Iran Nuclear NewsMeeting on arms data reignites Iran nuclear debate

Meeting on arms data reignites Iran nuclear debate


New York Times: Last Monday, the chief United Nations nuclear inspector gathered ambassadors and experts from dozens of nations in a boardroom high above the Danube in Vienna and laid out a trove of evidence that he said raised new questions about whether Iran had tried to design an atom bomb. The New York Times

Published: March 3, 2008

Last Monday, the chief United Nations nuclear inspector gathered ambassadors and experts from dozens of nations in a boardroom high above the Danube in Vienna and laid out a trove of evidence that he said raised new questions about whether Iran had tried to design an atom bomb.

For more than two hours, representatives to the International Atomic Energy Agency were riveted by documents, sketches and even a video that appeared to have come from Iran’s own military laboratories. The inspector said they showed work “not consistent with any application other than the development of a nuclear weapon,” according to notes taken by diplomats.

The presentation caught no one’s attention more than the Iranian representatives in the room, who deny Iran is developing atomic weapons. As they whipped out cellphone cameras to photograph the screen, Iran’s ambassador, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, nearly shouting, called the evidence baseless fabrications, the diplomats said, and warned that the agency was going down “a very dangerous road.”

Suddenly, the confrontation with Iran had reignited.

The display of new and newly declassified information is part of the latest effort to pressure Iran to disclose information about its past atomic activities and offer proof that its current program is benign. France’s ambassador, François-Xavier Deniau, said questions raised by the Vienna meeting had opened a “new chapter” in the West’s effort to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear arms, according to participants.

This confrontation is different from the long-running American-led campaign. Gone are the veiled threats of military action from the White House. The wind largely went out of that effort in December, when American intelligence officials surprised Western allies — and angered Bush administration hawks — with a report saying Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Last Monday’s presentation in Vienna did not contradict that conclusion, but disclosed many new details suggesting the depth of Iran’s past work on weapons design.

The new effort to pressure Iran has been led by Europeans and the international atomic agency. The United Nations Security Council is scheduled to vote Monday on a resolution on Iran, the third that would impose economic sanctions for its continued refusal to stop enriching uranium for nuclear fuel.

The United States has been relegated to more of a behind-the-scenes role, largely because the December intelligence report left it with little leverage to continue confronting the Iranians. That assessment revealed a contentious debate within the government over how imminent a threat Iran posed — a division that raged in secret while the report was being prepared, and continues to this day. “The administration is in real disarray,” said David A. Kay, the nuclear specialist who led the fruitless search for unconventional weapons in Iraq after the invasion. “And the Europeans are picking up the ball.”

The wrangling in Washington spilled into the open when a declassified summary of the report, known as a National Intelligence Estimate, was made public. The White House argued that Iran remained a serious nuclear threat even if it was not working on a weapons design. has been defended by intelligence professionals as an independent judgment, and by Democrats who greeted its conclusion as a bar to military action.

But several allies said the report’s conclusion was too sweeping, and President Bush has made clear that he shares that view. Thomas Fingar, the deputy director of national intelligence for analysis who runs the National Intelligence Council, which produced the estimate, said “the vast majority of concerns” he had heard from abroad were, “ ‘Why would you say something that complicates our policy making?’ instead of ‘You have misinterpreted the evidence.’ ” At issue is how to judge whether a nuclear program is intended for military purposes.

For years, Washington had based its assessment that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons largely on its steady work to enrich uranium, which could be used for bombs but which Iran says it wants to fuel power reactors. Forcing Iran to give up enrichment became the goal.

The December estimate, by contrast, focused on weapons design. Based on fresh intelligence that Iran’s bomb design program was suspended in 2003, it said Iran was not pursuing nuclear weapons, even though uranium enrichment continued.

Perhaps no one exemplifies the debate more than Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, who has backpedaled from the conclusions of the intelligence estimate — even though he supervised it.

The report said intelligence analysts did not know enough to say whether Iran “currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.” But on Feb. 26, Mr. McConnell told a radio interviewer, “Our estimate is they intend to have a nuclear weapon.”

Mr. McConnell declined to comment for this article.

In interviews, officials acknowledged that one element of the friction over Iran is the shadow of Iraq. Intelligence agencies, having been roundly criticized as having overestimated the threat of Iraq and justifying the invasion, came to a conclusion on Iran that undercut the administration’s political position.

Mr. Bush and Mr. McConnell have both acknowledged that the December estimate damaged the effort to isolate Iran. Recently, the administration has taken steps to counter that effect.

