Photo Gallery: Iran's Nuclear Ambitions

Foto: ASSOCIATED PRESS/ Ruzbeh Jadidoleslam

The Birth of a Bomb A History of Iran's Nuclear Ambitions

In the dispute over Tehran's nuclear program, the UN Security Council has imposed new sanctions. Is Iran truly building a nuclear bomb as Western countries claim? Or are countries playing up the dangers to bring Iran to its knees? SPIEGEL traces the history of Tehran's nuclear program -- with stops in Washington, Vienna and Isfahan.
Von Erich Follath und Holger Stark

Editor's note: The following article from this week's issue of SPIEGEL has been published online in two parts. You can read the complete story here. If you read the first part on Thursday, click here to proceed directly to Part II .

It is yet another of those secret meetings at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The deputy director general of the agency, who works on behalf of the United Nations to prevent nuclear bombs from getting into the wrong hands, has invited 35 diplomats to a meeting on the fifth floor of the UN building in Vienna. Some take pictures with their mobile phones of the ice floes on the Danube River drifting by below. Everyone is prepared for a routine meeting. But everything will be different this time. With the help of high-tech espionage, history is written on this February day in 2008. And perhaps it will later be said that it was the day Iran finally lost its innocence, and the day the Israelis were provided with arguments for a war.

Olli Heinonen confronts the diplomats with new information about Tehran's nuclear program. The Finnish nuclear scientist, the IAEA's deputy director general and head of the Department of Safeguards, has been to Natanz and Isfahan several times himself, and his inspectors, or "watchdogs," report back to him regularly. In addition, cameras monitor nuclear activities in many of the Iranian facilities. As useful as all of this is, it doesn't replace supplementary, secret information.

Heinonen knows that there are many things happening in Iran that he doesn't know about. Nevertheless, he has received critical information through indirect sources, including recordings made by a leading Iranian nuclear scientist.

A Treasure Trove of Facts

Always wary of attempts to manipulate him, Heinonen has spent a lot of time comparing the exclusive information with his own records and checking it against other reports. His research has led him to conclude that he has been given a treasure trove of facts, images and names -- all of it "with a 90-percent likelihood of being authentic."

The room is dark as the projector hums in the background. For the next two hours, Heinonen projects images, diagrams and copies of manuscripts onto the wall. The story they tell is diametrically opposed to the official Tehran version, which holds that Iran is using fissile material for peaceful purposes only and that there is no military nuclear program. "Project 5" describes Iran's uranium mining program and how it processes the material into uranium hexafluoride, an intermediate product in the process of producing nuclear fuel. "Project 110" depicts the testing of highly explosive nuclear materials. "Project 111" illustrates attempts to build a warhead for Iran's Shahab-3 missile. The IAEA experts have translated a literary motif on the first page of the document that reads: "Fate does not change people as long as people do not change fate."

Heinonen says that all of this information raises urgent questions, particularly about a man named Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the secret head of the program, whose name is mentioned repeatedly in the documents. Although Heinonen doesn't say that his information constitutes evidence of a nuclear bomb program, no one has ever come this close to offering a "smoking gun" for an Iranian military nuclear program. The presentation, by a Scandinavian known for his levelheadedness, offers a convincing body of evidence -- and makes a very strong impression on the assembled experts.

The Iranian ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, jumps up excitedly and promptly claims the information Heinonen has just presented is nothing but "fabrications," a claim he will later be forced to partially retract. The Americans, the French and others are busy taking notes and trying to take pictures of the slides with their mobile phones, as one of the attendees recalls.

'Chariots of Fire'

Heinonen has kept the best for the end: a three-minute film from Tehran that was probably intended for the country's senior political leaders and is as professionally produced as a trailer for a Hollywood movie. It shows the computer-supported simulation of an explosion of a missile warhead. As the IAEA deputy director general soberly points out, the simulated explosion, at an altitude of 600 meters (1,970 feet), would make no sense for the use of conventional, chemical or biological weapons.

The clip uses the powerful theme music from the film "Chariots of Fire," by Vangelis, which won an Oscar in 1982, together with the film of the same name. But there is also another context to the phrase "chariots of fire," and it can be assumed that the highly educated Iranian scientists knew what it was. The 19th-century British writer William Blake popularized the unusual phrase, with its biblical origins, in a short poem from the preface to his epic "Milton: A Poem," best known today as the hymn "Jerusalem." The lyrics read: "Bring me my bow of burning gold / Bring me my arrows of desire / Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold! / Bring me my chariot of fire!" Were the Iranians using the phrase "chariots of fire" as a poetic euphemism for the atom bomb?

