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,
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
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.