Will Iran go nuclear during the next American President?


The current crises 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 Project 111, 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 Shahab 3. The CIA conducted highly-sophisticated tests on the chronologically ordered data and, finding no signs of tampering, fabrication, or an intelligence hoax, concluded it was genuine.
. The “new payload” could only be a nuclear one since it was triggered to detonate at an altitude of 600 meters, an altitude far too high for either conventional explosive or chemical or biological weapons to be effective. In addition, it called for testing in a 6 mile long and quarter mile deep tunnel, which would hardly be necessary for conventional explosives. The design further used high-tension electric bridge wire to simultaneously detonate small multiple explosions, which so closely matched the implosion nuclear bomb designed by A.Q. Khan for Pakistan that the CIA suspected that Iran had received a digital copy of the Pakistani plans (which subsequently was 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 to fuel a nuclear explosion. Seconds, it has to have a device to set off the chain reaction in that fuel. Iran, in 2003, was the verge of obtaining both with some assistance from the A.Q. Khan network. It had installed by 2003 a cascade of 1100 centrifuges in a subterranean facility at Natanz capable of gradually enriching Uranium. According to the Iranian government, that enriched Uranium would be used only 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, and if the operation was expanded it could enrich weapon-grade Uranium for the Project 111 warhead. Iran had also been experimenting with Polonium 210, as the International Atomic Energy Agency IAEA) discovered in 2004, which was the key ingredient in the device used in the Pakistani bomb. Iran claimed that it had experimented with Polonium 210 for possible use in radioactive batteries, which can be used on spacecraft. The problem here was that Iran had no known space program.

Considering how these pieces fit together in the context of the laptop revelations, American intelligence had little doubt that they were both part of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. Its 2005 NIE thus expressed“high confidence” that Iran, despite its categorical denials, had embarked on a nuclear weapons program.

Less than two years later, the CIA stunningly reversal itself, and decided that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons ambition. 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 Project 111. For example, buildings at the Lavisan-Shian military-industrial complex on the outskirts of Tehran, which had been identified as having undeclared radiation equipment, were, as satellite photographs confirmed, bulldozed into rubble, which was carted away in trucks. (Iranian officials explained that the demolition was necessary because the Tehran municipality needed the Ministry of Defense site for a public park.) The participants in Project 111, who had been prohibited from using their surnames in their emails and correspondence on the laptop, also vanished from the CIA’s radar, as did the front companies used to camouflage its activities. So American intelligence could not find any evidence that Project 111 was being continued. This was hardly surprising since when a secret operation is compromised, it is shut down. But the disappearance from scrutiny of Iran’s nuclear program and its end are not necessarily 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. Even though such pressure could also have led Iran merely to hide the exposed parts of its program, the NIE stated that Iran halted its nuclear weapon program “primarily in response to international pressure.” Indeed, it so bought the idea that American-led pressure had succeeded that it reported, “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program” and “with “moderate confidence” that “Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program.”

The CIA’s optimistic view did not, however, stand the test of time. Natanz, not Project 111, was the main focus of the international pressure since 2003. Yet, between 2003 and 2008, Iran added there over 4,500 new centrifuges, many of them of advanced design that produced enriched uranium twice as fast. This multi-billion dollar expansion under the under the authority of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Iranian Defense Ministry, more than quadrupled its capabilities for producing weapon-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 for its entire life time (and, if Russia broke that commitment, European countries stood ready to provide a stop-gap supply). Even the threats of crippling UN sanctions in 2008, including cutting off Iran’s critical gasoline imports, did not deter Iran from speeding up its production. The 2007 NIE had relegated this nuclear elephant in the room to a footnote saying that its reassessment excludes “Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment,” which circumvented all the enrichment activity at Natanz. Once Natanz is put back into the equation, the picture becomes much bleaker.

Here is the situation: within a few years, possibly as early as 2009, the underground complex at Natanz will be able to provide Iran with enough highly enriched uranium to fuel a nuclear bomb. Iran will also have the means of triggering it thanks to its Polonium210 experiments and its acquisition from the A. Q. Khan of the digital plans for an implosion bomb that uses a Polonium 210-based initiator. It is of little consolation that the CIA has not spotted on going engineering work for mounting a nuclear payload, since it did not find out about Project 111 for years before the laptop fell its hands. What is successfully hidden is by definition, never found. So if one weighs Iranian actions rather than Iranian words, no one should be surprised, except possibly the CIA, if Iran goes nuclear during the next Presidency.

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