Pinpricks with Little Impact on Berlin

In 2010, nothing has been higher on the agenda of international diplomacy than the prospect of a secret Iranian nuclear program and the fear that Tehran's leaders could obtain nuclear weapons to threaten their sworn enemy Israel and American troops in the Persian Gulf. And nothing underscored the dramatic impact of the events as effectively as the secret IAEA meeting in 2008.

The Iranian regime's refusal to abandon its uranium enrichment program, or at least suspend it once again, prompted the UN Security Council to tighten its sanctions for a third time last Wednesday. The new sanctions will isolate Iranian companies even further, hamper weapons imports, limit the Revolutionary Guard's room for maneuver and facilitate inspections of Iranian ships. US President Barack Obama called them the "toughest sanctions ever faced by Iran," while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fumed that the UN resolution was nothing but "worthless paper." In truth, the new rules are merely pinpricks with little impact on Tehran, partly because Russia and, most of all, China opposed restrictions to the oil trade.

The global public is divided. Brazil and Turkey voted against the UN draft resolution, as watered-down as it already was. No one wants an Iranian bomb. The deliberately false, or at least exaggerated, reports by Western intelligence agencies on Iraqi "weapons of mass destruction," which were even used as justification for going to war, are still a source of indignation today. The CIA, Germany's foreign intelligence service, the BND, and Britain's MI6 have had a credibility problem ever since, particularly when sounding the alarm on the subject of the ultimate weapon. And hanging over everything like a sword of Damocles is the threat by Israeli politicians to launch a military strike to stop Holocaust-denier Ahmadinejad, who said recently that the Israeli attack on a flotilla bound for Gaza sounded "the death knell of the Zionist regime."

Iran and the bomb: A tale of errors and entanglements, complete with deceptive maneuvers on all sides. It is a powerful drama being presented on a stage that extends to every corner of the world, with a cast of royalist politicians and religious warriors, pseudo-democrats and scheming generals, corruptible Russian scientists and seemingly upright Swiss business people. The settings are places like Vienna and Washington, Tehran and Tel Aviv, Pyongyang and Berlin.

Act 1: Why the Shah Is Pursued Weapons -- and the Ayatollahs Are Following Suit

There are few places in the world where one feels pride in humanity. Persepolis, in the south of present-day Iran, is one of them.

Darius the Great built his capital here in the 6th century B.C., and the ruins of that city, still impressive today, bear witness to a superior civilization. And even though the Macedonians, the Arabs and the Mongols conquered the country, and it later came to be dominated by British oil companies and American generals, no one has ever deprived the Persians of the proud sense, bordering on arrogance, of being part of a superior culture, and of the conviction that they are the natural dominant power in a region of "backward" Arabs.

The Shah only manages to preserve his power through a CIA-backed coup against Mohammed Mossadegh, the democratically elected prime minister and member of the National Front Party. He imposes a radical shift toward Western modernity on his people. With his "White Revolution," he seeks to bring progress to the country by force and buys state-of-the-art weapons in the West to beef up his military arsenal. In 1957, the Shah signs a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States, and a decade later the first research reactor is built in Tehran. But Iran's ruler has even greater ambitions. In 1976, US President Gerald Ford signs a directive under which he not only pledges to provide Iran with several nuclear power plants, but also a reprocessing plant to recover nuclear fuel.

A 'Suspicious Western Innovation'

But the Shah is never able to realize his dream of acquiring nuclear weapons, and not even the nuclear power plant in Bushehr, a project under German leadership, is completed. In 1979, the Shah is driven out of office in the Islamic Revolution, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini triumphantly assumes power in Iran. The purity of Shiite faith is at the center of his theocracy, while the purity of uranium is seen as irrelevant. Khomeini dismisses the nuclear program as a "suspicious Western innovation" that has no business in his Islamic Republic. Besides, weapons of mass destruction are haram, or forbidden, according to the teachings of Allah.

