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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Iran building nuke plant in Syria; State Dept: What difference does it make?

Sunday's Der Spiegel had a massive expose on the continuing efforts of Bashar al-Assad to build a nuclear weapons plant, which included evidence that Iran is constructing such a plant for Syria in Qusayr, less than two kilometers from Syria's border with Lebanon. The issue came up in the State Department's Monday daily briefing. Disturbingly, spokeswoman Marie Harf said that the United States did not plan to raise the issue in the Iranian nuclear talks, claiming that those talks only deal with Iran's nuclear capabilities and not with Syria's.
According to findings of Western intelligence agencies, however, the situation is much more explosive than previously assumed. Based on documents that SPIEGEL has in its possession, the agencies are convinced that Assad is continuing in his efforts to build the bomb.
Analysts say that the Syrian atomic weapon program has continued in a secret, underground location. According to information they have obtained, approximately 8,000 fuel rods are stored there. Furthermore, a new reactor or an enrichment facility has very likely been built at the site -- a development of incalculable geopolitical consequences.
Some of the uranium was apparently hidden for an extended period at Marj as-Sultan near Damascus, a site that the IAEA likewise views with suspicion. Satellite images from December 2012 and February 2013 show suspicious activity at Marj as-Sultan. The facility, located not far from a Syrian army base, had become the focal point of heavy fighting with rebels. Government troops had to quickly move everything of value. They did so, as intelligence officials have been able to reconstruct, with the help of Hezbollah, the radical Shiite "Party of God" based in Lebanon. The well-armed militia, which is largely financed by Iran, is fighting alongside Assad's troops.
Intelligence agency findings indicate that the material was moved to a well-hidden underground location just west of the city of Qusayr, not even two kilometers from the border with Lebanon. They managed the move just in time. Marj as-Sultan ultimately did fall to the rebels, but has since been retaken by government troops.
Since then, experts have been keeping a close eye on the site outside of Qusayr, one which they had largely ignored before, believing it to be a conventional Hezbollah weapons depot. Analysts compared earlier satellite images and carefully noted even the slightest of changes. Soon, it became clear to them that they had happened upon an extremely disconcerting discovery.
According to intelligence agency analysis, construction of the facility began back in 2009. The work, their findings suggest, was disguised from the very beginning, with excavated sand being disposed of at various sites, apparently to make it more difficult for observers from above to tell how deeply they were digging. Furthermore, the entrances to the facility were guarded by the military, which turned out to be a necessary precaution. In the spring of 2013, the region around Qusayr saw heavy fighting. But the area surrounding the project in the mines was held, despite heavy losses suffered by elite Hezbollah units stationed there.
The most recent satellite images show six structures: a guard house and five sheds, three of which conceal entrances to the facility below. The site also has special access to the power grid, connected to the nearby city of Blosah. A particularly suspicious detail is the deep well which connects the facility with Zaita Lake, four kilometers away. Such a connection is unnecessary for a conventional weapons cache, but it is essential for a nuclear facility.
But the clearest proof that it is a nuclear facility comes from radio traffic recently intercepted by a network of spies. A voice identified as belonging to a high-ranking Hezbollah functionary can be heard referring to the "atomic factory" and mentions Qusayr. The Hezbollah man is clearly familiar with the site. And he frequently provides telephone updates to a particularly important man: Ibrahim Othman, the head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission.
The Hezbollah functionary mostly uses a codename for the facility: "Zamzam," a word that almost all Muslims know. According to tradition, Zamzam is the well God created in the desert for Abraham's wife and their son Ishmael. The well can be found in Mecca and is one of the sites visited by pilgrims making the Hajj. Those who don't revere Zamzam are not considered to be true Muslims.
But the new development also comes at an uncomfortable time for the US government. Despite all official denials, Washington is currently operating in the region more-or-less in concert with Assad in the fight against the Islamist terrorist militia Islamic State. Furthermore, following the well-monitored and largely efficient destruction of Syrian chemical weapons, the US, Britain and France all believed that Assad's ability to wage unconventional warfare had been eliminated. The possible development of a Syrian atomic weapon, should it be confirmed, would necessarily lead to a new assessment of the situation.
The discovery presents a particularly difficult dilemma to Israel. The country has, to be sure, continued to bomb Hezbollah supply lines, but it apparently knew nothing of a possible new nuclear facility. Israeli leaders would be faced with the impossible decision between ignoring Zamzam or undertaking an extremely risky attack against a facility built deep underground. In contrast to 2007, bunker buster bombs would be required, with unforeseeable consequences for the environment. It would be an irresponsible decision, but one which Israeli hardliners could ultimately make.
The international monitors in Vienna also don't look good, with IAEA boss Yukiya Amano having been deceived by Assad. In September 2014, the Japanese national urged "Syria to cooperate fully with the agency in connection with all unresolved issues." He hasn't yet received a reply. A sanction of last resort would be that of expelling Syria from the IAEA, an unlikely step given that Moscow continues to protect Assad, in the IAEA as in the United Nations.
Read the whole thing.

But what's really astounding here is the State Department reaction. This is from the transcript of Monday's briefing:
QUESTION: Yeah. The German weekly Der Spiegel reported last week that President Bashar Assad has rebuilt Syria’s nuclear weapons infrastructure with help from Iran and North Korea.
MS. HARF: We’ve --
QUESTION: Can you confirm these reports?
MS. HARF: We’ve seen those reports, are seeking more information, certainly cannot confirm them.
QUESTION: On the Spiegel story, you said you’re seeking – who are you seeking more – I mean, you know – you should know this area better than anybody --
MS. HARF: Yes.
QUESTION: -- certainly better than a German, although highly respected, news magazine.
MS. HARF: I would agree with you that we probably have information they don’t.
QUESTION: So who are you seeking information from or are you --
MS. HARF: Seeking internally or from our partners to see what more we can – if we can cooperate this, but again, not sure we can.
QUESTION: Is that – well, you couldn’t corroborate it because of intelligence reasons or because the story’s false and you want to leave it out there?
MS. HARF: We don’t know yet. We just saw the reports and we’re looking into it.
QUESTION: Will you discuss this issue with the Iranians in the upcoming talks?
MS. HARF: No. The upcoming talks are about the Iranian nuclear program.
QUESTION: Yeah, but if they are helping the --
MS. HARF: Yes, but we don’t discuss other issues with them at those talks, as you all know.
QUESTION: But if they are --
MS. HARF: Let’s move on to North Korea and let’s --
QUESTION: But if they are helping the Assad regime to build a nuclear facility --
 Face, palm, whack!

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