Strong Leads and Dead Ends in Nuclear Case Against Iran

In the 1990s, Iran secretly constructed a uranium-enrichment facility in Natanz to house 50,000 centrifuges that it planned to build.
In the 1990s, Iran secretly constructed a uranium-enrichment facility in Natanz to house 50,000 centrifuges that it planned to build. (By Vahid Salemi -- Associated Press)
By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Iranian engineers have completed sophisticated drawings of a deep subterranean shaft, according to officials who have examined classified documents in the hands of U.S. intelligence for more than 20 months.

Complete with remote-controlled sensors to measure pressure and heat, the plans for the 400-meter tunnel appear designed for an underground atomic test that might one day announce Tehran's arrival as a nuclear power, the officials said.

By the estimates of U.S. and allied intelligence analysts, that day remains as much as a decade away -- assuming that Iran applies the full measure of its scientific and industrial resources to the project and encounters no major technical hurdles. But whether Iran's leaders have reached that decision and what concrete progress the effort has made remain divisive questions among government analysts and U.N. inspectors.

In the three years since Iran was forced to acknowledge having a secret uranium-enrichment program, Western governments and the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, have amassed substantial evidence to test the Tehran government's assertion that it plans to build nothing more than peaceful nuclear power plants. Often circumstantial, usually ambiguous and always incomplete, the evidence has confounded efforts by policymakers, intelligence officials and U.S. allies to reach a confident judgment about Iran's intentions and a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Drawings of the unbuilt test site, not disclosed publicly before, appear to U.S. officials to signal at least the ambition to test a nuclear explosive. But U.S. and U.N. experts who have studied them said the undated drawings do not clearly fit into a larger picture. Nowhere, for example, does the word "nuclear" appear on them. The authorship is unknown, and there is no evidence of an associated program to acquire, assemble and construct the components of such a site.

"The diagram is consistent with a nuclear test-site schematic," one senior U.S. source said, noting that the drawings envision a test control team parked a safe 10 kilometers -- more than six miles -- from the shaft. As far as U.S. intelligence knows, the idea has not left the drawing board.

Other suggestive evidence is cloaked in similar uncertainty. Contained in a laptop computer stolen by an Iranian citizen in 2004 are designs by a firm called Kimeya Madon for a small-scale facility to produce uranium gas, the construction of which would give Iran a secret stock that could be enriched for fuel or for bombs. Also on the laptop -- obtained by U.S. intelligence -- were drawings on modifying Iran's ballistic missiles in ways that might accommodate a nuclear warhead. Beyond the computer files, an imprisoned Pakistani arms dealer recently offered uncorroborated statements that Iran received several advanced centrifuges, equipment that would vastly improve its nuclear knowledge.

U.S. intelligence considers the laptop documents authentic but cannot prove it. Analysts cannot completely rule out the possibility that internal opponents of the Iranian leadership could have forged them to implicate the government, or that the documents were planted by Tehran itself to convince the West that its program remains at an immature stage.

CIA analysts, some of whom had been involved only a year earlier on the flawed assessments of Iraq's weapons programs, initially speculated that a third country, such as Israel, may have fabricated the evidence. But they eventually discounted that theory.

British intelligence, asked for a second opinion, concurred last year that the documents appear authentic. German and French officials consider the information troubling, sources said, but Russian experts have dismissed it as inconclusive. IAEA inspectors, who were highly skeptical of U.S. intelligence on Iraq, have begun to pursue aspects of the laptop information that appear to bolster previous leads.

"There is always a chance this could be the biggest scam perpetrated on U.S. intelligence," one U.S. source acknowledged. "But it's such a large body of documents and such strong indications of nuclear weapons intent, and nothing seems so inconsistent."

Bush administration officials, convinced that Iran has a weapons program, believe that the body of documentation is the nearest anyone can expect to "smoking gun" evidence. But even in the U.S. government, the predominant interpretation is more complex. And any step toward uranium enrichment, experts said, is consistent with three competing explanations -- that Iran's program is peaceful, that it aims for a weapon, or that the Tehran government is still keeping its options open.

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