It decided to let the atomic energy agency confront Iran with what it says is the best evidence of Iranian weapons work, some of which was revealed last Monday in Vienna. The United States had previously shown some of that evidence to selected countries, but it had declined to declassify all of the material, which was contained on a laptop apparently slipped out of Iran by a technician with access to the nuclear program. While American and energy agency officials say the documents appear real, they cannot definitively authenticate them or tie them to Iran.

At the meeting in Vienna, Olli Heinonen, who runs the atomic agency’s inspection teams, said his presentation drew on materials from “several member states” as well as the agency’s own information, according to diplomats at the meeting. But getting answers to the questions raised has been difficult, Mr. Heinonen said, largely because the Iranians have barred his team from many suspected nuclear facilities and from interviewing Mohsen Fakrizadeh, whom he described as the military official in charge of Iran’s nuclear effort.

Intelligence Scramble

The Bush administration’s strident confrontation with Iran reached a high point last October when the president suggested that if Iran obtained nuclear weapons, it could lead to “World War III.”

But at that moment, the nation’s intelligence agencies were concluding that Iran had stopped its work on weapons design four years earlier, based on a new definition of what constituted a nuclear weapons program.

For decades, American spies assessed weapons programs mainly by a nation’s ability to make bomb fuel. That is because experts say that perfecting the process of enriching uranium or making plutonium is far more difficult than designing warheads or building missiles to deliver the weapons. With Iran, they looked at progress in making centrifuges, machines that spin faster than the speed of sound to enrich uranium ore.

In 2004, American intelligence agents obtained the laptop filled with simulations and accounts of experiments on nuclear arms. Officials saw it as strong evidence that Iran was designing warheads.

Still, a 2005 intelligence estimate focused on Iran’s development of “fissile material,” whose atoms can split or fission in bursts of atomic energy. “Iran could produce enough fissile material for a weapon by the end of this decade,” it warned.

As they drafted the new report last June, intelligence officials again argued that Iran’s slow but steady progress in making nuclear fuel was aimed at obtaining the bomb, according to interviews with senior intelligence officials.

Then, last fall, quite suddenly, the intelligence community switched emphasis. It played down its historic focus on bomb fuel after penetrating the heart of Iran’s weapons program, the officials said.

Federal officials said spies had obtained notes and journals showing that Iran’s warhead designers had complained bitterly about having to stop work in late 2003, apparently in response to international pressure.

The breakthrough rocked the intelligence world. Instead of viewing Iran’s veiled program through a purloined laptop or spy satellites, Washington had a narrow but direct conduit into the most tightly held of Iranian secrets. It was exactly what it lacked in prewar Iraq.

While getting favorable reviews, the new information also stirred disputes over whether it was strong enough to overturn the historic emphasis on nuclear fuel, federal officials said.

“There was lots of internal debate,” said an official involved in the assessment.

A senior intelligence official who helped oversee the estimate’s production said he viewed the new emphasis on warhead design as “a judgment call” and potentially “a big mistake.”

A Report’s Shock Waves

The rewritten intelligence estimate, made public on Dec. 3, began with a blunt assertion: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.”

That sent shock waves around the globe and instantly deflated the American-led effort to isolate Iran. The threat of an attack on its nuclear sites quickly lost force, as did the diplomatic effort to ratchet up sanctions.

Yet the estimate’s fine print said that bascially nothing had changed. Iran, it held, still could in theory make a bomb sometime between 2009 and 2015, the same general range as in previous Iran estimates.

Behind the radical change of tone — and the headlines — lay an inconspicuous footnote at the bottom of the first of the unclassified version’s three pages. “For the purposes of this Estimate,” it said, Iran’s nuclear weapons program is defined as including warhead design but excluding Iran’s “declared civil work” to enrich uranium.

Officials later said intelligence analysts had rarely if ever based a weapons estimate on such a narrow definition. So too, the footnote and estimate said nothing of Iran’s expanding effort to build long-range missiles.

Publicly, figures like Henry A. Kissinger and James R. Schlesinger railed at the narrow definition. Privately, so did some officials at the nation’s nuclear laboratories. They charged that the Energy Department in its consultations had deliberately excluded fuel experts and analysts suspicious of Iran.

“We have been marginalized in the intelligence community,” a senior official said in an interview. “It boggles the mind,” he added of the new focus on weapon design.

Some allies were equally befuddled. Israel complained directly to President Bush during his visit there in January, and then turned over a dossier to American intelligence officials disputing key elements of the report. After the report was issued, France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, said, “Notwithstanding the latest elements, everyone is fully conscious of the fact that there is a will among the Iranian leaders to obtain nuclear weapons.”

