Wall Street Journal: For two years, U.S. experts and international inspectors have pored over satellite photos, radioactive samples and tips from sometimes-unreliable sources trying to solve the Iran nuclear puzzle. Then, last year, U.S. officials received what they now consider the best evidence yet that Iran is pursuing an ambitious nuclear-weapons program. An intelligence source, solicited with German help, provided the U.S. tens of thousands of pages of Farsi-language computer files, diagrams and test data from Iran’s missile program. Wall Street Journal
New Data Suggest Big Effort To Build Nuclear Warhead, But Will World Believe It?
Checking Out a Toilet Tank
By CARLA ANNE ROBBINS – Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
For two years, U.S. experts and international inspectors have pored over satellite photos, radioactive samples and tips from sometimes-unreliable sources trying to solve the Iran nuclear puzzle.
Then, last year, U.S. officials received what they now consider the best evidence yet that Iran is pursuing an ambitious nuclear-weapons program. An intelligence source, solicited with German help, provided the U.S. tens of thousands of pages of Farsi-language computer files, diagrams and test data from Iran’s missile program.
U.S. officials say the materials document Iran’s efforts between 2001 and 2003 to adapt its Shahab-3 missile for delivering a “black box” that experts at the nation’s nuclear-weapons laboratories believe is almost certainly a nuclear warhead. The specifications for size, shape, weight and height of detonation don’t change during more than two years of work and don’t make sense for conventional explosives, according to several officials who have been briefed on the intelligence.
The “black box” is an apt metaphor for Iran’s nuclear program. It is full of ominous-looking shapes, but no one has seen inside the boxes to know for sure whether Iran is developing nuclear weapons. One U.S. official calls the missile documents “nearly a smoking gun” but acknowledges that they fall short of definitive proof that Iran is working on a nuclear bomb.
Tehran says its nuclear program is solely for electrical power. It admits hiding most of its efforts for nearly two decades but argues that secrecy is necessary for a country living under U.S. sanctions and the threat of American or Israeli military strikes.
The lingering ambiguity poses a vexing problem for the Bush administration. It has advocated stiff punishments against Tehran to restrain what it insists is a dangerous nuclear-weapons program. But Washington’s credibility was so damaged by the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that it has had trouble making a persuasive case. The U.S. has shared the missile intelligence with British, French and German officials, believing that the meticulous documentation will persuade weapons experts in those countries. They are less certain about whether and how the information should be presented to the public.
Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell created a brief stir in November when he told reporters he had seen information that Iran was developing a missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead. But interest faded after other officials described the source providing the evidence as unvetted and unsolicited. Full details about the extent of the intelligence bonanza weren’t disclosed at the time.
Much as in Iraq before the 2003 war, the evidence about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, however compelling, is circumstantial. And those charged with collecting it don’t always agree. Relations between the Bush administration and United Nations nuclear inspectors are strained. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which was right about Iraq in 2003, has the credibility that the U.S. needs but also limited powers and a tendency to shy away from conflict. While documenting Iran’s deceptions, the IAEA says it has found no conclusive evidence so far of a nuclear-weapons program. The agency has privately asked to be briefed on the missile intelligence but Washington has refused so far to share it.
Behind the scenes, some smaller groups have also played a role in moving along the investigation of Iran’s nuclear program. Among them are a former Iraq weapons inspector who uses commercially available satellite photos to ferret out suspected weapons sites and an Iranian exile group with good sources but also a spot on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.
In one important respect, the U.S. case against Iran is stronger than against Iraq in 2003. There is no longer any doubt about the sophistication of Iran’s publicly declared uranium-enrichment capability, which could produce nuclear fuel or the core of a nuclear bomb. Getting explosive material is considered the hardest part of building a nuclear bomb. Since the enrichment program was revealed in 2002, Iran has repeatedly been caught lying to international inspectors about the extent of its nuclear programs as well as its suppliers — including the nuclear black market organized by Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan.
U.S. officials believe that Iran, even after admitting its earlier coverups, is still hiding a covert weapons program. At the moment, the U.S. is warily deferring to European-led diplomatic efforts to wean Iran from its uranium enrichment program in exchange for economic incentives. If those negotiations fail, the U.S. will renew its push to punish Iran through U.N. sanctions or possibly even with military action. In preparation for what could be a major battle over public opinion, the White House has ordered a review of all intelligence on the Iranian nuclear effort, with a report expected soon.
Iran’s interest in nuclear power, and possibly nuclear weapons, goes back to the time of the shah. The 1979 Iranian revolution temporarily halted the program, but it was revived by the mid-1980s. For much of the 1990s, the U.S. focused on trying to stop nuclear sales from Russia, which the U.S. suspected of providing weapons guidance as it worked to complete a nuclear reactor in Iran’s port city of Bushehr.
