Yochanan Visser is an independent journalist/analyst who worked for many years as Middle East correspondent for Western Journalism.com in Arizona and was a frequent publicist for the main Dutch paper De Volkskrant. He authoreda book in the Dutch language about the cognitive war against Israel and now lives in Gush Etzion. He writes a twice weekly analysis of current issues for Arutz Sheva.
On Wednesday, Israel finally officially admitted that in September 2007, it had bombed Syria’s al-Khibar nuclear facility near the eastern Syrian city of Deir ez-Zur on the banks of the Euphrates River.
Many analysts focused on the specifics of the IAF raid on al-Khibar which was bombed to smithereens with four F15I warplanes, while four F16I jets loaded with electronic warfare equipment jammed Syrian and Lebanese telecommunication and Syria’s air defenses.
Many of these specifics had already been revealed by Israeli investigative reporter Ronen Bergman in his 2008 book “The Secret War with Iran”.
However, the timing of the disclosure suggests Israel could be gearing up for another military strike against a nuclear program in a Middle Eastern country.
Yisrael Katz, Israel’s minister of intelligence, seemed to hint at such an operation when he said that the Jewish state would not allow "those threatening our existence to have nuclear weapons. Syria then and Iran today."
His statement coincided with a Reuters report that dealt with certain developments in the United States where president Donald Trump has indicated he will soon nix the Obama administration brokered nuclear deal (JCPOA) with Iran.
Trump apparently doesn’t believe in a fix of the deal now that the European countries which negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action seem unwilling to impose new biting sanctions on Iran.
Trump’s stance is partly based on Iran’s refusal to grant the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to military sites, such as Parchin, where Iran is suspected of having conducted nuclear related activities.
U.S. “officials and lawmakers are nearly unanimous in their prediction that, if the United States and European partners are unable to agree on changes to the Iran nuclear deal, Trump will make good on his promise to scuttle U.S. participation in the deal,“ Reuters reported.
“It’s possible that we will sign a supplemental agreement with (Britain, France and Germany), but we need to plan for the possibility that we won’t reach an agreement, and that’s the purpose of contingency planning,” a senior US official told Reuters.
Trump has to decide on continuing US certification of the JCPOA before May 12th and chances are high he will withdraw from the deal, which he has labeled a “very bad” and “disastrous” agreement.
There have been three meetings with the European powers to secure fixes of the JCPOA, but “significant gaps remain” Israel Project CEO Omri Ceren wrote in an email to Arutz Sheva Tuesday.
Another indication Trump will scuttle the nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic came from a Voice of America report which indicated Trump will defy his top army brass in dealing with the growing Iranian threat.
“A lot of bad things are happening in Iran,” Trump told reporters this week before adding "the deal is coming up in one month, and you will see what happens.”
In this respect, it is also worth noting that Trump just fired his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who wanted the U.S. to continue certifying the JCPOA because he thinks Iran is acting in compliance with the deal.
Tillerson’s replacement CIA head Mike Pompeo was one of the U.S. lawmakers who fought the JCPOA tooth and nail.
Pompeo, together with senator Tom Cotton, exposed serious flaws in the JCPOA and revealed the existence of secret side deals which were hidden from the public ahead of the implementation of the JCPOA.
If Trump decides to quit the deal, it will give Israel the opportunity to reintroduce the so-called military option based on the so-called ‘Begin doctrine’ which prevents Israel’s enemies from obtaining nuclear weapons at all costs.
At the beginning of January, the Israeli security cabinet conducted a series of meetings that dealt with the ‘growing Iranian threat’ and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said after disclosure of information on the al-Khibar raid that Israel will “prevent its enemies from arming themselves with nuclear weapons.”
Netanyahu didn’t mention Iran specifically and there could be a reason for it.
Also on Wednesday, the Washington-based Institute For Science And International Security (ISIS) prematurely released a report dealing with a secret underground facility in Qusayr in the Qalamoun Mountains in west Syria, near the Lebanese border.
The report stated that while “evidence remains inconclusive” there is reason to believe that Syria, apparently with help from North Korea and Iran, built a new underground nuclear facility in Qusayr.
The authors of the report released the report immediately after Israel lifted the ban on reporting about the al-Khibar operation and said new satellite images “were consistent” with claims made in a 2015 Der Spiegel report about the new secret nuclear facility.
At the time, Der Spiegel claimed that Qusayr housed a new nuclear facility and that 8,000 fuel rods were stored at the site, where three building concealed entrances to tunnels.
ISIS now reports that the site was located close to an underground aquifer which could be used for the cooling of a nuclear reactor.
The investigators, including former IAEA inspector David Albright, also observed that efforts had been made to camouflage large amounts of excavated limestone earth which had been covered with brown earth on a nearby terraced hill.
The terraces now look like farming plots as the images published together with the report showed.
The four authors, furthermore, confirmed the Qusayr site was connected to the power grid and that a security checkpoint has been erected near a wellhead.
One satellite image (8) furthermore showed a mobile drill rig, which is used to construct underground facilities.
The construction of “an enrichment plant would require extensive foreign assistance, likely from North Korea or possibly from Iran, since there is no available evidence of Syria buying the necessary equipment and materials from abroad,” the report concluded while making the case for IAEA inspections of Qusayr after the war in Syria concludes.
And here lies the rub, there could be no time left to wait for future IAEA inspections of Qusayr.
Based on the Der Spiegel report, I conducted my own investigation in 2015 and found evidence of Hezbollah’s and Iranian involvement in managing the underground facility in Qusayr.
The site had been brought under the control of Hezbollah and the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps during fierce fighting with the former Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.
Quds commander Qassem Soleimani was the one who oversaw the offensive.
Intercepted radio traffic between a high-ranking Hezbollah operative and Ibrahim Othman, the head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission, furthermore revealed that Qusayr was indeed a nuclear site.
The Hezbollah commander referred to Qusayr as “the atomic factory” while members of the Free Syrian Army reported that Iranian officers were supervising the nuclear site and that Assad’s regime was only a cover-up for the Iranian activities there.
Jennifer Dyer, an American weapon expert, said at the time that Qusayr could be a plant where yellowcake is converted to UF4 and is metalized into fuel rods for a reactor. But it also could be a plutonium facility.
Under the JCPOA Iran was obliged to halt activities at its plutonium facility in Arak but the agreement said nothing about similar activities at other sites in Iran or abroad.
Since Iran has now effectively taken-over Syria and has been caught trying to acquire components for a heavy water reactor such as Arak, the Israeli warnings could be related to what is happening in Qusayr.
After all, as Netanyahu stated this week, Israel will prevent its enemies from obtaining nuclear weapons.