Khomeini's position is astonishing. By this time, Israel is already a nuclear power, after having built a secret nuclear reactor in the Negev Desert and functioning nuclear weapons. In 1969, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir presumably confessed to US President Richard Nixon about the existence of the bombs. In the fall of 1980, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein feels emboldened by the US government to attack his Iranian neighbors. The war will rage for eight years, claiming half a million lives. Bushehr is one of the bombing targets, and Iran's nuclear reactor there, still unfinished, is largely destroyed.

In a dramatic letter to the revolutionary leader, Mohsen Rezai, the commander of the Revolutionary Guard (and a critic of Ahmadinejad today), requests his permission for the development of nuclear weapons. He argues that this is the only way Iran can defend itself and deter its enemies. Prime Minister Hossein Mousavi (the leader of the popular resistance movement today) writes a personal appeal to support Rezai's argument in favor of the bomb.

In July 1988, Khomeini, with a heavy heart, agrees to a ceasefire with the Iraqis. The move, he says, is "more bitter than poison." At this point, he apparently begins to rethink his position on nuclear weapons. When faced with an existential threat, the Shiite can avail himself of the takiya, or sanctioned lying to serve the greater good. If Khomeini reinterprets this principle, he can preserve his own principles, and at the same time tell his people that they can move forward with their efforts to build the atom bomb.

In 1988, Iran conducts its first serious negotiations with neighboring Pakistan. In the 1970s, Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had said: "Even if we have to eat grass, we will make nuclear bombs." And indeed, Pakistan developed into a nuclear power. But its Sunni government is deeply distrustful of the Shiites and tells its politicians to stall the Iranian negotiators.

But the men in Tehran have a Plan B: direct negotiations with the "father of Pakistan's atomic bomb," Abdul Qadeer Khan. Khan is more than willing to pass on his knowledge to his fellow Muslims in Iran, provided such a deal translates into sufficient compensation for him. Khan sees no contradiction in being both a wannabe jihadist and an aspiring millionaire.

How the World's Nuclear Dealer Got His Start

Act 2: How Mr. Khan Learned to Love the Bomb

Even as a child, Abdul Qadeer Khan has always hated the feeling of being humiliated by a superior adversary. After the bloody partition of British India in 1947, his father, a Muslim teacher, decided to leave the Indian city of Bhopal and move to Pakistan ("The Land of the Pure"). Khan, who is 16 at the time, watches Hindu soldiers robbing women. A border guard steals a ballpoint pen from him, a gift from his brother that had meant a lot to Khan. The underdog swears that he will avenge himself one day and dreams of exacting revenge from a position of strength.

After attending school in Karachi, the highly gifted Khan earns his doctorate in metallurgy in the Belgian city of Leuven. He takes a job with a supplier to the centrifuge builder URENCO, where, thanks to the company's incomprehensible recklessness, he gains access to the nuclear hearth that is every bomb-maker's dream. No one objects when the Pakistani takes the top-secret documents home, where he can calmly make copies of the technology developed by German engineers.

The scientist knows what he has in his hands: the breakthrough for a nuclear weapons program. The biggest obstacle to making a nuclear bomb is acquiring the necessary fissile material. The more discreet of two possible approaches leads through uranium enrichment and centrifuges. This in turn requires uranium ore, which is relatively accessible on the global market and is also mined in Iran. Further enrichment into weapons-grade material can be done in facilities that are relatively easy to hide. Uranium enrichment is a high-tech version of panning for gold: Hundreds of precisely manufactured centrifuges must operate at high speeds and with great precision to obtain the material for a bomb.

A First Meeting with the Iranians

The pleasant Mr. Khan disappears in January 1976. In 1983, a court in Amsterdam convicts the Pakistani of industrial espionage and sentences him in absentia to a four-year prison term. By 1985, Pakistan is successfully enriching uranium, and the nuclear research institute at Kahuta, 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of the capital Islamabad, is named Khan Research Laboratories, in honor of its director.

Khan meets with the Iranians for the first time in Dubai. Detailed construction plans are handed over at a meeting in 1987 with Masoud Naraghi, the head of the Iranian nuclear energy commission. Tehran also gets two centrifuges that Khan has managed to divert in Kahuta.

It is the beginning of a glorious friendship of brothers in arms for Iran and of a lucrative career as an arms dealer for Khan. Pakistan's top scientist makes at least a dozen trips to North Korea, Dubai and North Africa, literally peddling his nuclear weapons components. The bomb expert is invited to Tehran a number of times and is even given a villa on the Caspian Sea. According to a defector, Khan rarely leaves the country without a suitcase full of cash.

