Iran Nuclear NewsIran's secrecy widens gap in nuclear intelligence

Iran’s secrecy widens gap in nuclear intelligence


New York Times: South of Tehran, the desert gives way to barbed wire, antiaircraft guns and a maze of buildings, two of them cavernous underground halls roughly half the size of the Pentagon. The New York Times


South of Tehran, the desert gives way to barbed wire, antiaircraft guns and a maze of buildings, two of them cavernous underground halls roughly half the size of the Pentagon.

International inspectors could once roam the 20 or so main buildings there, at the Natanz uranium enrichment complex. Operating more like detectives than scientists, they combined painstaking sleuthing with physics and engineering in an effort to ascertain the site’s true mission, war or peace.

But in February, after three years of unusual openness, Iran drastically reduced access to Natanz and dozens of other atomic sites, programs and personnel.

No longer can the inspectors, from the International Atomic Energy Agency, swab machines, scoop up bits of soil, study invoices, monitor videotapes, peek behind doors and gather seemingly innocuous clues. Now they can track only a narrow range of operations involving radioactive material, and then only with cumbersome restrictions.

As a result, the world is losing much of its ability to answer pressing questions about Iran’s nuclear ambitions: how fast Tehran could make an atom bomb, and whether it harbors a program to do so.

Diplomats and nuclear experts say the diminished view increases the risks of miscalculation, and possibly armed confrontation, just as the atomic impasse with the West is reaching a volatile new stage.

The atomic energy agency, whose credibility as nuclear watchdog is at stake, is particularly worried. Full access “increases our ability to detect possible undeclared nuclear activities,” said the agency’s director, Mohamed ElBaradei. Its absence severely limits “our ability to provide credible assurances.”

The new restrictions were alluded to in the agency’s most recent report on Iran, in April. But their scope and repercussions emerged in interviews with diplomats, nuclear analysts and government officials.

American intelligence officials say the restrictions are particularly significant because their own assessments depend heavily on the agency’s findings. The reasons include the scarcity of human intelligence emerging from Iran, and suspicions about American intelligence after the failures in Iraq.

“To build a public case, we need the international inspectors,” a senior administration official said. “The president knows that he cannot go out and give a speech describing our suspicions, not in this environment.” The official declined to be named because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Iran insists that until negotiations with the West over wider inspections collapsed, it had offered “full and unrestricted access” to prove that its atomic work was entirely peaceful, intended for nuclear power and medical isotopes for fighting disease.

But the United States, Israel and many European governments see the situation as more complex. They say that Tehran opened up only after being caught hiding its nuclear advances for nearly two decades, and that when it did cooperate, a steady accretion of clues suggested that more remained hidden.

Now that Iran has cut international access to the minimum required under arms-control accords, analysts are left with far fewer tools to penetrate those mysteries, many of which involve how close Iran is to mastering the transformation of uranium and plutonium into atomic fuel.

Inspectors recently confirmed Iran’s claims of having enriched very small quantities of uranium to low levels, and they can continue to monitor such narrow steps. But the inspectors have lost their window into the future — for instance, into the factories where, Iran has claimed, it will build tens of thousands of centrifuges, which concentrate uranium into fuel. Low-enriched uranium can fuel reactors; highly enriched uranium can power bombs.

Nor can the inspectors investigate Iran’s boasts that it is forging ahead with research on a more advanced centrifuge that could accelerate its efforts to make atomic fuel.

The Iranians have also stopped cooperating with investigations into the possible existence of clandestine work on uranium and plutonium, an alternate bomb fuel. Just last week, diplomats disclosed an inquiry about traces of highly enriched uranium linked to a razed military research base at Lavizan, outside Tehran.

The new reality is “myopia compared to what they had before,” said David A. Kay, a former inspector who in 2003 and 2004 led the American hunt for unconventional weapons in Iraq. The danger of such an information void, he added, is that officials will fall back on “defectors, anti-regime elements and what foreign intelligence services tell you they know — sort of an Iraq redux.”

American intelligence officials say the Iraq experience has forced them to consider a range of possible outcomes in Iran, including the best case, rather than assuming the worst. For that reason, they say, intelligence officials have not budged from the official estimate that Iran would need 5 to 10 years to produce a weapon, though some foresee a shorter time frame.

Now, refining that forecast is harder than ever. As one senior European official put it, “You need to roam around.”

Pledge of Access, Unfulfilled

Iran’s legal obligations began in 1968, when Tehran signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which requires countries to forgo nuclear weapons in exchange for aid in developing peaceful atomic energy. Six years later, Iran signed the treaty’s safeguards agreement, which mandates detailed reports on steps that could lead to weapons and allows inspectors to hunt for cheating.

The era of expanded openness, though, did not begin until early 2003, after an Iranian opposition group reported the existence of the vast nuclear facility at Natanz. Iran had no choice but to cooperate with inspectors if it hoped to prove that its nuclear program was peaceful. The buildup to the invasion of Iraq added to the pressure.

Iran invited Dr. ElBaradei and his inspectors to Natanz. Gholamreza Aghazadeh, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency, proudly led the tour, showing off the centrifuges and claiming that Iran’s scientists had learned how to build them in only five years with information from the Internet.

The inspectors saw that as a lie and concluded that Tehran had long been violating the treaty’s safeguards agreement.