In interviews, intelligence officials vigorously denied that the estimate reflected any narrowing for political reasons.

Mr. Fingar, who heads the National Intelligence Council, said that politics played no role in the assessment and that he knew of no exclusion of dissenting viewpoints over what constituted a nuclear arms program.

“The definition and that footnote,” he said in January, were widely read and approved by the intelligence community. “If there was a concern,” he said, “it never came to me.”

Even so, the estimate’s top author, Mr. McConnell, has recently expressed his own concerns over the effect of the report.

Under intense questioning at a Senate hearing, he conceded Feb. 5 that the report erred in focusing so intently on warhead design, calling it “probably the least significant part” of Iran’s program. “In retrospect,” he said, “I would do some things differently.”

Some analysts say the legacy of Iraq may have encouraged the intelligence community to avoid saying anything that could later be seen as overestimating the Iran threat.

“Intel officers are human too,” said Paul R. Pillar, a top Middle East analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency from 2000 to 2005 and now a professor at Georgetown University. “What we might be seeing here is the price to be paid for the vilification of the community on the Iraq issue.”

The Diplomatic Push

The publication of the estimate gave China and Russia the chance to water down the next set of proposed sanctions against Iran. They argued that if American intelligence agencies doubted Iran’s rush for a bomb, how could harsh sanctions be justified? The chief American negotiator, R. Nicholas Burns, who left his job on Friday, countered that the sanctions were all about Iran’s refusal to stop enriching uranium, not about weapons. But that argument was a tough sell.

With the Iran debate losing steam, the Bush administration allowed the atomic energy agency to present to a wide array of diplomats some of the intelligence that the United States had obtained — including from the 2004 laptop. (While the data has been declassified, the Bush administration has refused requests to make it public.)

That is what allowed Mr. Heinonen to make at least part of his presentation last Monday. He knew the most compelling aspect was the video of the work for designing a nuclear warhead to fit atop the Shahab 3, Iran’s most advanced missile. European capitals are within its range, which helps explain the new enthusiasm by France and Germany to lead the charge against Iran.

Mr. Heinonen stopped short of accusing Iran of trying to produce a weapon, saying that had to be the subject of more analyses and inspections.

Gregory L. Schulte, the American ambassador to the atomic agency, said in an interview that the chief inspector “was very careful not to reach any conclusions, but he also very clearly said that the secretariat could not agree with Iran’s conclusions that these were baseless accusations.”

Diplomats said the Vienna presentation bolstered the Security Council’s resolve to impose a third round of sanctions. The Council is still failing in its 18-month effort to force Iran, through escalating sanctions, to stop enriching uranium.

As the Council considers additional ways to punish Iran’s nuclear leaders, European countries are planning to offer new incentives to Iran if it agrees to halt its uranium enrichment, diplomats said last week.

That could include proposals for joint ventures between European and Iranian oil companies, and talks with Iran on regional security issues. The United States is said to have no intention to join the new incentives.

“If the Europeans are going to pick up the ball on the threat, they feel they also have to propose a way out of the political impasse,” said Dr. Kay, the former weapons inspector. “They’re about as pessimistic as we are on whether the Iranians will respond. But they feel you have to take that chance.”

Elaine Sciolino, Warren Hoge and Helene Cooper contributed reporting.

Latest news

What Gas Poisonings In Iran Tell Us About The Ruling Regime

For months schools in Iran have been in the crosshairs of gas attacks against the country’s children. The mullahs’...

Iran’s Regime Inches Toward Nuclear Weapons

Iran’s regime is once again at the center of a dangerous escalation of the proliferation of nuclear weapons. A...

US Congress Expresses Support for Iranian People’s Quest for a Democratic, Secular Republic

Several bipartisan members of the U.S. House of Representatives have presented a resolution (H. RES. 100) supporting the Iranian...

Wave Of Poisoning Attacks Against Schools Leave Hundreds Sick

Iran has been shaken for three months by serial poisoning attacks against all-girls schools, which has left more than...

Iranian Security Forces Beat Baluch Doctor To Death

On Thursday, February 23, activists in Sistan and Baluchestan provinces reported the news of the death of Dr. Ebrahim...

World Powers Should Hear The Voice Of Iranians, Not Dictators And Their Remnants

Iran’s nationwide uprising continues despite its ups and down. The clerical system’s demise no longer seems a dream but...

Must read

Iraq wants second round of US-Iranian talks

AFP: Iraq is working to set up a second...

Authorities hang man in public in southeast Iran

Iran Focus: Tehran, Iran, Aug. 24 – Iranian authorities...

You might also likeRELATED
Recommended to you