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December 12, 2002
Analysis. Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, the companion journal to the Global Information System (GIS), in its February 1992 edition, carried an extensive report on the acquisition of former Soviet nuclear weapons. The report, by then Contributing Editor (now Senior Editor) Yossef Bodansky, relied on first-hand human intelligence sources of the highest level. The information was independently verified to Defense & Foreign Affairs by separate first-hand sources directly involved in the Iranian nuclear weapons program, and some clear documentary evidence was also shown at the time to Defense & Foreign Affairs chief Gregory Copley. The US State Department at the time went to some lengths to ridicule the reports, until strong Congressional pressure caused the State Department to issue a retraction of the comments it made.
The 5,300-word, February 1992 report, Iran Acquires Nuclear Weapons And Moves To Provide Cover to Syria, is reproduced below.
Now, substantial confirming data has become available, much of it published in Yossef Bodansky’s new book, The High Cost of Peace: How Washington’s Middle East Policy Left America Vulnerable to Terrorism.
Defense & Foreign Affairs also published several other reports on the Iranian nuclear weapons program and its ballistic missile programs. The October-November 1992 edition of Strategic Policy also included a report entitled Iran's Growth As a Gunpowder State Jeopardizes Its Domestic Unity. That report consisted of an interview with Dr Assad Homayoun, the last Imperial Iranian head of mission in Washington DC, and the head of Azadegan Foundation, an Iranian nationalist movement. Dr Homayoun is also still a Senior Fellow at the International Strategic Studies Association (ISSA), the parent organization of GIS and Defense & Foreign Affairs. That report is also reproduced below.
In his book, The High Cost of Peace, Bodansky outlines in even greater detail — based on accumulated intelligence collection — the Iranian process of nuclear weapons acquisition from the former Soviet Union, starting in 1991. In the book, he notes [pp76-77]: “In summer 1991, one of these [Iranian] operatives was offered access to nuclear weapons in Kazakhstan. Tehran dispatched a delegation of senior officials, including US-educated physicists, who returned convinced that the offer was genuine. In early September , the Iranian delegation returned to Kazakhstan to renew negotiations. Their Kazakh interlocutor told them he was speaking for a group of about 25 security, scientific and government officials who were willing to obtain the ‘atomic bombs’ for Iran. The weapons would come in separate pieces from different sites throughout Central Asia, but the group would assemble these pieces into operational weapons. At the same time, the Iranians and their allies initiated a comprehensive effort to acquire delivery capabilities — both ballistic missiles and strike aircraft.”
... “In December , the Kazakh deal came to fruition, and Iran made its first purchase of nuclear weapons. The deal included two 40-kiloton warheads for a Scud-type surface-to-surface ballistic missile; one aerial bomb of the type carried by a MiG-27; and one 152mm nuclear artillery shell. These weapons reached initial operational status in late January 1992 and full operational status a few months later.”
By that time, Bodansky had earlier noted, Iran had entered full-scale production of Scud SSMs, and, by that time, had some 800 Scuds in its inventory, apart from later domestic production, deliveries from North Korea (DPRK), and the deliveries from the DPRK of NoDong-1 longer-range ballistic SSMs. Iran’s defense industries had subsequently developed the Scud-NoDong family of missiles still further to meet its own requirements.
Bodansky’s book also outlines planning between Iran and its regional allies and the DPRK to jointly undertake a war against the West, originally predicating the conflict to start during the 1992 US Presidential election process, a time adjudged to be one in which US strategic decisionmaking efficiency would be at its lowest.
Iran Acquires Nuclear Weapons And Moves To Provide Cover to Syria
Iran is now in the final stage of assembling three nuclear weapons from parts provided from the former Soviet Muslim republics. Its indigenous nuclear program is also moving swiftly. Contributing Editor Yossef Bodansky reports.
By the end of 1991, Iran
had all (or virtually all) the components needed to make three operational nuclear
weapons: aerial bombs and/or surface-to-surface missile (SSM) warheads. Defense
& Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy has learned from highly-reliable
sources that the weapons were assembled from parts bought in the ex-Soviet
Muslim republics. These weapons can become operational as early as February to
April 1992. Tehran is committed to providing Syria with a nuclear
umbrella before June 1992.
