The Birth of a Bomb A History of Iran's Nuclear Ambitions
Part 5: 'A Very Dangerous Man'
Act 4: The True Identity of Iran's Biggest Adversary in the West
If there was ever a man more unlike James Bond in the world of espionage, it has to be Olli Heinonen. He has the telltale beginnings of a paunch, he wears off-the-rack suits and he favors ties in the decidedly uncool shades of yellow and gray. The IAEA's easy-going deputy director general has not only been underestimated before, he also possesses a healthy dose of a virtue the Finns call sisu: tenacity, stubbornness and endurance. He also happens to be one of the world's preeminent nuclear specialists.
Heinonen grew up in Helsinki, where he earned a doctorate in radiochemistry and later worked at the Finnish nuclear research center. He accepted a job with the IAEA in 1983 and began working his way up the ladder. He became friends with Mohamed ElBaradei, the dedicated former Egyptian diplomat, who would soon be named director general of the nuclear watchdog agency. The two men spent several months together at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear facility. The IAEA was later ejected from North Korea when the authoritarian regime began building the bomb and sealing deals with Pakistan and Iran.
Heinonen soon becomes fascinated by the realm of the Persians. The Iranians suspend the IAEA's activities after the revelations about Natanz and Arak, and it isn't until six months later that Heinonen receives permission to resume inspections. He uncovers suspicious signs at the Kalaye factory and senses that there must be more. He suspects that Khan is behind the deals. ElBaradei dispatches his deputy on a secret mission to investigate the presumed black-market dealer's network and to examine his connections to Iran.
But even as the stoic Finn is collecting data, the Western intelligence agencies have intensified their scrutiny of the Khan connection. When the CIA raids the German freighter BBC China in the Italian port of Taranto in October 2003, it discovers a shipment from Khan to the Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. It marks the end of the Libyan atomic program that Khan has been selling to Tripoli.
West Ratchets Up Pressure on Pakistan
By now, the West is putting so much pressure on Pakistan that President Pervez Musharraf drops his support for Khan, allowing a national hero to fall. In his 11-page confession in early 2004, which remains classified to this day, Khan says that the Iranians offered him a deal worth billions. Now, more than ever, Heinonen is convinced that Khan is the source of many Iranian nuclear components.
On a May day in 2004, the IAEA's answer to James Bond receives a call from a woman who appears to be surprisingly well-versed on nuclear matters. He meets with her in a cafe in Vienna's Millennium Building, which is typically empty around lunchtime. Heinonen is convinced she is a CIA agent (in fact, all indications suggest that she was sent by "Mad Dog," the head of the Tinner espionage operation). She arranges a series of meetings between the nuclear detectives' top dog and the Swiss family, which take place at Vienna's Hotel Intercontinental and at Lake Constance. She also provides the IAEA with access to the hard drive containing the sensational information about Iran's nuclear program, the "laptop of death." It is the same material that Heinonen will later use in his closed-door meeting with diplomats.
The Robert Oppenheimer of Iran
At that presentation in Vienna, in February 2008, Heinonen projects an organizational chart onto the wall that depicts the structure of the Iranian nuclear program. The name at the center of the chart is that of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a key figure behind Tehran's nuclear ambitions. He is apparently the Robert Oppenheimer of the Iranian nuclear program.
Like Oppenheimer, who, beginning in 1942, secretly worked as the scientific director of the Manhattan Project at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Fakhrizadeh also keeps an extremely low profile, determined to prevent leaks of information about the military portion of Iran's nuclear research effort. His physics research center is located in northeastern Tehran, where visitors are turned away and told to write to a post-office box address. The center's logo resembles Saturn.
For a long time, the world takes no notice of the scientist, who was born in 1961, joined the Revolutionary Guard as a young man and later took a job at the Defense Ministry. Fakhrizadeh has two children and, to this day, occasionally gives lectures at Tehran's Imam Hossein University. He is as much a brilliant physicist as a phantom, and he has always taken pains to ensure that no photos of him exist. Fakhrizadeh renames his organization several times after the Natanz enrichment facility is discovered. Today it is called FEDAT (Field of Expansion and Deployment of Advanced Technologies). About 600 people are believed to be working for him.
According to an intelligence dossier that has been circulating between Washington, Vienna and Tel Aviv for a few months, 12 departments report to Fakhrizadeh. A report from the "chairman," which bears Fakhrizadeh's signature and is dated Dec. 29, 2005, is addressed to these departments. The report is titled: "The Outlook for Neutron-Related Activities in the Coming Four Years."
A neutron generator is a key element on the path to a nuclear explosion. The device, which shoots deuterium at tritium, is placed into the center of a hollow sphere of enriched uranium, where its purpose is to trigger the desired chain reaction. This may be the way the Pakistanis detonated their bomb, and apparently Iran is pursuing the same approach. Fakhrizadeh's memorandum is a sort of master plan, which describes the planned cooperation between FEDAT and the Shahid Beheshti University and holds out the possibility of additional permanent posts for academics. "Our capacities are adequate at the moment," Fakhrizadeh writes, "but of course they are not perfect."
The IAEA is also familiar with the strategy document. The nuclear inspectors have asked the Iranian government several times for permission to meet with Fakhrizadeh, but to no avail. The Iranian officials argue that the scientist works exclusive in the conventional defense industry. The UN placed his name on a blacklist in 2007, and the European Union characterizes Fakhrizadeh as a "high-ranking scientist in the Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics."
One of the Greatest Misunderstandings in the History of US Intelligence
US expert David Albright also believes that Fakhrizadeh is a "very dangerous man." Albright, a former weapons inspector in Iraq, is a respected expert who carefully monitors every development in nuclear research. In his Washington office, he tells SPIEGEL: "If Fakhrizadeh manages to complete the warhead, he will also manage to convince the political leadership to build a nuclear weapon. He is the advocate of the bomb in Tehran."
Fakhrizadeh is also the subject of a meeting with US President Bush in the White House Situation Room in 2007. At the briefing, Director of Intelligence Mike McConnell presents the president and his advisors with the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), a 140-page study by the nation's intelligence agencies. The key sentence reads: "We judge with high confidence that in Fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program."
It is a sentence that gives one pause, and it represents one of the biggest misunderstandings in the history of the US intelligence community. As former CIA Director Robert Gates would later say, he had never seen "an NIE that had such an impact on US diplomacy." The sentence has the effect of defusing the detonator of a ticking time bomb, delegitimizing the hawkish rhetoric of the neo-conservatives. When Bush reads the NIE conclusion, it must be clear to him that Iran cannot follow Iraq, and that an imminent invasion of the Persian Gulf nation is not an option.
Why this abrupt reversal of policy?
- 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