Iran's clandestine nuclear program picks up the pace in 1991. It is the year in which the assembled American intelligence agencies give the all-clear signal in a report on Tehran, noting that, although the Iranian leadership is interested in an atomic weapon, the program is "too disorganized to be taken seriously."

A year later, then CIA Director (and current Defense Secretary) Robert Gates qualifies the results of that report. He now has new information from Naraghi, the Iranian nuclear chief, who has since lost his job and applied for asylum in the United States. He also exposes his contact: Khan. But the Americans do not assign any importance to the Pakistan connection, nor do they warn the IAEA inspectors. Valuable years are lost, years in which Iran begins serious development of its centrifuges.

Camouflage and Deception

In the mid-1990s, the Iranians start building secret facilities to house the centrifuges, marking the beginning of a game of camouflage and deception that has continued to this day, and with which the country is forfeiting the right to uranium enrichment, to which it is formally entitled. The Kalaye Electric watch factory in a Tehran suburb is converted into a facility to house a centrifuge, and a new, secret nuclear complex is built near Natanz, 250 kilometers south of the capital.

After the devastating Iraq War, a heavy weight has descended on the country. It is becoming increasingly evident that the mullahs have no effective solutions, neither for the economy nor to address social issues. The West, for its part, doesn't know what to think of a regime that is sending out cautious gestures of goodwill, while at the same time dispatching death squads against members of the opposition living abroad.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Pakistan, Khan is celebrating the biggest triumph of his life. On May 28, 1998, Pakistan conducts several successful nuclear tests. Khan becomes a national hero, helped in large part by a Swiss family of engineers. Khan became aware of Friedrich Tinner when he obtained Urenco's list of suppliers in the Netherlands, and the Pakistani soon became friendly with Tinner's son Marco. Khan calls the Tinners, who become part of his network, "a wonderful, honest family." The younger son Urs, who drops out of high school at 16 and is soon deeply in debt, is the black sheep of the family, making him an ideal target for the CIA.

The American intelligence agency has since become more vigilant and has identified the Pakistani nuclear jihadist as a threat to world peace. But the extent of his deals remains unclear. Langley decides to infiltrate the organization with a middleman. The CIA agent with the codename "Mad Dog" discovers that Urs Tinner has moved to Dubai and is now working for friends of Khan.

It is now the year 2000, and there is a mole in the Khan network, someone with very close connections. Urs Tinner enjoys the trust of his boss and, in the Dubai office where he works, is permitted to scan secret nuclear construction plans intended for illegal sale to third parties. In mid-2000, the Americans' efforts pay off when they discover that Iran and Libya have awarded new nuclear contracts to Khan. But Washington still believes in a hand's off policy at this point, and soon Sept. 11 creates new priorities, in which Pakistan's cooperation is needed. The UN Security Council gives its blessing to the American retaliatory strike against al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden's terrorist camp in Afghanistan, and Islamabad officially sides with Washington.

The CIA believes that it has everything under control as far as Khan is concerned, but he proves to be anything but an easily controlled marionette. And there is another player in the Iranian nuclear program that hasn't even appeared on the Americans' radar screen, someone whose role remains mysterious to this day. The trail leads to Russia.

'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.

Test Detonations

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."

'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?

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.

Israel Secretly Prepares for a Military Strike

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hardline government is secretly making preparations for a military strike. "It is 1938, and Iran is Germany," Netanyahu said a few years ago, thereby indirectly equating Ahmadinejad with the former German dictator Adolf Hitler -- and offers to negotiate with Tehran with the appeasement of the Nazis.

The Israeli military's fighter jets have attacked proven or presumed enemy nuclear facilities twice in the past. In June 1981, in "Operation Babylon," they bombed the Osirak reactor near Baghdad, and in September 2007, in "Operation Orchard," they destroyed a complex of buildings at al-Kibar on the Euphrates River in Syria.

But experts say that to destroying Iran's nuclear weapons program, or at least dealing it a decisive blow and setting it back by several years, will require a bombing campaign that would last several weeks and involve more than 1,000 air strikes against about a dozen targets. Even this would not be a guarantee that all key facilities had been struck and the nuclear components the Iranians have hidden in tunnels were eliminated.

