Israel, Though Distracted by Surrounding Crises, Still Focused on Iran’s Nuclear Sites — Including the Plutonium Project at Arak

by YOSSI MELMAN in Tel Aviv

A new focus for Israeli leaders — hinting at intelligence about a growing nuclear danger — is Arak (about 150 miles southwest of Tehran), where Iran is constructing a nuclear research reactor. Within two years, according to the Israelis, Arak could produce plutonium there. Along with 90% enriched uranium, that would provide the materials needed to make nuclear bombs.

A renewed campaign by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to point out the threat posed by Arak has been reflected in articles in conservative newspapers in both the United States and Israel.

A former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, urged Israel to attack Iranian nuclear facilities — saying every day adds to the danger for the Jewish state. He said Israel should have attacked “yesterday.

Arak, described by as a “special weapons facility”

In its news analysis section, The Wall Street Journal ran a piece about Arak (“Iran Seen Trying New Path to a Bomb”) that spoke of recent “significant advances” in constructing the site. The truth, however, is that no exceptional steps have been taken lately in Arak. The construction pace is more or less according to Israeli intelligence predictions and estimates.

It was at the end of the 1990s that Iran started clandestinely planning the reactor that could produce weapons-grade plutonium. It approached “Nikiet, a research and development center in Russia, asked for help in designing a nuclear research reactor with a 40 megawatt capacity — seemingly to “produce isotopes” for medical treatment.

The Russian institute named Nikiet was created to develop power systems for nuclear submarines. It also designed the first Soviet nuclear power reactors. Up until now Russia denies any role in Arak’s construction, but Israeli and American sources argue that Nikiet was indeed involved.

Eventually Iran’s plans were exposed in August 2002 by representatives of Mujhadin-e-Khalk  (MEK), the People’s Holy Warriors, an Iranian opposition group which until recently was blacklisted as a terrorist group by the United States government.

It is worth mentioning that information about Arak was given to MEK by Israeli intelligence, which via this method “laundered” the secret information while protecting its sources.

Construction at the site began at 2004, and Iran had little choice but to notify the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and to declare the existence of the site and its plans. But two years later, when the UN Security Council imposed the first round of sanctions on Iran’s nuclear and missile program, Tehran used the occasion as a pretext to stop the IAEA inspections of the site.

Thus Arak is nowadays off-limits to IAEA inspectors.

One of the rare experts who tried to alert the international community to the potential danger in Arak is Robert Kelley. “I tried my best to warn of Arak,” he told me in a phone interview from his home in Vienna, where the IAEA has its headquarters.

Robert Kelley (courtesy

Dr Kelley is a renowned American and international authority on plutonium-based nuclear weapons. In the 1970s he was a senior manager at America’s national laboratories in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Livermore, California. Among his responsibilities was to monitor the nuclear programs of foreign countries.

Though he refused to elaborate, it could be understood that monitoring Israel’s nuclear program (together with India’s and Pakistan’s) was part of his job. In the 1990s he joined the IAEA and served on the team which monitored dictator Saddam Hussein’s nuclear efforts in Iraq.

Dr Kelley finds it hard to believe that the Arak reactor is for medical purposes.  “The reactor is a strange thing,” he said, noting that it is a heavy-water nuclear reactor, situated far from Tehran — although the capital is ostensibly the main consumer of the medical isotopes that could be produced at Arak.

Based on his experience and knowledge, the American expert said also that all three countries (Israel, India, and Pakistan) eventually developed their nuclear weapons alongside their nuclear reactors (all 40 or so megawatts in capacity) — though the reactors were officially “just for research.”

Iraq tried the same path, until Israel’s air force bombed the Tammuz (Osirak) reactor near Baghdad in June 1981.

So why should Iran be different. After all, it did not invent the wheel.  Dr. Kelley — I asked — are you basically saying that the Arak reactor is for building nuclear bombs? “Yes, there is a possibility which has to be considered: that the reactor is for military purposes.”

Iran declared that the Arak reactor would be operational in 2014 but Robert Kelley doubted it. “Iran’s major problem is to fabricate the nuclear fuel to run the reactor. For this it needs Zirconium, a material which it has problems purchasing because of the international sanctions.”

He pointed out that in the past, Iran had faced many obstacles with starting its other nuclear facilities on time. “It is possible that this time Iran will meet its timetable andArak will be operational in a matter of months, but it also may take years.”

So where is all this leading? To more of the same? More threats? And more hints of attacks? Probably so.

One senior official in Jerusalem made a point of leaking (in early August) his assessment that Israel cannot rely on Barack Obama’s public declarations that he intends to stop — at almost all costs — Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

So Israel is once again sending signals that it will, if necessary, take military action on its own to derail Iran’s nuclear programs.

The above-ground and mostly visible Arak facility can be a relatively easy target for warplanes and missiles to hit, certainly easier than the Natanz and Fordow sites (which contain centrifuges, spinning to enrich uranium) which are mostly underground and much harder to destroy.

The key question, however, is whether Israel will or won’t bomb any sites in Iran. Most security analysts in Israel conclude that the most likely answer is “no.”

But it is interesting to note that James Mattis — the recently retired Marine general who was head of United States Central Command — has reached his own conclusion: “I have no doubt,” he told Wolf Blitzer at the Aspen Security Forum in mid-July, “that if Israel finds out that Iran is going to produce the bomb, then Israel will attack.”

[This is adapted from a recent article by Yossi Melman in The Jerusalem Report, a publication affiliated with The Jerusalem Post.]

August 29, 2013

Leave a Reply

Buy it now!

Spies Against Armageddon

Click here to get your
paperback version now!

Levant Books

Available in print and e-book!
Click here to learn more.

Amazon Nook
Kobo eBookPie

  • Archive (5)
  • Articles By The Authors (155)
  • CIA (6)
  • Countries with Nuclear Weapons (87)
  • Covert Operations (129)
  • Cyberwar (38)
  • Dan Raviv (102)
  • Egypt (19)
  • Hamas (4)
  • Hezbollah (18)
  • History of Israel (70)
  • Iran Nuclear (165)
  • Israel Palestine Conflict (61)
  • Jewish terrorism (1)
  • Jonathan Pollard (6)
  • Jordan (1)
  • Kidon "Bayonet" (17)
  • Media Appearances (15)
  • MI6 (4)
  • Mossad (114)
  • Munich Olympics Massacre 1972 (19)
  • Nazis (5)
  • Nuclear Proliferation (51)
  • Russia (4)
  • Shin Bet (20)
  • Stuxnet (19)
  • Syria (62)
  • Terrorism (27)
  • Turkey (11)
  • U.S.-Israel (122)
  • Uncategorized (97)
  • Video (19)
  • Yossi Melman (169)
    Press Releases
  • Iranian Nuclear Program


    Buy it now!    |     © 2012