Now it’s clear that more troubling activities were under way in the shadows, far from Bushehr.
By 2000, the U.S. had signs that Iran was buying nuclear equipment from Mr. Khan. Soon after, it collected intelligence that Iran was planning construction of a heavy-water plant and a uranium-enrichment plant.
It appeared Iran was pursuing multiple tracks to produce fissile material in hopes that one would pan out. Heavy water — in which the nuclei of the hydrogen atoms have a neutron — is used to control the reactions in a heavy-water reactor, which in turn produces large amounts of weapons-usable plutonium as waste. Uranium is enriched in centrifuges that spin at extremely high speeds to separate the isotope U-235. Uranium with a low percentage of U-235 is used as nuclear fuel, but as the percentage rises the uranium can be used in weapons.
The U.S. decided to hold off going public with its suspicions. It hoped to see whom else Mr. Khan was selling to and catch Iran with more than “a hole in the ground,” says Gary Samore, a top counterproliferation official in the Clinton White House.
In August 2002, an exile group known as the National Council of Resistance of Iran summoned reporters to Washington’s Willard Hotel for a morning briefing. The group’s spokesman, Alireza Jafarzadeh, charged that Iran was building two new secret nuclear facilities: a heavy-water plant near the town of Arak and a large plant to fabricate uranium fuel in the desert near the town of Natanz.
Mr. Jafarzadeh was comfortable in Washington’s power corridors, much like Ahmed Chalabi, the exiled Iraqi who provided much of the now-discredited information on Iraq’s weapons program. He was educated at the University of Michigan and the University of Texas and for years he kept a small office at the National Press Club. He has since parlayed his expertise into a slot as a paid analyst for Fox News. But the council’s military wing was on the State Department’s terrorism list for a history of political killings and ties to Saddam Hussein.
Mr. Jafarzadeh’s information tracked closely with what U.S. officials already knew. But in the summer of 2002 they had their hands full with Iraq and North Korea. When asked about the information that afternoon, a State Department spokesman offered generic criticism of Tehran’s activities, noted the council’s ties to a terrorist organization and brushed off suggestions that the dangers were comparable to those posed by Iraq.
Browsing the Archives
Nonetheless, the charges piqued the interest of David Albright, a physicist and former Iraq nuclear inspector who heads a small Washington-based proliferation research group called the Institute for Science and International Security. Mr. Albright’s deputy, Corey Hinderstein, says the two had long heard talk of secret Iranian facilities but had never been given a location. Ms. Hinderstein began browsing the online archives of DigitalGlobe, a commercial satellite company. One site in the desert outside Natanz, she found, had already been photographed several times — she suspected at the request of U.S. intelligence analysts. Even with the free images’ limited resolution, she could make out heavy fencing around the facility.
By late November Mr. Albright and Ms. Hinderstein decided to invest several thousand dollars of the institute’s money, which it gets mainly from foundations, to buy higher-resolution pictures. They hit pay dirt. Ms. Hinderstein immediately recognized Arak as a heavy-water plant. They have “distinctive tall columns,” she explains, pulling out a large satellite photo of a once-hidden heavy-water plant in Pakistan that she had researched earlier. At Natanz, the satellite images showed a huge plant and trucks dumping dirt to hide the roofs. Mr. Albright was nearly certain it was a uranium-enrichment facility.
They teamed up with CNN to confirm their suspicions. As the network was preparing to air the findings in December 2002, Mr. Albright got a call from a senior official at the IAEA asking him to hold off. The IAEA had been pressing since the summer to inspect the sites and the official warned that publicity would make it even harder to win Iran’s consent. Mr. Albright disagreed. “We felt in the case of Iran only public embarrassment would get them to open up,” he says. CNN broadcast the satellite photos, and Iran quickly set a date for IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei to visit.
When IAEA inspectors got to the Natanz site in February 2003, they were shocked by the sophistication and ambition of the effort. Iran had installed 164 centrifuges in a small pilot plant there and had parts for an additional 1,000 awaiting assembly. The main plant, still under construction, was to include two massive underground halls that could house up to 50,000 centrifuges. That could produce enough low-enriched fuel annually to feed the Bushehr plant or enough highly enriched uranium for 25-30 bombs a year, Mr. Albright calculates. Russia had already committed to supply fuel to Bushehr for the lifetime of the plant, as U.S. officials were quick to note. Iranian officials explained that they still needed to ensure their fuel supply and also planned to build other reactors.
The international suspicions would soon grow with the discovery of another site of centrifuge activity. As early as 2000 the U.S. had gotten a tip that Iran was enriching uranium to low grades at a supposed watch factory in a Tehran suburb known as Kalaye Electric, one official says. Some U.S. officials wanted to push for inspections but the Central Intelligence Agency was worried about blowing its source. The IAEA had also heard about the watch factory but held back for a similar reason. Under its mandate, the agency can inspect a site if it has indications that nuclear materials are present, and it needs to be able to offer proof if challenged.