This weapon acquisition is but one component of a major acceleration of implementation of Iran's well-defined strategy. For the first time since the Khomeini revolution began in Iran in 1979, Tehran is now confident that the time is ripe for the realization of the vision of a pan-Islamic revival and the establishment of an Islamic bloc dominated by Iran and not by Arabs. Moreover, Tehran's sense of urgency is based on the anticipation of a major crisis resulting from an attempt by the United States to prevent the realization of the revival of Islam.
Iran has committed itself since Autumn 1991 to acquiring — virtually regardless of cost — an operational nuclear weapons capability from the former Soviet states of Central Asia. Iranian clerical officials have pointed out that "with Islam acting like a powerful common bond after years of communist rule", it is Iran's destiny to form closer ties with Central Asia. Much of Iran's clerical leadership sees that a confrontation with the US is inevitable, and imminent. This group feels that the key to Iran's strategic posture is an Islamic bloc. But Iran is also joining the China (PRC)-led South bloc to challenge the US. This Islamic bloc is comprised of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and, ultimately, also Turkey. Iranian officials believe that all of these countries will soon have some form of Islamic, or Islamic-oriented, government. This bloc, along with Iran's strategic axis with Syria, would compel the Arab states, and especially the Persian Gulf states, to gravitate toward Iran's influence.
Iranian officials believe that the consolidation of this axis will lead to the Syrian-Iranian liberation of Jerusalem — and the destruction of Israel — and the liberation of Islam's holy shrines in the Hejaz from Saudi control. The liberation of the Saudi shrines would help consolidate the extensive Iranian military presence in the Sudan in the year since the end of the Gulf War.
The current developments are rooted in Iranian activities in Central Asia dating back at least a year. As the Muslim republics were becoming more accessible to the Iranians, the clerical Government in Tehran dispatched several intelligence delegations to the area to establish contacts with the local populations. One Iranian official was Chambiz (some translations spell his name as Kambiz), an "expert in weapons of mass destruction", who was tasked with investigating the possibility of recruitment of weapons experts and the acquisition of dedicated equipment. In the Spring of 1991, he met several officials, mainly from Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, who expressed support for the Iranian quest for an "Islamic bomb", and offered help.
The Iranian Government was wary of KGB provocation and ordered Chambiz back to Tehran. Iran was developing important new relations with the USSR (as it then was), regarding the procurement of combat aircraft, missiles, submarines and other systems, and did not wish to jeopardize these activities.
But Iran decided to pursue the subject in the early Summer of 1991. The task was entrusted to Dr Mahdi Chamran, a senior official of the General Command HQ. Dr Chamran, who has a PhD in nuclear physics from the University of California in Berkeley, has been active in managing terrorist and intelligence activities since 1968. Dr Chamran cautiously began reviving the initial contacts made by Chambiz, concentrating on the recruitment of Soviet experts for work in Iran.
He was approached by a Muslim senior official from Kazakhstan, with a detailed offer to provide Iran with nuclear weapons from Soviet stockpiles. The Kazakh official proved that he had access to both the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow — the USSR's most important nuclear weapons development institute — and the Semipalatinsk nuclear test and development site in Kazakhstan.
Dr Chamran returned to Tehran with the offer in June or July. But this time, the Iranian leadership was convinced that the Islamic world was awakening.
Iranian President Hashemi-Rafsanjani immediately convened a high-level commission to study the validity of the offer and, if found viable, the means to implement it. The members of the commission were Dr Mahdi Chamran, Said Bahradaram (the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Committee chief procurement officer), Daryaweesh (not further identified), Ali Reza Mo'ayeri (Deputy Prime Minister and a veteran of intelligence/HizbAllah activities), and/or Sayyid Ali Reza (a senior nuclear scientist who was among the first to work in the Pakistani nuclear program). The growing chaos in the USSR since August, and the growing freedom of movement which Iranians were enjoying in the area, convinced the Iranian leadership that the program was worth pursuing.
The Kazakh authorities, in late August, seized all defense-related facilities in their country, including the nuclear installations in Semipalatinsk. This development encouraged officials in Tehran, and Dr Chamran was dispatched back to Kazakhstan in early September to renew negotiations. The Kazakh official explained that he was speaking on behalf of "a group of 25 people" from "security, scientific and government quarters" who could obtain the "atomic bombs" for Iran. He told Chamran that the group was "ready to hand [the weapons] over to you piece by piece. Each and every piece will come from a different republic. We will then take it upon ourselves to assemble these pieces in the place in Iran you choose. We have the experts who can do this."
