Iran Nuclear NewsUnlocking Iran’s nuclear secrets

Unlocking Iran’s nuclear secrets

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ImageSunday Times: It sounds like a scene from a James Bond movie. Western intelligence agents scouring Iran for a secret nuclear site, big enough to make a bomb but small enough to hide, identified some suspicious tunnels in a mountain complex outside the holy city of Qom. The Sunday Times

Christina Lamb in Washington and Uzi Mahnaimi in Tel Aviv

ImageIt sounds like a scene from a James Bond movie. Western intelligence agents scouring Iran for a secret nuclear site, big enough to make a bomb but small enough to hide, identified some suspicious tunnels in a mountain complex outside the holy city of Qom.

The complex was on a military base controlled by Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard, making access highly dangerous. But through information from satellite imagery, Iranian dissidents and other human intelligence, a sufficiently detailed picture was built up to convince investigators that Iran was preparing to make nuclear fuel there.

When Barack Obama was elected US president late last year he was briefed about the covert site in a nuclear programme that would inevitably become one of the toughest issues facing him. Instead of confrontation, he proposed engagement, arguing that the previous policy of isolating Iran had got the West nowhere. But as he was offering his olive branch to Tehran, intelligence was coming in all the time from Qom.

By spring, when officials spotted movements of sensitive material into the underground complex, it seemed the work was nearing completion.

The Iranians were preparing to operate as many as 3,000 centrifuges, cylindrical devices that spin at high speed to enrich uranium. They were of a type called P1 because they come from Pakistan and could produce enough fuel each year for one small nuclear bomb.

Western intelligence officers declined to say whether the key intelligence had come from spies, signal intercepts, overhead surveillance or a combination. Leon Panetta, the CIA director, attributed the revelation to “inputs from multiple intelligence disciplines” as well as assistance from Britain and France, and the Israelis are said to have known about the plant for years.

By late spring, US officials realised the Iranians knew security had been breached. Obama ordered a detailed dossier that he could use in negotiations or, if need be, in enlisting the co-operation of other nations in sanctions against Iran.

So began an elaborate game of poker between Washington and Tehran. Would Iran blink first and disclose Qom to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) tasked with monitoring the programme or would Obama confront them with the evidence?

US officials acknowledge there is no proof that Iran is on the verge of creating a bomb and Tehran insists its programme is to provide nuclear energy. But the regime’s failure to mention the Qom plant to weapons inspectors regularly visiting the country looked on the shady side of neglectful, to say the least.

Nor was it the first time the Iranians had been caught. In 2002, information from a dissident group led to the exposure of its main uranium enrichment site, an underground plant at Natanz. The same group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), announced in December 2005 that tunnelling work was being carried out to build an underground nuclear facility at Qom.

Mohammad Mohaddessin, the NCRI foreign affairs spokesman, said construction work had been started in 2000 by a specialist engineering division of the Revolutionary Guard. He claimed two Russian scientists were involved in assisting Iran to hide the nuclear facilities.

The suspicion now is that Iran may have been hiding other nuclear facilities. Apart from Natanz, it is known that there are research facilities at Isfahan, the country’s first nuclear power plant at Bushehr, which began testing this year, and a heavy water reactor at Arak, which could be used to produce plutonium.

Mark Fitzpatrick, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said yesterday that Iran may also have built a facility to produce the gasified uranium that the Qom plant would enrich.

“The most logical scenario is that Iran has a completely clandestine way of producing the highly enriched uranium and that would require, at a minimum, a uranium conversion plant,” he said.

The NCRI even claimed to have evidence of a weaponisation programme. A research body known by the acronym Metfaz and based on 180th Western Avenue in the Pars district of eastern Tehran was working on trigger systems using computerised simulation, it alleged.

THE showdown between Washington and Tehran began last week in New York, where the American and Iranian presidents were staying just a few blocks apart — Obama at the Waldorf-Astoria and Ahmadinejad at the Barclay — for the opening session of the UN general assembly.

With the first direct negotiations between US and Iranian officials in 30 years due to start in Geneva this Thursday, the question for the Obama administration was when and how to deploy the Qom discovery.

Discussions were still under way when Obama’s advisers were contacted by the IAEA in Vienna. The agency had received a cryptic letter from the Iranians informing it in vague terms that they were building another plant, one they had never disclosed during years of international inspections.

The letter forced Obama’s hand. After late-night discussions on Tuesday, he went to a scheduled meeting the next day with Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, and spent half an hour briefing him. He informed Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president.

Jeff Bader, the senior White House official for Asia, told his Chinese counterparts, whose support would be critical — along with Russia’s — if it came to imposing sanctions on Iran. Both countries have a veto on the UN security council.

Russia signalled its potential support, believed by many to be a quid pro quo for Obama’s decision to scrap plans for a missile defence system based in eastern Europe. US officials say China was sceptical.

The action then shifted to Pittsburgh, where G20 leaders had moved from New York. Friday morning began with a dramatic press conference revealing Iran’s nuclear plant to the world. Obama appeared, flanked by Sarkozy and Brown, to denounce the plant as “a direct challenge to the basic foundation of the non-proliferation regime”.

He said he had withheld the intelligence because “it is very important in these kind of high-stake situations to make sure the intelligence is right” — a clear reference to Iraq, where the US-led coalition went to war on the basis of faulty intelligence. Sarkozy set a deadline of two months for Iran to meet international demands to give up their programme.

Back in New York, Ahmadinejad responded to the outcry by claiming the Qom plant was a “semi-industrial fuel enrichment facility”. He insisted: “We have no fears. What we did was completely legal.”

Brown described Iran’s attitude as “the serial deception of many years”, adding that “the international community has no choice today but to draw a line in the sand”. The question is: what will that line be?

The European Union is considering stopping all petrol exports to Iran and further restricting shipping and air traffic to and from the country. Possible measures include banning ships and aircraft from docking or landing in the EU, according to German diplomats quoted in Der Spiegel. Although it exports oil, Iran imports up to 40% of its petrol.

“Iran is on notice that when we meet them on October 1 they are going to have to come clean and they will have to make a choice,” Obama said.

The alternative, he warned, was to “continue down a path that is going to lead to confrontation”.

It seems unlikely that by “confrontation” the president meant military action. Although he said that was still on the table, Robert Gates, the defence secretary, told CNN: “The reality is there is no military option that does anything more than buy time — the estimates are three years or so.”

Having been so badly burnt in Iraq, and with troops bogged down in Afghanistan, hardly anyone in the West wants military action in Iran. Tehran could cause huge problems with retaliatory action in both countries.

The view is different in Israel where Iran is viewed as a mortal threat. Israeli defence chiefs emphasised to Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, chief of the defence staff, on an unpublicised visit to Israel last week, that they had detailed plans to attack Iran if all else failed.

Yesterday Tehran was sending mixed signals. Ali Akbar Salehi, its nuclear chief, announced that IAEA inspectors would be allowed to inspect the Qom site.

It was also announced that the Revolutionary Guard’s air force would start “missile defensive war games” today and a hostile tone was struck by the office of Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader. Mohammad Mohammadi-Golpayegani, his chief of staff, said: “This new plant, God willing, will soon become operational and will make the enemies blind.”

Additional reporting: Michael Smith and Jon Swain

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