The Iranian exile group solved that problem on the eve of Mr. ElBaradei’s visit to Iran. At a Washington news conference, it announced that Iran was testing centrifuge equipment at a front company it named as Kala Electric. The NCRI, citing its sources inside Iran, gave the address as “Km 2.5 Ab-Ali highway, next to Kemi Daroo Company.”
Iran now began a cat-and-mouse game with the IAEA. It first turned down the agency’s request to visit the site. Then it allowed a visit in March 2003 but gave inspectors access to only some buildings and blocked them from swabbing surfaces to look for signs of nuclear materials. Soon after, satellite photos showed trucks moving material away from the site.
Search for Evidence
U.S. officials despaired that evidence was being erased, and at one point even asked scientists in an American nuclear laboratory to help figure out where radioactive traces might be found after a cleanup. The scientists’ list included prayer rugs, which Iranians might not throw out, and rubber fixtures inside toilet tanks.
When the IAEA was finally allowed a full inspection of Kalaye Electric that August, it found that workers had completely remodeled one building, pulling up the flooring and repainting and retiling the walls. Still, when the inspectors’ samples came back they showed traces of enriched uranium, some to near weapons grade.
The discovery put Tehran in a bind. Until then Iran had insisted that it built all its own centrifuges and had never tested them with uranium gas. Iran now admitted to enriching a small amount of uranium but not to weapons grade. The traces of highly enriched uranium, Tehran said, must have been contamination from what it now admitted were some imported centrifuges. By late October, with international pressure mounting, Tehran provided the IAEA with what it said was a “full disclosure” of “past and present nuclear activities.” It also turned over a list of Iran’s nuclear middlemen, some of whom would be traced back to the Khan network.
It was quickly clear Iran hadn’t disclosed everything. The IAEA got another important piece of the puzzle after Libya announced in December 2003 that it was giving up its clandestine nuclear-weapons program. Looking over a stack of shipping crates in Libya filled with parts for Khan-supplied centrifuges — known as P-1s — agency inspectors noticed a few shipping labels with the names of suppliers on Iran’s list. The components were also similar to the ones the inspectors had seen in Iran, down to the red or blue plastic jewel-box-like containers for round metal plates known as baffles.
The inspectors began to ask themselves: If Iran was using the same suppliers as Libya, did it get as broad a nuclear package? Libya had also bought a nuclear-weapons design from the Khan network as well as parts and building instructions for a more sophisticated centrifuge known as a P-2. When pressed, Iranian officials denied receiving a weapons plan but admitted receiving P-2 drawings from the network in the mid-1990s. The IAEA is dubious about Tehran’s assertion that it did little with the drawings and is pushing to see if Tehran got other help such as P-2 manuals and test data for a covert P-2 program.
Iran’s razing of yet another suspect facility has raised concerns. In May 2003, Mr. Jafarzadeh’s Iranian exile group charged that biological weapons research was being conducted at the Lavisan-Shian military-industrial complex in a Tehran suburb. In the fall of 2003, the IAEA started asking questions about purchases going to the site, including “whole-body counters” for detecting radiation. Soon after, U.S. and IAEA satellite photos showed part of the complex being bulldozed and rubble hauled away.
It would still take more than six months for the agency to get in. Again, public disclosures by Mr. Albright and Ms. Hinderstein helped open the door. Working with ABC News, they found two telling satellite pictures. The first, taken in August 2003, showed an extensive complex surrounded by high fences. In the second, taken in March 2004, all the major buildings were gone, the earth was scraped and access roads and sidewalks were removed or covered over.
Iranian officials asserted that the site had originally housed a research center studying the effects of radiation contamination from nuclear accidents or attacks, explaining the need for whole body counters. They said it had been razed after the Tehran municipality, which wanted the site for a park, won control of it from the Ministry of Defense. Inspectors found that improbable, but their samples came back negative. The IAEA is still looking at the center’s history of suspicious purchases.
Throughout the inspections, Iran has blamed its secrecy on the U.S., saying Washington wants to deprive it of its right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. In a September 2003 statement to the IAEA board, Iranian ambassador Ali A. Salehi said: “If cooperation has been slow at times…if there have been [a”> few incidents of discrepancies…it is all out of one and only one concern: The U.S. intention behind this saga is nothing but to make this deprivation final and eternal.”
Meanwhile, U.S. officials are weighing how to use the missile intelligence that Mr. Powell revealed last November. After worrying that the find might be disinformation, perhaps by Israel, they say they are now persuaded that their source and the documents are real.