The Birth of a Bomb A History of Iran's Nuclear Ambitions
Part 4: 'Arming to Threaten the Peace of the World'
Act 3: How a BND Agent Discovers the 'Laptop of Death'
Vyacheslav D. is an internationally recognized specialist in the field of nanotechnology. His good reputation is based on a discovery he and his fellow Soviet scientists made in July 1963. When they exposed carbon to the shock waves from an explosion, the abrupt compression turned the carbon into gems called nanodiamonds. The Iranians have no need for sparkling gems, but they are interested in all things related to detonating a bomb -- which is where the Russian comes in. During the Cold War, D. spent years working on the Soviets' nuclear weapons program. Chelyabinsk-70 in Siberia, 1,500 kilometers due east of Moscow, is the Soviet version of Los Alamos. The Russians have been building nuclear bombs there since 1955, and now their scientists are experimenting with ways to make them smaller. D. works in the scientific research institute at Chelyabinsk.
The Iranians take notice of D. in 1992, when he and his colleagues publish a groundbreaking essay in a professional journal. In the article, they discuss the challenge of making the shock waves expand as uniformly as possible after an explosion, an important factor in the detonation of a certain type of nuclear warhead. To this end, many small channels have to be cut into the warhead "so as to be able to measure the intervals at which the waves arrive," D. writes. According to IAEA sources, a deal is struck around 1995. From then on, the Russian scientist will work for Tehran. Whether he is fully aware of the real goal of the project is unclear.
It is a process of nuclear armament that remains long hidden from the world, until one of those golden, late-summer days in Washington in mid-August 2002. The People's Mujaheddin of Iran, part of an umbrella coalition of Iranian exiles called the National Council of Resistance of Iran, is holding a press conference at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel in Washington. It isn't exactly the preferred venue for the Iranian dissidents who are trying to bring down the regime with bombs in Tehran and protests in European capitals.
A Global Political Sensation
The Iranian exiles meet with the press in the Taft room on the third floor. "What I am showing you today are two top-secret sites that the Iranian regime has sought to conceal until now," says a spokesman of the People's Mujahedin. His words are a global political sensation. A heavy water reactor to produce plutonium in Arak? An enrichment plant in Natanz? Is it possible that Iran has been operating a nuclear program for years?
The regime critics claim that the presentation is the "result of our own intensive research," but this isn't true. In fact, the Israel intelligence service provided the group with its information. To enhance credibility, the government in Jerusalem has sought to obfuscate its authorship. In Arab countries, such a sensation would only be treated as yet another consequence of an endless series of alleged Zionist propaganda.
The unexpected exposure of Iran's Manhattan Project changes everything. So far the Iranians have managed to keep the development under wraps, but now the global public is shining its spotlights on the country. It marks the beginning of a major political controversy that will end with an alternative: war or peace?
By then, US President George W. Bush had already coined the term "Axis of Evil," in reference to Iraq, Iran and North Korea. These three countries, Bush says in January 2002, are "arming to threaten the peace of the world." He openly threatens war, saying: "The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."
The new doctrine of the neo-conservatives in the US administration, who seek to change the world order with armed force, is that armed intervention is justified if there is so much as a threat to American interests. Soon the concept of "regime change" in Tehran starts making the rounds. Iran's revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, fears for the continued existence of the Islamic Republic.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the Egyptian head of the Vienna-based IAEA, flies to Tehran in July 2003. His inspectors have been traveling around the country since March, installing cameras, seals and measuring devices for monitoring purposes, and they have been asking many questions. It has now become much more difficult to keep things a secret, and it will gradually become clear just how far the Iranian scientists have already come technologically.
In the summer of 2003, the Tehran engineers conduct test detonations based on the Russian method. According to information that is leaked later on, the explosive device consists of a hemisphere with a diameter of 27.5 centimeters (11 inches), encased in a shell of annealed aluminum. Just as Vyacheslav D. described in his 1992 essay, the Iranians drill tiny holes into the aluminum shell and place small explosive charges into the holes. The charges are designed to simultaneously ignite a large charge of conventional explosives inside the hemisphere.
