Signals from Tehran and the recent IAEA report on the country's nuclear activities provide unmistakable clues that the Iranian government may welcome a limited bombing of its nuclear facilities. This in order to unleash a patriotic swell bound to bolster the Ahmadinejad regime. The IAEA report issued on 18 February 2010 reveals unusual details of the Iranian program.
The Natanz enrichment site first. The basic well-advertised provocation is of course the decision to re-enrich the low-enriched fuel available on site (at less than 5%) to the upper limit of what may be defined as low-enriched uranium (20%) allowed by the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but not by the Security Council. The second provocation is to do so not in the bomber-proof underground tunnels of the Natanz Production Facility but in a vulnerable surface building, the Pilot Facility. The third provocation was to transfer in one go on February 14 the complete stock of low-enriched uranium, some 2000 kilograms, from the same deep underground tunnels to the above-ground Pilot Facility. Therefore, today, one precision-guided air-to-ground missile could disperse the whole strategic stock of Iranian enriched uranium! Why are these moves deemed to be sheer provocations? Because, there were alternatives aplenty: re-enrich uranium with the 3000 unused centrifuges in the cellars of Natanz, or bring up to the surface gradually only the daily low-enrich feed required by the Pilot Facility.
Similar situation in Esfahan. The IAEA reports that Iran has announced the construction of several R&D lines for the production of natural, depleted, and enriched uranium metal in an underground laboratory at the Esfahan Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF). Without obvious civilian applications, metallic uranium has been a traditional indicator of an interest in metal components for weapons. The interest is not new, since Iran had fiddled with uranium metal hemispheres already in the eighties and nineties. This is a serious matter by itself. But why the provocation of setting up that chemical laboratory in a cellar of the UCF building, in a shallow-underground location, vulnerable to surgical bombing, instead of one of the tunnel dug out around the Esfahan site or, again, deep underground at Natanz?
Will Israel take the bait? Technically, a single strike in Natanz or a double strike in Esfahan as well, would make some sense since key facilities and materials would in truth be destroyed. Never-theless, the overall Iranian nuclear potential would remain intact, since Iran has widely distributed its nuclear assets across the country. Within less than one year, Iran would have rebuilt its stock of low-enriched uranium and would have accelerated re-enrichment to higher levels, may be beyond 20%. Israel could well avoid the potential political consequences of a very limited military operation at Natanz or Esfahan - as was the case in Syria in October 2007 where a nuclear facility under construction, undeclared and illegal, was bombed out by Israeli planes without much protest on the part of the Syrian government and the international community.
How would the Iranians react to a targeted bombing of the Pilot Facility in Natanz and/or the Ura-nium Conversion Facility in Esfahan? Very recent signals from Tehran indicates that the Ahmadine-jad faction - it seems with the blessing of the Supreme Leader - would welcome a limited Israeli attack on a nuclear facility - for sheer internal political reasons, in order to strengthen the govern-ment and to silence the opposition. If limited, such a military action would not compel the Iranian leadership to react immediately against Israel or to impede sea traffic in the Hormuz Straits (not to affect Arabic interests). At any rate, the technical details provided by the IAEA can only be interpreted as see-through provocations, as baits for the Israeli Air Force to come over now, at a favorable time (e.g., in Natanz, prior to the 20% re-enriched uranium being trucked down deep underneath).
The domestic political situation in Iran deserves greater attention. Remember the reasons why Iran refused at the end of 2009 the swap of its low-enriched uranium for brand-new fuel elements needed by the Tehran Research Reactor. Jahili, the nuclear negotiator, accepted the deal in Geneva on October 1; Soltanieh, the ambassador, did likewise in Vienna three weeks later. Ahmadinejad endorsed it publicly, and his Army Chief of Staff, Firouzabadi did the same. Others, eager to deprive Ahmadinejad of a diplomatic success, turned the tide against the swap: Larijani, the Speaker of Parliament, Moussavi the opposition presidential candidate and finally the Supreme Leader as well. Any kind of swap - other than simultaneous - has become impossible for Iran.
At this point, Iran is confronted with two scenarios. First, a strong regime of sanctions. In spite of his bravado, the Ahmadinejad faction knows that effective sanctions endorsed by both Russia and China in the Security Council would seriously affect Iran's economy. Quite likely, Russia and China would not participate, more concerned by their commercial interests than by nuclear proliferation. On the other hand, if the European Union would show more spine and less concern about its own commercial interests, Iran would fear just as much a joint sanction regime managed by a "EU-US Sanction Office" that would see the trade of two key European players - Germany and Italy - reduced drastically. Second scenario, yes, an Israeli bombing at Natanz or Esfahan. Looking at these alternatives from an Iranian perspective - from the perspective of ensuring the survival of the Islamic regime, it is not really surprising that many players in Tehran prefer the second scenario. This is why Ahmadinejad is putting on a sliver plate, inside a light building on the open site of Natanz, the accumulated 2000 kgs of uranium.
The bottom line. While the Israeli Air Force fine-tunes its potential air corridors, Washington, Brussels, Berlin and even Rome should think seriously about all the implications of what looks like a tempting and easy way to move the Iranian nuclear file, a way that could nonetheless easily get out of control.