Originally Published 2014-11-06 00:00:00 Published on Nov 06, 2014
While the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 are on track and when Iran is conceding most of the demands, why should there be an explosion in a crucial Iranian nuclear site, that too a missiles and munitions centre -- Parchin.
Iran's N-talks: Two steps forward and another act of sabotage

As the deadline for nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 is closing in on November 24, one thing is clear. Both parties are seriously engaged in and seem determined to achieve a breakthrough. They met in Vienna last month (October 15) and again earlier this week (November 3) and have come up with some substantial progress. US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif are again expected to meet in Oman at the end of this week (Nov. 9-10).

There appears some kind of agreement on two issues. First is that Iran would be allowed to operate 4000 centrifuges, from its present stock of over 10,000 centrifuges that are operating out of a total of over 19,000 centrifuges. Iran has, however, not agreed to destroy the rest as was demanded by the US. This could still be a sticking point with the US Congress.

Second is that Iran has agreed to ship out its Medium Enriched Uranium (MEU) i.e., uranium enriched up to 20% to Russia to be converted into nuclear rods for its Bushehr plant. The second agreement brokered on November 3 seems a major step, but the fact is Iran has been there and done that, well, almost. When the apparently more recalcitrant Ahmedinejad was the President, he too had agreed, in 2009, to ship out the MEU to Turkey though much less quantity than todays, but the Supreme Leader had baulked at the idea. This had so angered President Ahmedinejad that he unceremoniously sacked his Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki (who was leading the talks with the West), while on a State visit to Senegal. Mottaki was a known hardliner regarded close to the Supreme Leader and may have had something to do with the veto by the latter. That was the beginning of a long slide in the relations between President Ahmedinejad and the Supreme Leader.

Now handing over the MEU to Russia seems the more natural choice, as the latter has been involved with the Iranian nuclear programme for over decades and with the Bushehr plant, in particular, for nearly a decade. Over 12,700 kilograms of MEU is to be handed over to Russia for conversion. Russia has been a sympathetic supporter of Iran planning and assisting it in the gaming of negotiations, while all along insisting that it shut down its nuclear weapons programme. A position that is entirely similar to our own. However, India could never manage this kind of comfort and confidence with Iran, though some of the key Western members wanted us to press on Iranian leaders and convince them the futility of the weapons program. That should not have been difficult in view of our proximity to Tehran and our continued defiance of Western sanctions. Iran, however, suspected us to be completely in the US camp after the Indo-US civil nuclear deal of July 2005 and our subsequent vote against it in the IAEA on referring Iran nuclear dossier to the UNSC. Our relationship had certainly estranged, though not broken.

Now, while the negotiations are on track and when Iran is conceding most of the demands, why should there be an explosion in an Iranian site considered crucial to its nuclear programme, that too a missiles and munitions centre, i.e., Parchin. That is one place the IAEA inspectors were insistent on visiting though Iran had rightly objected to it by saying that there were neither nuclear reactors nor any nuclear material and that a missile development and test centre was beyond the scope of IAEA inspection.

The explosion at Parchin occurred on the night of Sunday October 5 and the massive blast and the resultant fire could be heard and seen in Tehran, about 30 kms from the blast site. News reports indicate that several buildings were destroyed in the fire, though no casualties have been reported so far. This is in keeping with the Iranian government's policy of maintaining strict silence over incidents occurring in sensitive military installations. To absolve the West of any possible linkage with this explosion, the New York Times adds for good measure that the site of explosion 'was distant from a part of the base that the IAEA has been seeking access for years, to investigate reports of experiments on high explosives that could have been used in nuclear weapons'. Now that is rather assuring, but then who could have done it.

This explosion appears entirely in line with a previous one at the very site in November 2011 that virtually destroyed a missile test and resulted in the death of 17 high level scientists and Gen. Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, head of the missile development centre. Iranian authorities directly blamed Israel for the attack. Israel neither accepted nor rejected the allegation and no other country or group claimed credit for it. The New York Times, however, has recorded the unrestrained glee with which 'a senior Israeli officer noted several weeks later that the timing of the explosion was remarkable because General Moghaddam, who traveled often, "just happened to be sitting in his office" at the time'. Well, well, it may have been a wayward Israeli drone but why on earth should General Moghaddam be sitting in his office?

Iran has been facing targeted killing of its nuclear scientists and precision guided cyber-attacks on its nuclear reactors since the early 2010. In January 2010, a Professor of Tehran University and a nuclear scientist Massoud Ali Mohammadi was killed with a bomb placed under his car. In November 2010, two other nuclear scientists, Majid Shariari and Fereydoun Abbasi Davani, were targeted with a similar bomb placed under their car. Fereydoun Davani survived the attack and later went on to become the Vice President and Head of Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran. In January 2012, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a top official of the Natanz Uranium Enrichment plant, was killed again in a car bomb attack.

Israel's intelligence agency, the Mossad, was the obvious suspect. It is believed to have acted in collaboration with the Mujahideen e-Khalq, an Iranian �migr� organisation banned by the US as a terrorist organisation. The Americans, instead of chastising Israel for working with a banned terrorist organisation, helped them to launch highly sophisticated cyber-attacks on Iran's nuclear facilities. Most famous of them was the virus known as the 'Stuxnet'. The Stuxnet, designed to attack industrial Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs), was launched in June 2010. Stuxnet compromised Iranian PLCs, collecting information on industrial systems and caused the fast-spinning centrifuges to destroy themselves by altering their speed of spinning. The program reportedly ruined almost one-fifth of Iran's nuclear centrifuges.

More recently, in March this year, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accused the West of trying to sabotage a heavy-water nuclear reactor under construction in Arak by altering components of its cooling system, a step he said could have led to an "environmental catastrophe." Mr. Zarif said a foreign power had tried "to create malfunctions in equipment" purchased for the Arak plant from outside Iran "so that instead of cooling the facility, they would have increased the heat in the facility had we not detected it" in time. (New York Times).

With such baggage of hostility and mistrust, it is surprising that the Iranian leadership is at all negotiating with the US, yet it seems to have no choice. The economic hardships that its people have borne for all these years leave it with little options. President Rouhani has promised a Government of 'Hope and Recovery' and he has to deliver on that.

(The writer is a Visiting Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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Anjali Birla

Anjali Birla

Anjali Birla is an Indian Civil Services Officer(Batch 2020) working in the Ministry of Railways and has done her graduation in Political Science from Delhi ...

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