Iran, determined to reassure the West, agreed to suspend much of its atomic program while negotiating with Europe over its fate. Beyond the basic safeguards, it agreed to abide by the treaty’s “additional protocol,” adopting “transparency measures.”

Together, these steps let inspectors travel widely, even to military bases, and expand their investigations far beyond radioactive materials, to things like air samples and old files that might produce serendipitous discoveries.

Thus began a game of nuclear cat-and-mouse in which inspectors praised the Iranians for the information they divulged, while criticizing them for what they appeared to withhold. Little by little, the agency pieced together deceptions dating from 1985, showing that Iran had done secret work that could help fuel a bomb.

Over nearly three years of inspections, reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency documented dozens of surprises, including these:

Iran was found to have used lasers to purify uranium starting in 1991, and in 2000 established a pilot plant for laser enrichment.

Significant research was uncovered on polonium 210, a rare element that can help trigger an atom bomb.

Many ties emerged to the black market of A. Q. Khan, the rogue Pakistani atomic pioneer, who supplied Iran with its centrifuge designs. Inspectors found one Khan document offering to help shape uranium metal into the “hemispherical forms” needed for bomb cores.

Even on their best behavior, the Iranians could delay and stonewall. They are still refusing to turn over an important Khan document that inspectors have sought for two years.

Sometimes, the excuses bordered on the comical. Keys to a centrifuge hall at the Kalaye Electric Company were lost. The Lavizan-Shian military physics research base, on the outskirts of Tehran, which was recently linked to the discovery of highly enriched uranium, was razed because, City Hall said, it needed the land for a park.

In a sense, Iran’s candor backfired. It always came up with detailed explanations for its omissions, discrepancies and hidden programs. But each new disclosure raised new doubts and demands for better information.

“It’s true to say the Iranians went beyond what they were strictly obliged to do,” said Pierre Goldschmidt, a former safeguards director for the international agency who is now a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “But it doesn’t mean what they did was enough.”

New Leader Closes Doors

Even that qualified cooperation ebbed last year after the talks with Europe collapsed and Iran got a new, hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Tehran resumed uranium enrichment at Natanz in January, and the next month, after the 35-nation board of the I.A.E.A. sent Iran’s case to the United Nations Security Council for possible punishment, Tehran made good on a threat to drop all but the bare-bones inspections.

Now, the agency estimates it can visit only 20 percent of the buildings at Isfahan, the oldest and largest part of Iran’s nuclear program, where, among other things, raw uranium is prepared for enrichment.

At Natanz, inspectors once had the right, on two hours’ notice, to visit any building, and did so dozens of times, diplomats said. Now, they can go only to the few areas where the Iranians are enriching uranium or handling radioactive materials, or preparing to do so.

So the inspectors can no longer enter plants where Iran makes centrifuges and their numerous parts. Iran has said that these factories and warehouses, some at Natanz, will produce 54,000 centrifuges for the cavernous underground enrichment halls.

This loss of access is important because estimates on how fast Iran could get the bomb are based mainly on understanding its potential rate of centrifuge production. The Institute for Science and International Security in Washington has estimated that based on past production, Iran could make up to 100 centrifuges a month. Now, however, no one outside Iran knows if that pace has slowed or accelerated.

Inspectors would also like to know if Iran is designing more sophisticated centrifuges. The international agency has repeatedly asked for information about an advanced type, the P-2, which could speed the making of atomic fuel.

Iran had long insisted that it abandoned work on the project three years ago. Then, last month, Mr. Ahmadinejad made the startling announcement that Tehran was “presently conducting research” on the P-2, boasting that it would quadruple Iran’s enrichment powers. Since then the agency, which suspects Iran has a hidden P-2 research center, has written to the Iranians demanding an explanation. They have not replied.

There are also questions about plutonium. Last month’s report by the agency on Iran tells of subtle discrepancies in Iran’s experiments with plutonium made at a research reactor in Tehran.

Iran says the agency is exaggerating the significance of a simple case of contamination. But inspectors say that without the freedom to explore the nooks and crannies of the Iranian program, they cannot pursue other possible explanations, like clandestine reactor runs or the smuggling of plutonium from abroad.

Carrot and Stick, and Anger

In recent weeks, the West has sought to fashion a package of incentives to persuade the Iranians to limit their nuclear program and reinstate fuller inspections.

Tehran has offered a counterproposal: it would be happy to reopen the window, but only if the Security Council drops its case against Iran and returns it to the atomic energy agency. That would remove the threat of sanctions, and possibly war.

Washington dismisses such moves as playing for time. But Iran says it genuinely wants to prove that its aims are peaceful, as it pledges to be more forthcoming.

“We have every interest in cooperating,” said Javad Zarif, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations. “But if the other side wants to adopt an approach of confrontation, cooperation is hard to justify.”

In recent days, Iran has threatened to drop out of the nonproliferation treaty entirely.

Mr. Zarif echoed Western views on the likely repercussions of the reductions in access, presenting them, almost tauntingly, as a potential problem that Washington and its allies had the power to fix.

“The fewer inspections there are, the more potential there is for misinterpretation,” he said. “The other side doesn’t have access any more to reliable information and has to rely on information that is suspect. Is this the path it is choosing?”

The Iranian strategy, it seems, is to keep its nuclear program and force the West to find a way to verify that it is peaceful.

“What the world should be looking for,” said Mr. Aghazadeh, the director at the Iranian agency, “is a way to remove the ambiguities.”

David E. Sanger contributed reporting from Washington for this article.

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