Iran's Vanishing Act

July 26,

by Edward Jay Epstein

THE current crisis with Iran really began in the summer of 2004 when a German agent in Iran stole a laptop computer from a secret military unit code named Project111, and smuggled it out through Turkey. On its hard drive were thousands of pages of documents, drawings and multimedia slides, including reports on 18 attempts to alter the size, weight and diameter of the nose cone to fit 'a new payload' on Iran's intermediate-range missile, the Shahab3.
The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) conducted highly sophisticated tests on the chronologically ordered data. Finding no signs of tampering, fabrication or of an intelligence hoax, the CIA concluded the data was genuine. The 'new payload' could only be a nuclear one since it was designed to detonate at an altitude of 600m - far too high for either a conventional, or
chemical or biological weapon. In addition, the data called for testing in a 10km-long and 500m-deep tunnel, which would hardly be necessary for conventional explosives.
The design further used high-tension electric bridge wire to simultaneously detonate small multiple explosives. This so closely matched the implosion nuclear bomb designed by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan that the CIA suspected Iran had received a digital copy of the Pakistani plans. (These plans were subsequently found on computers seized from the Khan network in Switzerland.)
The laptop data indicated Iran's intention to obtain nuclear weapons. But for a country to go nuclear, it needs two capabilities. First, it has to have enough highly enriched uranium or plutonium. Second, it has to have a device to set off a chain reaction in that fuel. Iran in 2003 was on the verge of obtaining both, with some assistance from the Khan network. It had installed a cascade of 1,100 centrifuges in a subterranean facility at Natanz capable of gradually enriching uranium. According to the Iranian government, that enriched uranium would have been used for electricity generation at its Bushehr reactor. But there was room in the massive caves at Natanz to house up to 50,000 more centrifuges. If the operation was expanded, it could enrich weapons-grade uranium for the Project111 warhead.
Iran had also been experimenting with polonium 210 - as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) discovered in 2004 - the key ingredient in the device used in the Pakistan bomb. Iran claimed that it had experimented with polonium 210 for possible use in radioactive batteries, which can be used on spacecraft. But Iran had no known space program. Considering how these pieces fitted together, US intelligence had little doubt that they were part of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. The 2005 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) thus expressed 'high confidence' that Iran, despite its denials, had embarked on a nuclear weapons program.
Less than two years later, the CIA stunningly reversed itself. At the heart of this reassessment was a vanishing act: Many of the signs of a weapons program literally vanished before the CIA's eyes, or at least its satellites, after the stolen laptop exposed Project111. For example, buildings at the Lavisan-Shian military- industrial complex on the outskirts of Teheran, which had been identified as having undeclared radiation equipment, were bulldozed into rubble. (Iranian officials explained that the demolition was necessary because the Teheran municipality needed the site for a public park.) The participants in Project 111, who had been prohibited from using their surnames in e-mail messages and correspondence on the laptop, also vanished from the CIA's radar, as did the front companies used to camouflage nuclear activities. So US intelligence could not find any evidence that Project111 was being continued.
This was hardly surprising: When a secret operation is compromised, it is usually shut down. But the disappearance from scrutiny of Iran's nuclear program and its end are not the same thing.
The CIA, however, focused on intent. Iranian leaders put their own interpretation on the vanishing acts, telling Western diplomats in private that Iran had closed its weapons program by 2004 because of sanction
threats. If so, the Bush administration, which orchestrated those international pressures, could claim success for ending the threat of Iranian nukes. Though such pressure could merely have led Iran to hide the exposed parts of
its program, the NIE stated that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program 'primarily in response to international pressure'. It bought the idea that US-led pressure had succeeded, reporting: 'We judge with high confidence
that in fall 2003, Teheran halted its nuclear weapons program; and with 'moderate confidence' that 'Teheran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program'.
The CIA's optimistic view, however, does not withstand scrutiny. Natanz, not Project111, was the main focus of the international pressure since 2003. Yet, between 2003 and this year, Iran added over 8,000 new centrifuges at
the site, many of them of an advanced design that produced enriched uranium five times as fast as previous designs. This multibillion-dollar expansion
under the authority of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Iranian Defense Ministry, more than quintupled Iran's capabilities for producing weapons-grade fuel. Iran hardly needed this additional capacity for the civilian electric generation at Bushehr since Russia had already agreed to provide fuel for that reactor. And if Russia had broken its commitment, other countries, such
as France and Germany, would have supplied Iran.
Even the threat of crippling UN sanctions this year - including cutting off Iran's critical petrol imports - did not deter Iran from speeding up its production of enriched uranium. Last year's NIE had relegated this nuclear elephant in the room to a footnote, saying that its reassessment excluded
'Iran's declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment' - in other words, all the enrichment activity at Natanz.
Here is the situation: Within a few years, possibly as early as next year, the Natanz underground complex will be able to provide Iran with enough enriched uranium to fuel a nuclear bomb. Iran will also have the means to
trigger it, thanks to its polonium210 experiments and its acquisition from the Khan network of the plans for an implosion bomb that uses a polonium210-based initiator.
It is of little consolation that the CIA has not spotted ongoing engineering work for mounting a nuclear payload. It did not find out about Project111 for years before the laptop fell into its hands. What is successfully hidden
is, by definition, never found.
If one weighs Iran's actions rather than its words, no one should be surprised - except possibly the CIA - if Iran goes nuclear during the next US presidency.
The writer, the author of 13 books - including Deception and Legend: The Secret World Of Lee Harvey Oswald - is a frequent commentator on intelligence issues

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