Nevertheless, Israeli experts claim that a "military solution" is feasible, even without the help of Israel's extremely skeptical big brother, the United States. Several of Israel's Arab neighbors fear the Iranian bomb and the resulting power shift in the Middle East almost as much as they fear Israel. According to intelligence assessments, Saudi Arabia is even willing to provide the Israelis with flyover rights for an attack from the south.

The Costs of a Strike

The consequences of such a campaign could prove to be fatal. Iran's options include more than a conventional retaliatory missile strike. The Iranian leadership would likely organize a terrorist campaign in Iraq, and it would encourage two groups funded by Tehran -- Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip -- to launch strikes against Israel. This could lead to a potential conflagration in the Middle East, which could spread to the rest of the world, or at least the global economy.

Besides, almost all experts agree that a bombardment by Israeli fighter jets would encourage the Iranian people to close ranks the Tehran leadership, which is currently extremely unpopular, and weaken the "green" opposition movement. Is it possible that the Iranians are in fact provoking such a strike to achieve precisely this outcome? And would this lead to their withdrawing from the IAEA and moving full speed ahead with their bomb development plans, this time with the full support of the people?

On the quiet, politicians and defense experts have already begun discussing whether and how the world could come to terms with Iran as a nuclear power. Martin van Creveld, a military historian and Jerusalem professor who is the author of "Living with the Bomb," argues that a nuclear Iran would ultimately not be a greater threat to world peace than a nuclear Israel. But this is a minority opinion in the Jewish state, where opinion polls indicate that more than half of the population supports a preventive strike against Tehran if negotiations remain ineffective.

In Washington, the prospect of a world "After Iran Gets the Bomb" -- the title of a cover story in the influential magazine Foreign Affairs -- is now being discussed relatively openly. Experts propose political "containment" of Iran to limit the potential damage.

One thing is certain: Since US President Obama came into office, the Americans are on board when it comes to possible negotiations with Tehran, and they are no longer delegating everything to the Europeans. New York Times writer David Sanger, cites a US diplomat in his book "The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power," saying: "There are some things in life that don't work when you have other people do them for you. Among them are sex, drinking and negotiating with Iran."

A senior Israeli military official says that he's familiar with the quote, but that he would modify it slightly at the end: "... They include sex, drinking and bombing Iran."

Act 6: What the Persians Really Love -- and Who They Hate

Isfahan on the "Day of the Atom." The city is the pride of the nation, the jewel of Persia, Nesfe Jahan, "Half of the World." It is a city with religious tolerance and intercultural tradition. But on this day in April 2009, the city's facades are spoiled by signs like the one displayed on its downtown Imam Square, which reads "Death to the Zionists." Less than a kilometer away, on Palestine Square, of all places, the faithful gather in a synagogue for prayers. There are about 1,200 Jews living in Isfahan, and about 25,000 in all of Iran.

"We would forget all of our reservations about the theocracy and fight the intruders," says an old man with a face ravaged by time, looking as if he had just emerged from the Old Testament. He carefully straightens his skullcap as he walks into the synagogue. He is quick to add, however, that he doesn't want to be misunderstood, and that his words have nothing to do with any affection for that man Ahmadinejad.

Persia is a puzzle hidden inside a puzzle made of question marks.

If the Israeli Air Force or the US Air Force were to bomb Iran, it's a safe bet that the Iranian nuclear facility near Isfahan would be at the top of its list of targets. The complex, less than 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Isfahan, a city of 1.5 million people, is buried in a dramatic desert landscape. A launching pad for anti-aircraft missiles juts into the sky on one of the hills surrounding the valley. Behind the pad, a series of fences, armed guards and then more barbed wire protect the center of the top-secret facility and its uranium conversion plant, which was dedicated by President Ahmadinejad, an event at which SPIEGEL journalists were, uncharacteristically, permitted to accompany the Iranian leader -- into the inner sanctum of Iran's nuclear program.

Here, too, the contradictions are surprising. It goes without saying that first-rate nuclear physicists work at the Isfahan complex. But immediately prior to the presidential visit, a technician is seen cursing as he searches for a wrench while repairing the roof of the high-tech plant.

The president's visit is a solemn one, as if he were attending a religious ceremony. Afterwards, he returns to the city in his convoy. Curious young people crowd into the square where Ahmadinejad is speaking, and when they get bored, they disappear into the bazaar to shop around for the true objects of their desire: Nikes instead of nukes.

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