Chamran returned to Tehran in mid-September for further instructions on the conclusion of the deal. Because of the strategic importance of the forthcoming event, Pres. Hashemi-Rafsanjani put Sayyid Atta'ollah Mohajerani, the Iranian Vice-President, personally in charge of the crash program to obtain nuclear weapons. This program would be run separately from, and parallel to, Iran's continued quest to develop indigenous nuclear weapons.
It seems that at this stage, Tehran did not know what kind of nuclear weapons it was purchasing, so alternative means of delivery were examined. Indeed, since the Summer there had been a marked increase in the number of Chinese (PRC) military experts involved in construction, expansion and running of Iran's military industries. Most of the Chinese work was in Isfahan, Mubarka and Arak, where the strategic (missile and nuclear, chemical and biological) industries are located. The number of Chinese experts in these industries alone was estimated to be 3,000 in late 1991.
One of the new projects which these PRC experts have been working on is the development of a new Iranian medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) which is, in essence, a locally-produced version of the M-9. Toward that end, the PRC supplied Iran with a few missiles and knocked-down launchers and additional equipment which would be used for training the Iranians as well as the basis for developing a local production line.
North Korean (DPRK) and PRC experts have been working on a major advance in SSM (surface-to-surface missile) development and production facilities in Isfahan. This SSM is an Iranian version of the Chinese M-11 under the designation Tondar-68. Pakistan also acquired M-11s for its strategic warheads. As a result, Iran is well taken care of with regard to ballistic missiles, with a production line also for SCUD-Bs operational since February 4, 1991, and with a steady flow of SCUD-derivative missiles coming from the DPRK. Some 170 of them have already been delivered.
Delivery of nuclear weapons by aircraft is another matter, because it requires special maneuvers and specially-modified aircraft. This problem was solved in late September 1991, when Cuba and Iran significantly upgraded their nuclear cooperation [see Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, Winter 1991-92]. A high-level delegation led by Fidel Castro Diaz-Balart, the Soviet-trained head of Cuba's nuclear effort and Fidel Castro's son, visited Tehran and inspected several nuclear facilities, including the Bushehr plants. The delegates were received by Pres. Hashemi-Rafsanjani to discuss "topics related to bilateral cooperation and current affairs". At the end of the visit, Cuba and Iran signed a cooperation accord on nuclear issues.
Cuba's unique significance lies in the military expertise it has acquired from the USSR as part of the Soviet planning for operations in a possible nuclear world war. The USSR has maintained in the Cuba Armed Forces nuclear-capable delivery systems for a future war. Most important is a MiG-23BN (upgraded Flogger-F) regiment based in a closed part of the San Antonia de los Banos air base near Havana, and sheltered in an extensive net of tunnels in the mountains adjacent to the base. Gen. Rafael del Pino explained that these Floggers were "ready for nuclear delivery". [See also Strategic Policy, Winter 1991-92.] The September 1991 deal between Iran and Cuba involved the exchange of nuclear delivery techniques and technology for oil.
Dr Chamran returned to Kazakhstan in early October to conclude the deal and finalize the details. Iran agreed to pay US$ 130-million to $ 150-million for three nuclear weapons. A down-payment of US$ 3-million was deposited in a Luxembourg bank account. Additional accounts were opened in Montreaux, Switzerland, and in Germany. Meanwhile, in mid-October, the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Committee) began hastily expanding the Ma'allem Kelayah nuclear facilities in Qazvin, including two enrichment laboratories and nuclear-related facilities in the Isfahan complex of defense industries, on order of the highest authorities.
[It is worth noting that the nuclear reactor, based on Soviet technology, offered by India, is to be based in Qazvin.]
Iran recruited, for the construction of the weapons, some 50 experts and around 200 senior technicians mostly from the Kurchatov (Semipalatinsk-21) nuclear production plant in Kazakhstan. The experts are paid a basic monthly salary of US$ 5,000 and additional bonuses. (By comparison, the average salary of a scientist in any of the Commonwealth of Independent States is around US$ 5 a month.) Virtually all of them would be in Iran by the end of 1991. Senior nuclear scientists from the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow were invited to train Iranian scientists in Iran or elsewhere, and were offered a monthly salary of US$ 30,000 and additional bonuses.
As of late October, Mohajerani persistently promoted the urgent need for the development of nuclear weapons in Iran primarily as a pan-Islamic undertaking to confront Israel. "This regime wants to continue to have the upper hand; one way of doing this is to have a nuclear capability," he said. Mohajerani admitted that Iran was developing nuclear weapons. He explained that "all Muslims, including Iran, must reach a high level in the nuclear field in order to confront the Israeli nuclear challenge . . . The Muslims must act to acquire nuclear capabilities that would make them strong." Repeatedly denying that it was presently developing nuclear weapons as described by Western media, Iran did not deny its hopes to ultimately develop nuclear weapons.
The key decisions were reached within one week in mid-November 1991. Pres. Hashemi-Rafsanjani chaired the National Security Council on November 10. Members of the Iranian High Command also participated. (This procedure is highly unusual and reflects discussions of the utmost importance.) The senior commanders were asked scientific questions and told to have replies within a week.
A follow-up meeting took place on November 17. After the senior officers presented their answers, they were excused. The only officials remaining in the meeting were: Ali Akhbar Turkem (Commanding Officer, Armed Forces), Muhsin Reza'i (CO, IRGC), Ali Falahiyan (CO, Intelligence), Ahmad Khomeini (whose al-Quds networks operate clandestinely in Western Europe, thus capable of illegally acquiring technologies and smuggling people), Ali Khamene'i, and Pres. Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani.
In conclusion, Pres. Hashemi-Rafsanjani outlined the resolution of the meeting: Iran must acquire nuclear weapons for the entire region, if only because the Arabs proved incapable of such action. Such weapons would be the key to the consolidation of a vibrant and rejuvenated Islamic unity. That day, Pres. Hashemi-Rafsanjani reacted publicly to US threats about Iran's possible acquisition of nuclear weapons, stating: "Under the present world conditions, reliance of the Iranian nation on its own potential is a must."
The next day, Iran began a major examination of its military capabilities in very specific discussions under the cover of the Zohd-I (Devotion-1) exercise conducted in Southern Iran under the command of the Chief of the Army Joint Command, Maj.-Gen. Shahbazi. Among the forces tested were a new air-mobile corps (estimated at around 30,000 strong), with emphasis on helicopter and heliborne operations. They were exercised in a form of rapid deployment mode, involving clandestine cross-water landings by Naval Marines and commando units. Several squadrons of fighter-bombers, 40 aircraft at one time, "dozens" of Lockheed C-130s, squadrons of Bell AH-1J, Agusta-Bell AB-214 and Agusta-Boeing CH-47C helicopters, took part in the operations along with, and on behalf of, the airmobile corps, while in the deep rear of the "enemy".
The major offensive in the exercise also included fighting on a battlefield contaminated by chemical weapons. Members of the High Command present at the exercise included Hojjat ol-Islam Mohammadi-Golpayenpani (Supreme Religious Leader Ali Khamene'i's personal representative), Dr Firozabadi (Chief of the General Command HQ), Maj.-Gen. Shahbazi, Maj-Gen. Zahirnezhad (Head of the advisory group of the General Command HQ), Brig.-Gen. Rashid and Dr M. Chamran (both of the General Command HQ), and other senior officers and officials.
It is highly important that the air-mobile corps has over-water capabilities because it indicates an anticipated role in pursuit of Tehran's regional aspirations, such as intervention across the Gulf into the Arabian Peninsula.
The Iranian leadership has also examined national mobilization. In late-November, the Iranian leadership met with the Basij High Command to discuss these issues. "Basij, as a popular force, is the axis and basis for defending the revolution. Therefore, further strengthening of the corps is essential," Ayatollah Khamene'i stressed. The Basij commander, Brig.-Gen. Ali Rewza Afshar reported on the measures already taken to train and organize "a 20-million strong army".
At about that time, Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran's Foreign Minister, completed a major tour of Central Asia, signing diversified treaties with all six countries and promising extensive financial support for a wide range of projects and Islamic causes. "I think that the Central Asian states will follow whoever pays the most. A bulging purse will prove stronger than political sympathies and antipathies," a senior official in the Kyrgyzstan Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. Iran used the Velayati and related delegations to send several intelligence officers to inspect and assist in the transportation and smuggling of the nuclear weapon components. Shipment was made by truck and rail through Turkmenistan where there are no cross-border checks on the frontier with Iran.
In early October, Turkmenistan President Safar Morad Niazaf signed several agreements with Iran while he was on a visit to Tehran.
Special attention was paid to the expansion of rail and road traffic between Iran and the Central Asian republics via Turkmenistan. Pres. Niazaf emphasized that Iran was "quite essential" to Turkmenistan's gaining access to the sea and the transport of goods. He announced the opening of the border between the two countries to free movement of men and goods. Tehran sent thousands of Basij and IRGC engineers to begin construction of several roads, bridges and rail lines in the border area, especially Marzpol.
In the meantime, military nuclear activities in the former Soviet Muslim republics have developed further since late December 1991. Russian observers believe that the true meaning of the vast strategic nuclear arsenal deployed in Kazakhstan is that "the Islamic bomb' already exists". Indeed, Munar Sahanoglu, a Kazakh Deputy, stated that "the nuclear force' which we possess is at the service of Turkism". Niazaf said that Turkmenistan would not relinquish control over tactical nuclear weapons on its soil.
Russian officials believe that Kazakhstan provides diversified military nuclear assistance to radical Islamic governments as an expression of its return to the Muslim world. Meanwhile, Tajikistan assumed control over the uranium processing and nuclear weapons production facilities on its territory, suggestion "the possible establishment of a uranium-developing consortium with Arab countries". Discussions on the supply of enriched uranium and weapons technology were held in Dushanbe with representatives from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Pakistan. It was reportedly possible to buy 15kg of enriched uranium in Tajikistan in mid-January 1992. However, Tajik authorities declared that no enriched uranium would be sold abroad.
A close examination of the changes in several key Iranian weapons purchase programs since the Summer of 1991 also points to evolving strategic priorities.
The upgrading of the Iranian Navy is being carried out with an eye to confrontation with the US Navy. Admiral Ahmad Muhammad-Zadeh, commander of the IRGC second naval zone, warned that the US was determined to dominate the Persian Gulf and assured that "the Iranian Armed Forces, equipped with the necessary training, are ready to thwart any possible intervention".
Since late October, Iran began upgrading its Silkworm and other antiship missiles in the inventory in a crash program under IRGC Admiral Nawab and Admiral Abbas Muhtaj. As of late October 1991, batteries were withdrawn from forward positions along the Straits of Hormuz to the IRGC Darkhovin shops in Khozistan for retrofitting with upgraded warheads and guidance by Chinese experts.
The training of Iranian crews for the three Kilo-class attack submarines (SSKs) which Iran purchased from the USSR continues in Riga, Latvia, despite the chaos. The submarines will be based in Chah Bahar to protect the approaches to the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz. The delivery of the first submarine is expected imminently.
Iran embarked on a massive rebuilding of its air power following the arrival of 40 to 50 MiG-29s in the summer of 1990 and the dispatch of IRGC pilots for training in the DPRK. In mid-July 1991, Brig-Gen. Mansour Sattari, commander of the Iranian Air Force, negotiated in Moscow a deal for 48 MiG-29s, 24 Su-24s, 24 MiG-31s and "supersonic Tupolev bombers and reconnaissance aircraft". Soviet (Russian) and North Korean experts and technicians are also involved in servicing the 91 Iraqi Soviet-made combat aircraft which fled to Iran during the 1991 Gulf War: 24 Su-24s, 40 Su-22s, four Su-20s, seven Su-25s, four MiG-23BNs, seven MiG-23MLs, one MiG-23U, and four MiG-29s.
At least 85 of them are operational, giving the IRGC air arm well over 100 Soviet-made aircraft. [The acquisition of advanced combat aircraft has elevated the IRGC air arm to rival the position of the Iranian Air Force, which continues to operate mostly US combat aircraft.] Iran also cooperates closely with Pakistan in the refurbishment of the IAF's 24 AMD Mirage F-1 fighters.
The Syrian Air Force sent a large delegation of experts and pilots to Iran in Autumn 1991, ostensibly to help the North Koreans and Soviet experts to activate the former Iraqi aircraft, but they were actually seconded to the Iranians until appropriate Iranian cadres were trained and ready to fly the growing numbers of Soviet-made aircraft.
Brig.-Gen. Sattari declared on February 7, 1992, that "Iran has deployed MiG-29, Sukhoi Su-24 and F-7 aircraft in its air force", and the Air Force was in a "very good position" in terms of equipment and personnel.
But back in mid-November 1991, as part of the affirmation of strategic arrangements with Russia, Iran asked for the acceleration of the supply of aircraft as well as an addition to the list agreed upon in July. Consequently, between mid-November and late December 1991, Russia rushed to Iran between 24 and 28 MiG-29s, 24 to 28 MiG-27s, and "a few Sukhoi fighter-bombers". By the end of January 1992, Iran was to receive 18 more combat aircraft and two "modern Ilyushin [A-50] fitted with air reconnaissance and early-warning equipment".
Moreover, 80 pilots and technicians who graduated from the Soviet Air Force Academy in Moscow also returned to Iran. The most important aircraft rushed to Iran, although it was not on the original list, is the MiG-27 Flogger-D/J, because, like Cuba's MiG-23BN Flogger-F, it is uniquely modified to carry and deliver tactical nuclear bombs in a toss-up maneuver. This sudden acquisition of the MiG-27 therefore suggests that Tehran discovered in November an urgent need for a nuclear delivery platform.
All available evidence suggests strongly that since December 1991, Iran has been in possession of virtually all the parts needed for three tactical nuclear weapons. It was reported in early January 1992 that "the construction of three nuclear weapons has started in Iran from parts delivered from Kazakhstan". Highly-reliable Iranian sources confirmed in late January 1992 that Iran already had "acquired some [nuclear] arms" and that "at least three bombs" and several Soviet specialists were already in the greater Tehran area. The Russian coverage of the incident concludes that "it seems plausible". Even Russian President Boris Yeltsin acknowledged that "certain Islamic states" attempted to buy tactical nuclear weapons in Kazakhstan but insisted that all weapons had been withdrawn to Russia before such transaction was possible. It is noteworthy that Yeltsin's admission does not contradict reports from Iran, because the Iranians are reported to have bought parts and components of nuclear weapons, while Yeltsin disclosed that operational weapons were withdrawn.
The first unanswered question is what type of weapons has Tehran acquired? The Iranian sources did not specify. As indicated, Iran ensured that it has delivery platforms for both aerial bombs and missile warheads. The Arabic source used the term Qanbalah Dhariah, which means atomic bomb; that is, a bomb delivered by an aircraft.
When Pravda loosely covered the story, it used the specific term zaryad, meaning a warhead such as those on missiles. Because weapon parts arrived from diverse sources, Iran may have both types of weapons.
This leads to the second question: when will Iran have operational nuclear weapons? Much depends on the timely availability of all parts and tools. The original team in the former Soviet republics is described as professional, so it should be assumed that they collected parts of the same types of weapons. Failure to do so would complicate and prolong the assembly. But missing tools or parts are not a major impediment. The seizure by Italian officials in Como in mid-October 1991 of a Soviet specialized production tool used for carving bomb-grade plutonium for warheads, strongly suggests that most sophisticated tools could be smuggled to the West if needed.
So an educated guess can be made as to the operational date of the weapons, assuming that all (or virtually all) components and recruited Soviet scientists and technicians arrived in Iran by December 1991, and that construction has already started (as claimed by most sources), and assuming that there is no artificial delay (for example, a decision by Tehran to wait for a certain period before beginning assembly). It should take specialists no more than three to four months to run all the tests and assemble the weapons. Iran should have operational nuclear weapons between February and April 1992.
Strategic military considerations provide another deadline for the availability of Iranian operational nuclear weapons. Since the late 1980s, and particularly since the Autumn of 1991, Iran has offered Syria a "nuclear umbrella" in order to complete all aspects of "strategic parity" with Israel. The growing Syrian interest in nuclear weapons was recently expressed in efforts to acquire its own nuclear capabilities. With Iranian encouragement, Syria reached an advanced stage of negotiations with the PRC on the supply of a small reactor which could ultimately serve as the foundation for the development of indigenous military nuclear capabilities, although it would be too small on its own to be of direct military use.
Syria and Iran coordinate regional policy at the highest levels, including discussions between their presidents on joint strategy and policy. In late September 1991, Syrian Chief of Staff Gen. Hikmat al-Shihabi visited Tehran to coordinate defense policy, inspect Iranian defense industrial facilities, and decide on forms of greater mutual cooperation in military matters and on the expansion of defense industries. He brought a personal verbal message from President Hafez al-Asad to President Hashemi-Rafsanjani which "emphasized the importance of Tehran-Damascus relations". In his response, Pres. Hashemi-Rafsanjani reiterated the "unanimity of strategic objectives" between the two countries. Shihabi also clarified Syria's approach to the Peace Conference, emphasizing that Syria was going to Madrid "to ensure the rights of the Palestinians and return of all occupied territories" rather than to make peace with Israel.
During Shihabi's visit, the two states reached "a comprehensive agreement on strategic cooperation which includes the sphere of nuclear weapons production". The details of the strategic cooperation were worked out by two high-level committees.
A final agreement was ready for signing on October 12, 1991, but both countries then decided to postpone formal signing for political reasons but move on toward implementation as if the agreement had been ratified. A high-level Syrian military delegation led by Gen. Dilati arrived in Tehran in early November to work on the practical and technical aspects of the treaty implementation, and was still in Tehran in late January 1992. Some sources claim that the Iranian-Syrian strategic agreement was signed in mid-January 1992 in Damascus, while others insist that it is being implemented without a formal signature.
Syria appears to have realized that there could be no compromise with Israel. Already, after the first round of the peace talks in Washington, President Asad was reportedly convinced that the gap with Israel was irreconcilable and that only a dramatic step, namely war, would break the deadlock. The second round of talks in Washington only reinforced Syria's perception of the "talks as exercises in futility".
The Syrian Government announced a decision of President Asad that "Syria will not go to the multilateral talks because Israel is resisting peace and refusing to withdraw from the occupied Arab territories". Syria objects to arms control talks because the West, instead of expressing "concerns over nuclear defiance by the Islamic countries", should first have compelled Israel to "remove nuclear weapons and all weapons of mass destruction" as a first phase in regional disarmament.
Some key Syrian officials anticipated in December 1991 that war between Syria and Israel would break out between June and September 1992. Syria has a coherent scenario for the opening phase of this war, based on deterring a pre-emptive strike by the Israeli Air Force and on hindering any deep aerial strikes by a series of deep Syrian strikes using SS-21 and M-9 ballistic missiles (specifically acknowledged) in the opening phase of a war.
Syria's strong confidence in its ability to deter a pre-emptive strike by an Israel fully aware of the Syrian ballistic missiles and their effectiveness cannot but reflect a knowledge in Damascus that Syria would be operating under "the ultimate umbrella".
Tehran further defined its approach to nuclear weapons in early February 1992. In a Friday sermon on February 7, Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i argued that the "arrogant power" of the United States posed a bigger threat to the world than nuclear proliferation, and that nuclear disarmament discussed in the US summit was raised only to mask the real danger to the developing world, namely, the "bullying of arrogant powers" led by the US. "Limit the arrogant power of the United States in the world and the nuclear threat will automatically be curbed," he said.
Khamene'i further refined his argument in a speech delivered to Air Force officers the next day, explaining that the US was using reports that Iran was seeking nuclear arms and expertise as a pretext for dominating the Persian Gulf. "Today the dominating superpowers have launched a campaign alleging Iran is arming itself with new, advanced weapons," he said, but these were "exaggerated and misleading". "Their main aim is to justify their own presence and to scare other countries, especially in the region."
All technical, political and strategic indicators point to Iran having the three nuclear weapons operational by February to April this year. Iran is also nearing rudimentary nuclear weapons capability using its own resources and is expected to have an indigenous weapon before the end of the decade. Apart from PRC and DPRK assistance, gaining access to Pakistan's operational nuclear arsenal and mature military nuclear technology considerably assists the Iranian effort. Iran coordinated with Pakistan in November 1991 over further nuclear development, but Iran is no longer rushing for shortcuts in the development of its own nuclear weapons. Tehran committed US$ 500-million to the completion of the nuclear program, a huge increase from the $ 200-million it spent on the program in the 1980s. Much is spent on technology from the West.
Iran, meanwhile, has embarked on an intense effort to recruit leading Soviet nuclear scientists, including Vladimir Kubov and Philip Gurkhanian from the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow, Arsen Hamidiadeh from Kazakhstan, and Aleksandr Ahmediadeh from Turkmenistan to train Iranian scientists and develop nuclear facilities in Iran. Six senior experts and scientists were already recruited and currently work on the construction of a heavy-water laboratory and a uranium enrichment facility in Karaj, near Tehran. By the end of January, "dozens" of Soviet nuclear experts were working in Iran in Gurgan, near the Caspian Sea, Ma'allem Kelayah in Qazvin, Karaj, Isfahan and Darkhovin in Khozistan.
Iran is convinced that these and other efforts will ultimately consolidate its position as a major nuclear power, and the leader of Islam.