The Birth of a Bomb A History of Iran's Nuclear Ambitions
Part 6: Growing Suspicions of a Weapon Program
During one of their operations, two American intelligence agencies, the NSA and the CIA, obtained internal Iranian documents that related to the policy shift ordered by the Iranian government after the Natanz discovery. The documents suggested that there was one thing Tehran wanted above all else: that its clandestine weapons program not be discovered by the international community. The documents include angry complaints by Fakhrizadeh and his fellow scientists, who had lost power, influence and funds in 2003.
Rumors making the rounds in Washington suggest that the CIA, heavily damaged by the Iraq disaster, was trying to prevent another war, but the authors soon offer a different take on their report. Upon closer examination, the NIE conclusion is not as clear-cut as it appears at first glance. For example, it also states: "We also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons." And the assessment does not even reflect the uranium enrichment activities in Natanz, which Tehran insists are for civilian use. The key sentence only relates to the invisible, secret military portion.
Iran Has Developed Its Own Chain of Production Facilities
In an irony of world history, the Iranian government almost simultaneously announces that an important milestone has been reached in Natanz: The facility has begun enriching uranium in February 2007. The newly inaugurated US President Barack Obama is soon confronted with another revelation: the plant in Qom.
At an underground site near the holy city, another uranium enrichment facility is being built deep inside a mountain. The site is the most recent secret to be unveiled in an Iranian nuclear program with its fair share of surprises. Meanwhile, the government in Tehran has admitted to the existence of the facility and the IAEA inspectors have already visited the site. The inspections are a reminder of the earlier situation in Natanz, signaling the start of a new round in Iran's game with the international community.
Some 3,000 centrifuges are to be installed in Qom, a number that arouses the experts' suspicions. The plant is too small for the civilian use of uranium enrichment claimed by Iran, but it is large enough for military use. Under normal operating conditions, 3,000 centrifuges would yield enough material to produce one bomb a year. By now, Iran has developed its own chain of production facilities. It has the uranium ore as the raw material, which it produces in the Gachin mine. It has the conversion plant in Isfahan and the enrichment facilities in Natanz and, before long, Qom. What remains is the complicated mode of ignition, the equally complicated integration into the Shahab-3 carrier missile, and the question of whether the plants are operating as planned.
In theory, Iran can produce more than 15 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium a year in Natanz. "That's enough to produce a nuclear bomb in two years," says US expert David Albright. According to the IAEA, the regime already has 2,427 kilograms of low-enriched uranium today. If the 1,950 kilograms that were transferred to the pilot plant were fed into the centrifuges, the Iranians would have 200 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium. The IAEA believes that if the country reaches that point, it will take only a few months before it has enough high-enriched uranium to produce a bomb.
"Iran made many mistakes," says Albright. "They installed the centrifuges too quickly, at the cost of the ability to operate them properly." Of the 8,610 centrifuges installed by the end of January, only 3,700 were in operation at that point. The devices are constantly cracking. Albright says the Iranians are going through a "painful learning curve." It is also possible that the Americans have managed, through sabotage, to render some of the centrifuges unusable. There are many indications that the Iranian physicists face problems that could take years to solve. But it is also clear that it will be extremely difficult to put a stop to their efforts. For anyone who pieces together the entire Persian puzzle, there is no doubt that Iran is playing with the option of getting the bomb, and that it is seeking to acquire know-how and the necessary resources -- for whatever purpose.
Act 5: What the World Should Expect
On the surface, little has changed in the Department of Safeguards at the IAEA in Vienna, which is headed by Olli Heinonen. There has been one change, however, and that is that Japan's Yukiya Amano, 63, has replaced ElBaradei at the top post, and has extended Heinonen's contract without hesitation.
The office of the IAEA deputy director general on the 10th floor of the Vienna International Center is still meticulously neat. An enormous safe at the back of the room contains his secrets. A Persian rug from Isfahan lies on the floor in front of Heinonen's desk, which, as he points out, he paid for himself. There is also an ugly clock on the wall, "from the Kalaye factory," he says, the front company where the Iranians officially manufactured commercial chronometers, but which they then converted into a secret nuclear research facility. Does Heinonen believe anything the Iranians say anymore? Isn't it time for him to openly admit that Tehran is trying to build a bomb?
Heinonen says that his job is to ask questions on behalf of the international community, to point out contradictions and to publicize violations of international agreements. He admits that his suspicions have grown over the years. Nevertheless, he says, he still lacks the final, 100-percent piece of evidence of a Tehran nuclear weapons program. He is also uncertain as to whether Iran will be satisfied with the status of a virtual nuclear power or will in fact flick the switch in the direction of a real bomb.
Sometimes Heinonen thinks about where all of his adversaries are today. The Swiss national Urs Tinner, 44, who was more or less abandoned by the CIA and spent agood four years in Swiss investigative custody, is now a free man.
Vyacheslav D., the Russian nanotechnology expert, worked as a professor in Ukraine for a while and now lives in the Moscow area. His days as a scientist, however, seem to be over.
'Iran's Nuclear Capability Will Neutralize Israel's Power'
Khan, who is now 74 and supposedly has cancer, has been saying some astonishing things. Most recently, in the summer of 2009, he said: "Iran was interested in acquiring nuclear technology. Since Iran was an important Muslim country, we wished Iran to acquire this technology. Western countries pressured us unfairly. If Iran succeeds in acquiring nuclear technology, we will be a strong bloc in the region to counter international pressure. Iran's nuclear capability will neutralize Israel's power."
The first IAEA report under Amano is couched in far less diplomatic terms than most issued in ElBaradei's day. In its Feb. 18, 2010 report, the agency states that it has "broadly consistent and credible" information about Iranian nuclear weapons. "Altogether, this raises concerns about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile." The IAEA unequivocally calls upon Iran to address outstanding questions.
- 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