together with other permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, a barter deal that would allow all parties to save face: Iran was to ship a large share of its low-enriched uranium abroad for one year, to Russia or Turkey, and in return would receive nuclear fuel elements processed by France.

The benefit for Tehran was that it would receive, for its research reactor, urgently needed radionuclides that are used in cancer therapy. The benefit for the international community was that it could be sure that the Iranians, during the period covered by the deal, would have no opportunity to pursue their own extensive enrichment activities needed to produce highly enriched uranium, the material used to make bombs.

The Iranians seemed interested at first, but then they began setting conditions. In the end, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki rejected the offer, stating that Tehran would definitely not send fissile material abroad.

Clinging to Last Hopes

In an almost desperate appeal, ElBaradei then addressed the Iranian leadership directly, saying: "You need to engage in creative diplomacy, you need to understand that this is the first time that you will have a genuine commitment from an American president to engage you fully, on the basis of respect, with no conditions." In his last few days in office, the IAEA chief is clinging to the hope that a final response is still forthcoming.

But Iran currently favors threatening gestures over compromises of any sort. The Iranians were so enraged over a resolution Germany presented to the IAEA board of governors last Thursday, which was supported by Washington, Moscow and Beijing, that they threatened to limit their cooperation with the UN. The resolution, which was accepted the next day by a large majority, is essentially nothing but a demand for assurances from Tehran not to maintain any further undeclared nuclear facilities. In one of the biggest military maneuvers in recent years, the Iranian leadership spent five days parading all of its available military equipment, almost as if it were preparing for the worst.

But the display of Iran's tanks and fighter jets was not only intended to intimidate the "Zionist aggressor" and its allies. The mullahs also used the maneuver to demonstrate their resolve and capacity to take action on the domestic front, where the regime has been at odds with its detractors for the last six months. Since Iran's presidential election in June, when the uncompromising Ahmadinejad deprived his reform-oriented challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi of victory through apparent election fraud, the opposition has been unrelenting.

Paying the Price

The regime takes the nightly protest chants of "Allahu akbar" ("God is great") and "Marg bar Dictator" ("Death to the dictator") very seriously. In the months of the revolution, in 1978 and 1979, millions of Iranians used the same slogans in protest against then Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his brutal Savak intelligence service.

Dozens of supporters of the "Green Movement" have already paid for their protests with their lives, and at least 4,000 regime critics have been arrested. Although many were released after a few days, reports of torture and rape only increased the population's loathing of the regime. The elderly Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who challenged the regime's legitimacy and issued a fatwa declaring nuclear bombs to be "un-Islamic," is under de facto house arrest once again.

'The Enemy Is Everywhere'

The leadership has increased the pressure once again in recent weeks. It strengthened the feared Revolutionary Guards, or Pasdaran, considered the regime's most loyal supporters, by adding two units to "combat the psychological operations of the enemy." Another new unit was established to monitor opposition Internet sites and combat "insults and the spreading of lies." These units are under the command of the Tehran public prosecutor's office, notorious for its show trials. The country is in a "soft war," said Pasdaran General Mohammad Bagher Zolghadr, "and the enemy is everywhere." One of the targets of the latest government crackdown was Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, whose prize was confiscated by authorities.

Popular rage is not directed only at the "vote thief" in the presidential office. Many believe that Ahmadinejad is merely a puppet of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who was previously virtually untouchable. He is the strong man, he appoints the highest-ranking judges, and he is in charge of the intelligence services, the armed forces, the Revolutionary Guards and the hated Basij militias. He determines the basic features of government policy and decides on Iran's course in the nuclear conflict.

Willing to Compromise?

But to what extent is this leadership now capable of taking action? Will it accommodate the global community in the nuclear conflict, or does the regime see confrontation with the West as its opportunity to survive?

According to conservative sources in Tehran, President Ahmadinejad was recently quite willing to make a compromise. He apparently hoped that he could spruce up his reputation, heavily tarnished as a result of the election disaster, at least internationally. This, say the Tehran sources, explains why Iranian chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili signaled a willingness to make concessions at the historic nuclear summit in Geneva in early October, a meeting at which an Iranian official came face-to-face with a senior representative of the "Great Satan" for the first time since the Iranian revolution. But in Khamenei's eyes, the deal -- uranium outsourcing in return for fuel delivery -- was a non-starter. Ironically, opposition politician Mousavi agrees with him.

A key reason for the Iranian politicians' self-confidence is that they do not believe that Israel would truly risk an attack on Iran. US experts also warn against the bombing of Iran's nuclear facilities. David Albright, head of the Washington think tank ISIS, believes that a "surgical strike" against the nuclear facilities would be completely impossible. According to Albright, no one knows how many nuclear sites Iran has, and the centrifuges in existing facilities like Natanz are apparently installed in tunnels so deep underground that even bunker-busting bombs could not destroy everything.

The Israelis, on the other hand, believe that Iran is merely playing for time. The Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, has long had its capacities directed at Iran, and not just since Netanyahu came into office. Israeli envoys quietly visit European companies that export products to Tehran. When agitated German executives insist that their products are intended purely for civilian purposes, the Israelis produce photos showing the European components installed in one of Iran's nuclear plants.

Chances of Success

"The West approves UN sanctions by day and trades with Tehran by night, and Ahmadinejad takes advantage of this ambivalence," Israeli Trade Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told SPIEGEL. Ben-Eliezer, a retired general, believes optimistically that Iran can be stopped, but that this would require a total embargo: "Nothing can be allowed in or out."

With the Iranian economy weakened, the regime under internal pressure after the disputed elections and the Russians distancing themselves from Iran, the chances that sanctions will succeed have never been this good, say some diplomats in Tehran.

"The regime in Iran is not irrational," says Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor. According to Meridor, only if possessing the bomb jeopardizes the regime's survival, will Ahmadinejad decide against building the weapon.

Others, however, believe that the timetable of escalation is already as good as fixed, and that the conflict is coming to a head. They believe that tighter sanctions will start in the spring of 2010, followed by air strikes perhaps in the summer of 2010.

Meanwhile, a representative of the Iranian government has already issued precautionary threats: "If the enemy want (sic) to test its bad luck and fire a missile into Iran, before the dust settles, Iran's ballistic missiles will target the heart of Tel Aviv."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan