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Tuesday, December 18

News Quiz: "During October what official brought up the subject of World War Three?" Syria, Iran, NIE, and nukes

September 6
Israel bombs site in Syria.

September 19
“I’m not going to comment on the matter,” Mr. Bush repeated twice when asked about the [September 6] strike at a news conference at the White House. When pressed, he added, “Saying I’m not going to comment on the matter means I’m not going to comment on the matter.”

"Mr. Bush’s remarks -- a relatively rare instance of a president flatly declining to comment -- also reflected the extraordinary secrecy here in Washington surrounding the raid. Most details of what was struck, where, and how remain shrouded in official silence. "(1)

October 3
"One month after the [September 6 bombing] the absence of hard information leads inexorably to the conclusion that the implications must have been enormous. That was confirmed to The Spectator by a very senior British ministerial source:

‘If people had known how close we came to world war three that day there’d have been mass panic. Never mind the floods or foot-and-mouth -- Gordon [Brown] really would have been dealing with the bloody Book of Revelation and Armageddon.’ " (2)

October 17
"If Iran had a nuclear weapon, it'd be a dangerous threat to world peace," Bush said. "So I told people that if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested" in ensuring Iran not gain the capacity to develop such weapons.

"I take the threat of Iran with a nuclear weapon very seriously," he said.(3)
I have a hard time envisioning how Armageddon could have resulted from a few popguns immediately fired back at Israel, which pretty much sums Syria's arsenal.

It is public record that for years Syria was running centrifuges for Iran and that Syria is a 'client' state of Iran. Yet I don't see why hitting at a centrifuge-spinning site in Syria would immediately touch off Armageddon. But then the British official might not have been referring to a retaliation from Syria.
December 6
"Most critically, [the NIE] does not speak to the fact that the gravest injury that United States has inflicted upon the Tehran regime since the opening of the war in 2001 was the mysterious air to ground attack on September 6, 2007 against a target in eastern Syria."
-- John Batchelor(4)

Batchelor made that remark three days after the latest National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear threat was released. Up until that time, he had steadfastly refused to speculate about Israel's September 6 bombing raid on Syria.

Yet, if one wants to interpret his remarks literally, December 6 found John Batchelor implying that the Syrian sites were connected with Iran. He might have simply been referring to Syria's client status with Iran. But he just plopped out with that statement and gave no explanation or supporting data for it.

He did not provide data on December 9, either, when he stated flatly on his KFI-AM 640 radio show that "Iran has nuclear weapons."

Those who follow Batchelor's news show know that he is well connected with senior US and Israeli defense officials, and also that he is a stickler for only dealing in open source information. So while his statement about the Syria bombing raid is surprising, it is not a surprise that he wouldn't provide supporting data if he had such and if he was making a literal reference.

That leaves the public with the decision to outright reject his statements, interpret them in non-literal fashion, take a wait-and-see attitude, or try to play Sherlock Holmes with open-source data.

Given the gravity of the issues at hand, and that Pundita is not a Wait and See sort, I opted for Plan D. That means I've spent more hours than I care to recount prowling around at search engines, and trying to fit together a picture from slivers of data, anecdotal accounts, and speculations by experts in various fields.

One thing that jumped out at me after Batchelor's December 9 statement is that the NIE -- at least, what's been published of it -- avoids the question of whether Iran has nuclear weapons. The NIE is only interested in whether Iran has a program of developing nuclear weapons i.e., a program to develop indigenous or 'home-made' bombs. Just to make this distinction clear, here is exactly what the NIE says:

“For the purposes of this Estimate, by ‘nuclear weapons program’ we mean Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work ..."(5)
That is why I was interested in General Baluyevsky's 2002 statement that Iran has nuclear bombs. The wording of his 2006 statement is also interesting because while he seems to deny the earlier statement, his wording only pertains to "intensification."
"[The Russian military] said from the very beginning we had no data to speak about intensification of efforts in Iran in the field of nuclear armaments."(6)
If Iran already has nuclear bombs, I can see how the general might consider it imprecise to assert that Iran was intensifying efforts to acquire a nuclear weapon.

But to return to the "bloody Book of Revelation and Armageddon," initially I set aside the report that quoted the British official's remark because it contained what I considered a red herring:
According to American sources, Israeli intelligence tracked a North Korean vessel carrying a cargo of nuclear material labelled ‘cement’ as it travelled halfway across the world. On 3 September the ship docked at the Syrian port of Tartous and the Israelis continued following the cargo as it was transported to the small town of Dayr as Zawr, near the Turkish border in north-eastern Syria.

The destination was not a complete surprise. It had already been the subject of intense surveillance by an Israeli Ofek spy satellite, and within hours a band of elite Israeli commandos had secretly crossed into Syria and headed for the town. Soil samples and other material they collected there were returned to Israel. Sure enough, they indicated that the cargo was nuclear.

Three days after the North Korean consignment arrived, the final phase of Operation Orchard was launched. With prior approval from Washington, Israeli F151 jets were scrambled and, minutes later, the installation and its newly arrived contents were destroyed.(2)
All very interesting, but there were strong indications the raid had been postponed from a much earlier date:
... another report indicated that Israel planned to attack the site as early as July 14, but some US officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, preferred a public condemnation of Syria, thereby delaying the military strike until Israel feared the information would leak to the press.(7)
If Israel had been planning to attack in July, I doubt the North Korean vessel had been hanging around at that time.

This doesn't mean North Korea had not been making nuclear-related deliveries to the site in question for many months or even years or that the deliveries weren't part of Israel's concerns about the Syria site. But the reason for Israel striking the site much earlier than September 6 would still be open to question.

The October 3 report I quoted above, and which was published in The Spectator, was headlined, "We came so close to World War Three that day."

The headline made a splash at the time, and was known to anyone closely following the Syria bombing mystery and Iran's nuclear weapons program.

Less than a month after publication of the British official's statement, President Bush also plopped out with a reference to World War Three. It was a very odd statement -- inflammatory, even for Bush -- and caused much comment at the time.

Published commentaries assumed Bush was warning of a future threat. After reading John Batchelor's December 6 statement, it struck me that Bush might have been referring to the past. And signifying, for those who cared to dig, to look in the direction of the October 3 Spectator report if they wanted clues about the reason for the September 6 bombing raid.

Yet even if Bush and that unnamed British official were signifying that Israel struck something in Syria that actually belonged to Iran, that would still leave to speculation how the September 6 strike could have touched off a nuclear conflagration. What would Iran retaliate with? Their own popguns? Unless, they had nuclear weapons.

(It is a matter of record that Iran already has missiles capable of delivering a nuclear bomb and that the missile system can reach Israel.)

But US intelligence agencies don't seem to have invested resources in discovering whether Iran has imported nuclear warheads or key ingredients for assembling a bomb -- or at least, they've not announced such investigations. Ditto for European and Israeli intelligence agencies.

So I don't have much to chew on, aside from a moldering report about what a Russian general said in 2002 and a 2006 Russian news report that Ukraine had sold 250 nukes to Iran.(6) There is, however, the speculation of an Israeli nuke expert:
JERUSALEM (AP) November 22 - A Syrian site bombed by Israel in September was probably a plant for assembling a nuclear bomb, an Israeli nuclear expert said Thursday, challenging other analysts' conclusions that it housed a North Korean- style nuclear reactor.

Tel Aviv University chemistry professor Uzi Even, who worked in the past at Israel's Dimona nuclear reactor, said satellite pictures of the site taken before the Israeli strike on Sept. 6 showed no sign of the cooling towers and chimneys characteristic of reactors.

