Wednesday, November 11, 2009

How Israel Destroyed Syria’s Al Kibar Nuclear Reactor

That’s the title of a long article in Der Spiegel. Aside from the big assumption (I’m still not convinced it was a reactor and stand by my previous posts here, here, and here), Erich Follath’s apparent connections to Mossad (h/t to Bernhard via e-mail), and the timing of the article, apparently to undermine Iran’s credibility during negotiations, it might be useful to comb it for new information and possible errors.

Most of the material in the article has appeared before. But some interviews have taken place with Syrian President Bashar Assad, Israeli intelligence expert Ronen Bergman, International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohammed ElBaradei and American nuclear expert David Albright, along with the predictable anonymous sources.

The article strings together assertions, quotes, and stories so as to imply connections between them that are not supported. Most notably, the article does not connect the violent deaths of two Syrians reported toward the end of the article to the Al Kibar raid. The language throughout is inflammatory, including rhetorical questions that have little or no basis.

The article claims that
In the spring of 2004, the American National Security Agency (NSA) detected a suspiciously high number of telephone calls between Syria and North Korea, with a noticeably busy line of communication between the North Korean capital Pyongyang and a place in the northern Syrian desert called Al Kibar. The NSA dossier was sent to the Israeli military's "8200" unit, which is responsible for radio reconnaissance and has its antennas set up in the hills near Tel Aviv.
I’m wondering a number of things about this assertion: whether the Syrians would communicate directly with the North Koreans from Al Kibar, how the Al Kibar location was determined, why the NSA shared the information with the Israelis, and whether the Israelis picked up the communications independently.

And yet another laptop loaded with classified information, left alone in a hotel room in London by “a senior Syrian government official.” This, it is implied, was the source of the photos released by the CIA in April 2008. It’s not the famous “Laptop of Death,” although the description is confusing. When a single explanation comes up over and over again, I begin to get credibility fatigue. And yes, there is a new explanation for the LOD information, which makes that all less credible.

An Iranian defector, Ali-Reza Asgari, tells the United States that “Iran was apparently funding a top-secret nuclear project in Syria, launched in cooperation with the North Koreans,” but that he doesn’t know any more about it. This is pretty vague, apparently a surmise on Asgari’s part. It’s the kind of thing that can be useful in collecting additional intelligence, but hardly enough to justify a bombing run.

The article then jumps to much more detail, making it seem like this continues to be Asgari’s story.
According to this [Mossad] version of the story, Al Kibar was to be a backup plant for the heavy-water reactor under construction near the Iranian city of Arak, designed to provide plutonium to build a bomb if Iran did not succeed in constructing a weapon using enriched uranium. "Assad apparently thought that, with his weapon, he could have a nuclear option for an Armageddon," says Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, the former director of Israeli military intelligence.
In September 2007, however, if a reactor was being built at Al Kibar, and if the photos released by the CIA are of that reactor, it would have been further along than the Arak reactor. Were the relations between Iran and Syria so good that Iran would entrust part of its putative weapons program (that’s not proved either!) to Syria?

And then we have the daring reconnaissance:
Olmert approved a highly risky undertaking: a fact-finding mission by Israeli agents on foreign soil. On an overcast night in August 2007, says intelligence expert Ronen Bergman, Israeli elite units traveling in helicopters at low altitude crossed the border into Syria, where they unloaded their testing equipment in the desert near Deir el-Zor and took soil samples in the general vicinity of the Al Kibar plant.
Apparently they didn’t find anything, which would have been a long shot anyway. The uranium in reactor fuel elements is thoroughly contained, and the fuel elements are heavily packaged for transport. I’m wondering if this was well thought out by the Israelis, if indeed it took place.

In August, Major General Yaakov Amidror, the trio's spokesman, delivered a devastating report to the prime minister. While the Mossad had tended to be reserved in its assessment of Al Kibar [compare the earlier Mossad story – CR], the three men were now more than convinced that the site posed an existential threat to Israel and that there was evidence of intense cooperation between Syria and North Korea.
But we don’t know what that evidence was. And, a couple of paragraphs down,
At the time [September 2007], no one was claiming that Al Kibar represented an immediate threat to Israel's security.
That’s the trouble with interviewing more than one person; you might get more than one story.
But where did the Syrians get the uranium they needed for their heavy-water reactor, and in which secret plants was it enriched? In addition to the North Koreans, were the Iranians also involved? And what did the latest images of this "Manhattan project" in the Syrian desert actually depict -- the conversion of an existing plant or a completely new facility?
This series of questions probably undermines the authors’ credibility more than any other paragraph in the article. The type of reactor that is alleged to have been built at Al Kibar, a heavy-water reactor, does not need enriched uranium. So no secret plant is needed. Sorry ‘bout that for those who were hoping to slam Iran one more time. But where the fuel elements came from, if indeed there were fuel elements, is a good question. Good enough that it makes one wonder if there were any. The innuendo is thick in the other two questions, but the last is pretty much incomprehensible.

The authors speculate on whether President Bashar Assad of Syria is considering coming clean on the alleged clandestine nuclear program. The article implies that silence on his part would be due to reluctance to open up, but it could be because there was no clandestine nuclear program. The article claims that relations between Syria on one side and Iran and North Korea on the other have worsened since Assad has floated this idea with his partners. In fact, “Western intelligence agencies report that the Iranian leadership is demanding that Syria return -- in full and without compensation -- substantial shipments of uranium, which it no longer needs now that its nuclear program has been destroyed.” Since Iran lacks the ability to produce reactor fuel elements, that cannot be the form of the uranium, but Syria also lacks this ability, so stocks of yellow cake or other unfabricated uranium would be of little use to them.

The article doesn't have much new information, but it's skillfully strung together to imply Iran’s involvement. The trouble is that it doesn’t make the case. C’mon Mossad! Give us some real information if you’re trying to justify bombing Iran!

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