Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Secret Iranian Nuclear Weapons Program Suspected

Eli Lake, NY Sun:
A secret, parallel military program to produce nuclear weapons may be behind Iran's announcement yesterday that it will break its agreement to suspend uranium enrichment. Western intelligence agencies, including the CIA, suspect the Islamic republic has been hiding the program from the International Atomic Energy Agency's inspectors during the last two years of negotiations. READ MORE

A Western diplomat with access to sensitive real-time intelligence told The New York Sun yesterday that America, Israel, and some European intelligence services have concluded recently that a pattern of procurement and technical training arrangements strongly suggests the existence of a second nuclear program in Iran.

"This is not a situation where we can prove it in a courtroom. But the kinds of purchases the Iranians have been making on the international market for dual-use items suggest they have a secret program," the diplomat said. He said that he could not share details of the intelligence because it is still being used in the field.

Two administration officials yesterday confirmed that the CIA's center for Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation, and Arms Control has raised concerns that the Iranians were concealing a separate clandestine program.

One of these officials said that the political arm of the terrorist group the Mujahedin-e Khalq, known as the National Council for Resistance in Iran, has provided intelligence to America of a secret Iranian program within the past six months. The national council first publicized the underground enrichment facility in Natanz in 2002, though the CIA was aware of the site for many years before the announcement.

"All of the attention is on Natanz and the facilities they have declared. But the real program is over somewhere else," the western diplomat said.

The implications of a secret set of enrichment facilities could devastate Iran's negotiations with Britain, France, and Germany over the now-declared program - which was itself hidden from the international community for nearly two decades. More important for the west, a secret Iranian program could divert technical expertise, material, and equipment the country procured under a sanctioned agreement with the European Union and International Atomic Energy Agency.

The executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, Henry Sokolski, told the Sun yesterday that there is a growing consensus that the Iranians have a secret parallel program. "Other allied governments have raised this specter based on their assessment of their intelligence. This is not just the Israelis, the United States, and Italy," he said.

Mr. Sokolski added that one clue to the presence of an Iranian covert program is the country's willingness to allow other countries, such as Russia, to enrich their uranium hexafluoride, also known as yellow cake, a seed material for making nuclear fuel.

"Certainly, having a covert program would help explain why they want to make enrichment seed material and will do anything, including offering to let other people enrich this feed material," Mr. Sokolski said. "It sounds to me like as long as they can make enrichment seed material, they can siphon it off to make bomb material in a covert enrichment program."

The European-led negotiations suffered a blow yesterday when the deputy of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Saeedi, announced that the Isfahan uranium conversion facility transformed 36 tons of yellowcake uranium into UF-4 gas, despite pledging in November to suspend all enrichment activities. UF-4 can be easily converted into UF-6 gas, a necessary ingredient for bomb-grade material. The Associated Press cited experts yesterday as saying the total conversion could yield enough material for five crude nuclear bombs.

Iran's ability to convert uranium yellowcake into UF-4 and UF-6 gas represents a crucial technological step toward mastering the complex nuclear fuel cycle. The country already has proved it can produce the centrifuges to enrich the material. It is unknown whether the Iranians have mastered the ability to gather those centrifuges in a cascade to collect the processed uranium and store it.

The Associated Press confirmed a quote yesterday that had been in two Iranian magazines in March by Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rowhani, suggesting the recent conversions in Isfahan represented a technological breakthrough.

"Last year, we could not produce UF-4 and UF-6. We didn't have materials to inject ,into centrifuges to carry out enrichment, meaning we didn't have UF-6," the AP quoted Mr. Rowhani as saying. "But within the past year, we completed the Isfahan facility and reached UF-4 and UF-6 stage. So, we made great progress."

Last month, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lowell Jacoby, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the latest intelligence estimates predicted Iran would be able to produce nuclear weapons in five years. The ability to make nuclear weapons is distinct from mastering the nuclear fuel cycle, however, which will likely come much sooner for the Iranians.

In November, a former secretary of state, Colin Powell, publicly said that Iran was developing a delivery mechanism for atomic weapons, a reference to Iran's Shahab three medium-range missiles that are capable of hitting targets inside Israel and even Cypress.