Even said the absence of telltale features of a reactor convinced him the building must have housed something else. And a rush by the Syrians after the attack to bury the site under tons of soil suggests the facility was a plutonium processing plant and they were trying to smother lethal doses of radiation leaking out. [...]

Last month, American analyst David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, said commercial satellite images taken before and after the Israeli raid supported suspicions that the target was indeed a reactor and that the site was given a hasty cleanup by the Syrians to remove incriminating evidence.

Albright saw a clue in the fact that the structure was roofed at an early stage in its construction.

Other analysts have said the satellite images are too grainy to make any conclusive judgment.

But in an interview Thursday with the Haaretz newspaper -- which first reported his assessment -- Even compared pictures of a North Korean reactor at Yongbyon, in which a cooling tower with steam rising from it can clearly be seen, with the Syrian images, where no such structure appears.

Even told The Associated Press that another piece of evidence against the reactor theory was that satellite pictures of the Syrian installation taken since 2003 showed no sign of a plutonium separation facility, which prepares fuel for a nuclear reactor -- typically a large structure with visible ventilation openings.

"It's very difficult to hide a separation plant," he said. "It's more difficult to hide a separation plant than to hide a nuclear reactor," Even added.

"In Yongbyon, the supposed sister facility in North Korea, you can see all those signs that I am pointing out that are missing in the Syrian place," Even said. "You can see the chimneys, you can see the ventilation, you can see the cooling towers, you can see the separation plant. All that is missing from this building in Syria."

Even said he believes the Syrian cleanup, in which large quantities of soil were bulldozed over the site, was an attempt to smother lethal radiation from a plutonium processing plant.

"I have no information, only an assessment, but I suspect that it was a plant for processing plutonium, namely a factory for assembling the bomb," he told Haaretz.[...] (8)
If Israel took out one or more factories for assembling Iran's imported nuclear bombs, that would explain why Iran might be tempted to haul out a completed nuke and hurl it at Israel.(9) That could touch off a nuclear exchange.

But if we continue to play around with Professor Even's scenario, we quickly bump into the question of why the NIE strove so hard to tamp down concerns about Iran being an imminent nuclear threat. Were the analysts who worked on the NIE so out of the loop at the DoD that they didn't know the real reason for Israel's strike against Syria?

Or would they get together after reviewing the reason for the strike and say, 'We must kick the can down the road so to prevent Armageddon any day now.'

If Even is on the mark and if Iran was indeed using Syria as the place to assemble nukes, then somehow I don't think that mere words would kick the can down the road very far.

Of course all this is speculation. Questions. Still many unanswered questions.

1) The New York Times

2) The Spectator

3) International Herald Tribune

4) Human Events

5) The New York Times: Key Judgments From a National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s Nuclear Activity

6) Pundita: Iran has nukes, Iran doesn't have nukes. Well, which is it General Baluyevsky?

7) Wikipedia: Operation Orchard

8) Associated Press: Israeli: Syrian site hit not a reactor

9) There is disagreement as to which site in Syria was bombed, leading to speculation that Israel bombed more than one radioactive site and that Syria covered up more than one site with tons of soil. See John Loftus's investigations:
"Senior sources in the Israeli government have privately confirmed to me that the recent New York Times articles and satellite photographs about the Israeli raid on an alleged Syrian nuclear target in Al Tabitha, Syria were of the completely wrong location. Armed with this knowledge, I searched Google Earth satellite photos for the rest of the province of Deir al Zour for a site that would match the unofficial Israeli descriptions: camouflaged black factory building, next to a military ammunition dump, between an airport and an orchard.

There is a clear match in only one location, Longitude 35 degrees, 16 minutes 49.31 seconds North, Latitude 40 degrees, 3 minutes, 29.97 seconds East. [...]

"Photos of this complex taken after the Israel raid appear to show that all of the buildings, earthern blast berms, bunkers, roads, even the acres of blackened topsoil, have all been dug up and removed. All that remains are what appear to be smoothed over bomb craters. [...]"

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