New York Times: The Obama administration and its European allies are pressing the International Atomic Energy Agency to make public evidence that they believe points toward an Iranian drive to gain the ability to build a nuclear weapon, part of a broad effort to build a case for far more punishing sanctions against the country.
The New York Times
By DAVID E. SANGER and WILLIAM J. BROAD
The Obama administration and its European allies are pressing the International Atomic Energy Agency to make public evidence that they believe points toward an Iranian drive to gain the ability to build a nuclear weapon, part of a broad effort to build a case for far more punishing sanctions against the country.
The request has touched off an internal debate in the agency over how directly to confront Iran over its continued refusal, over several years, to answer questions about documents and computer files suggesting military-led efforts to design a nuclear weapon. Iran has charged that the documents, many of which came from American, Israeli and European intelligence services, are fabrications. The agency, according to current and former officials there, has studied them with care and determined that they are probably genuine.
“What we and all the allies are pressing for is for the full case to be laid out, in public,” one senior Obama administration official said last week, speaking anonymously because he was discussing intelligence data.
The administration’s push for an open discussion of Iran’s suspected weapons program, and for tougher sanctions, reflects growing pessimism about efforts to engage with the country’s leaders. Administration officials said that while they had received some communications from the Iranian leadership before the presidential election in June, there had been no communications of substance since.
But agency officials say that Mohamed ElBaradei, the departing director general, resisted a public airing, fearing that such a presentation would make the agency appear biased toward the West in the effort to impose what Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently called “crippling” sanctions. Dr. ElBaradei, who has argued for allowing Iran to maintain a token capacity to produce uranium under strict inspection, has said that the evidence does not create an airtight case against Iran.
The Obama administration’s effort to make the case public contrasts with the approach of President George W. Bush. After the intelligence debacle surrounding Iraq, Bush administration officials said they lacked the credibility to make public the evidence about Iran’s nuclear efforts. Mr. Bush admitted as much in 2005, saying that the case would have to be made quietly.
Moreover, American intelligence agencies had balked at publishing some of their most sensitive discoveries, including data stripped from a laptop computer slipped out of the country by an Iranian nuclear engineer.
Some of that information was described to member countries of the I.A.E.A. by the agency’s chief inspector during a closed meeting in February 2008. The official, Olli Heinonen, laid out an array of documents, sketches and video that he said were “not consistent with any application other than the development of a nuclear weapon.” News of that presentation quickly leaked, and the details were denounced by Iranian officials as fabrications.
But before and since Mr. Heinonen’s briefing, Iran has refused to allow the agency to talk with Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the scientist believed to lead two secret efforts inside the Iranian government called Project 110 and Project 111. The evidence collected by the agency suggests that each centers on elements of designing and delivering a nuclear weapon, though the United States said in a National Intelligence Estimate published nearly two years ago that it believed those projects were halted, at least temporarily, in late 2003.
A European diplomat familiar with the agency’s internal deliberations said that the United States, Britain, France and Germany were pressing the agency to reveal the strongest information it had gathered.
“There’s multilateral activity under way to ramp up pressure on Iran,” the official said. “It’s not just Israel.”
The agency’s next report on Iran is expected to be released as soon as Thursday or Friday. A senior European official said it contained “no bombshells,” but it was unclear how much analysis of previous information on bomb design and conversations among Iran’s nuclear engineers it might reveal. Much of that information came from the laptop, from a penetration of Iran’s computer networks and from the agency’s own findings, American and European officials said.
One nuclear official familiar with the preparation of the report said that a high-level dispute had broken out in the atomic agency over whether the report should include a toughly worded analysis of Iran’s activities, in hopes of forcing a response from Iran. But Dr. ElBaradei has remained cautious, they said, and it was unlikely that much of the material would be included in the report.
Assessing the progress that Iran has made in the nuclear arena over the past year is difficult, and it has been made more complex by the upheaval that followed the election there.
Next Wednesday, American and European officials are scheduled to meet to discuss their next steps on Iran, and President Obama has said he will use the opening of the United Nations General Assembly later in the month, and perhaps an economic summit meeting in Pittsburgh, to press for far tougher sanctions. Among the penalties under consideration is a cutoff of refined gasoline to Iran, but a senior administration official said last week that such a step “will be a hard sell for China and Russia,” which have extensive economic ties to Iran.
When the inspectors last reported on their periodic visits to Iran’s main nuclear site, at Natanz, they said roughly 7,000 centrifuges had been installed to produce uranium. All of it was low-enriched uranium, which is not suitable for weapons. Iran insists that the fuel is for eventual use in nuclear power plants.
Iran has barred the inspectors from other sites, including some suspected of being part of a nuclear weapons program. It was during such an inspection five years ago that I.A.E.A. inspectors discovered enrichment activities that had been hidden for 18 years.
But last week the agency’s inspectors were allowed to visit the nearly finished Arak heavy water reactor after being barred from the site for nearly a year. That facility has been of intense interest to the inspectors because its technology could aid nuclear weapons development.
Obama administration officials said they suspected that the visit was part of an effort to show cooperation just before the I.A.E.A.’s report. But they said that since Iran’s election, they had not received an Iranian response to Mr. Obama’s invitation to open discussions on nuclear issues.