International investigators have uncovered evidence of a secret meeting 18 years ago between Iranian officials and associates of Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan that resulted in a written offer to supply Tehran with the makings of a nuclear weapons program, foreign diplomats and U.S. officials familiar with the new findings said.
The meeting, believed to have taken place in a dusty Dubai office in 1987, kick-started Tehran's nuclear efforts and Khan's black market. Iran, which was at war with Iraq then, bought centrifuge designs and a starter kit for uranium enrichment. But Tehran recently told the International Atomic Energy Agency that it turned down the chance to buy the more sensitive equipment required for building the core of a bomb.
Iran says it was offered nuclear parts by associates of Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.
There is evidence, however, that Iran used the offer as a buyer's guide, acquiring some of the pricier items elsewhere, officials said.
"The offer is the strongest indication to date that Iran had a nuclear weapons program, but it doesn't prove it completely," said one Western diplomat who is familiar with the details of the offer and would comment on the investigation only on the condition of anonymity. Much of the equipment that Iran obtained can be used for peaceful purposes and is scattered throughout Iran's energy program.
Iran insists that its nuclear activities are aimed at producing nuclear energy, and IAEA inspectors have not found any weapons program underway now. The Bush administration charges that Iran is using the energy program as a cover for a secret effort to build nuclear weapons.
Although the latest discoveries shed no light on Iran's current activities, diplomats believe they provide the most significant public information to date regarding Tehran's interest over the years in nuclear weapons technology and its possible intentions. The White House often focuses on those two areas when trying to explain why Iran should face greater international pressure.
After prodding by the IAEA, Iran turned over a copy of the offer last month. Its contents, along with details of the Dubai meeting, were substantiated in interviews conducted by the agency in recent months, according to diplomats who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation.
The information comes as the IAEA's probe of Iran's nuclear program enters its third year. Tomorrow, the IAEA's 35-member board will meet in Vienna, as it does every three months, to discuss Iran's case and the agency's latest lines of inquiry.
The Bush administration has tried unsuccessfully at board meetings to persuade members to send Iran's case to the U.N. Security Council, which has the authority to impose sanctions or an oil embargo.
Some U.S. officials familiar with limited details of the new intelligence believe it could strengthen the case for U.N. referral. But the new information is unlikely to sway Britain, France and Germany from a negotiating path they began with Iran in November. European diplomats, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that although the new information reinforces suspicions, it is not enough to take the issue to the Security Council -- a move that would likely end their process with Iran.
Since November, Iran's uranium enrichment facilities, which could be used to make the key ingredient for a bomb, have been shut down and are under constant IAEA monitoring as part of Tehran's deal with the three European powers. Iranian officials have said the suspension will continue as long as there is progress in negotiations.
For Europe, the deal is meant to avert a crisis over Iran's nuclear program by finding diplomatic, rather than military, options. President Bush indicated during a trip to Europe last week that he would be willing to consider ways to assist the diplomatic process, although some of his top aides have long expressed concern that such a move would only strengthen Iran's clerical government.
Over the last two years, the IAEA has uncovered an 18-year-old nuclear program, which the Iranians began in secret and in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But because much of the equipment can be used for energy development and there is no evidence of past weapons work, the violations are technical and based on Iran's not reporting the program.
IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei said recently that there is no new evidence to suggest Iran is working on a nuclear weapons program. But he gave no indication in an interview on Feb. 15 that the 1987 offer had been discovered weeks earlier and was being considered as a new development in the investigation.