The goal of the test is to determine whether the ensuing shock waves coming from all sides act simultaneously on the potential nuclear core. About 1,000 fiberglass sensor wires are arranged inside the hemisphere to transmit a light signal to a digital measuring device. A high-speed camera takes pictures at intervals of a fraction of a second. This allows the scientists to analyze the course of the experiment.
If the Western intelligence services are to be believed, the results represent a technical breakthrough. The message of the summer of 2003 is that the detonator technology appears to be controllable.
Even as the engineers are announcing their successes, international pressure seems to be having an effect. US intelligence intercepts internal instructions from the Iranian government that suggest a drastic reduction in the military research budget. A number of scientists complain that they are no longer being allowed to pursue their projects. The government is so concerned about the discovery of its secret nuclear projects that, in February 2004, bulldozers appear in front of a building at the Physics Research Center in northeast Tehran, which houses a military segment of the nuclear research program. The fact that Western intelligence agencies are able to monitor internal Iranian communications is due in part to the work of Germany's foreign intelligence service, the BND.
An Important German Source
The Germans have an important source in Tehran, a person with the codename "Dolphin," who is managed by personnel at the BND's Department One at the agency's headquarters in Pullach, outside Munich. A businessman who works for the government in Tehran, the source has only a coincidental connection to the business of splitting atoms. Through his work, which involves pouring steel and concrete in Isfahan, Natanz and elsewhere, Dolphin gradually gains access to the inner circle that is pressing ahead with the secret program for the regime.
The agents from Pullach prefer to meet with Dolphin during his trips abroad, which, shortly before the end of the millennium, the regime still allows. Dolphin is a smart man who knows that the intelligence agencies love betrayal but not the betrayer. To cover his back, he takes out a form of life insurance: He collects all the classified documents about the nuclear program he can get his hands on, digitizes them and hides the laptop as a deposit on his own security. He doesn't want to stay in Iran forever, but would rather defect, preferably to the United States.
The CIA has also taken notice of the Iranian businessman. He is a manageable entity, someone who is actively involved in the nuclear program and, when Dolphin first expresses his desire to leave Iran, the BND decides to bring in the CIA. But then a fatal error occurs and, in 2003, the Iranian intelligence service uncovers Dolphin's contacts in the United States. Like so many other opposition figures, he is arrested one day. His wife manages to flee the country with their children, taking the laptop with her. She marches into the American consulate in Istanbul, where she tells her story and is referred to the CIA. Dolphin disappears into one of Tehran's notorious prisons, but his wife and children are flown to the United States. The laptop becomes her Green Card.
The 'Green Salt Project'
The more than 1,000 pages of documents on the computer include Iranian correspondence relating to the conversion of uranium oxide into uranium tetrafluoride. The Iranians refer to this step as the "Green Salt Project" and, according to the documents on the laptop, the program is managed under a department known as "Project 5.13." Its goal is to produce a ton of the "green salt" per year. The laptop also contains a document dated May 2003, under the letterhead of Kimia Maadan, a Tehran-based company. The Iranian ambassador to the IAEA will later deny the existence of the project in question, and he will claim that the company was merely involved in uranium production at a mine near the town of Gachin. But business records at SPIEGEL's disposal reinforce the suspicion that Kimia Maadan is in fact a part of the Tehran Defense Ministry.
The US government presents the material from the laptop in a bugproof room at the German Chancellery, the office of the chancellor. The Americans have political reasons for getting the Germans involved. After the intelligence disaster surrounding the alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the Americans are now looking for partners to share the responsibility. But Frank-Walter Steinmeier, chief of staff to Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and his intelligence coordinator Ernst Uhrlau don't want to be subservient to the Americans. They don't trust Bush and his CIA.
Finally, the United States decides to let the UN weapons inspectors in Vienna -- and the most world's most important figure on the subject of nuclear security -- in on the secret of the "laptop of death."
- Part 1: A History of Iran's Nuclear Ambitions
- Part 2: Pinpricks with Little Impact on Berlin
- Part 3: How the World's Nuclear Dealer Got His Start
- Part 4: 'Arming to Threaten the Peace of the World'
- Part 5: 'A Very Dangerous Man'
- Part 6: Growing Suspicions of a Weapon Program
- Part 7: Israel Secretly Prepares for a Military Strike