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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)

Several sources with firsthand knowledge of the original documents said the facility, if constructed, would give Iran additional capabilities to produce a substance known as UF4, or "green salt," an intermediate product in the conversion of uranium to a gas. Further refined in a large-scale enrichment plant, such as the one Iran says it intends to build for its energy program, the material could become usable for the core of a bomb.

Some of those who described the documents said senior Bush administration officials believe that they offer proof of a covert Iranian effort, under the direction of the military, to acquire nuclear weapons. The documents were found with design modifications for Iran's ballistic missile program, suggesting a link between potential weapons material and delivery systems. "We see this as pretty compelling evidence that they were trying to get a clandestine uranium-conversion facility," said one U.S. official. "At the very least, the Iranians should have reported the work" to IAEA inspectors, the official said.

Other sources with equal access to the same information, which went through nearly a year of forensic analysis by the CIA, were more cautious.

A second facility for uranium gas could have been envisioned as a replacement in the event the United States or Israel bombed the existing one in the city of Isfahan. "It was either their fallback in case we take out Isfahan," one U.S. analyst said. "Or maybe they considered an alternative indigenous plan but they realized it wasn't as good as what they already have, and so they shelved it."

As with the test-shaft drawings, those for the conversion facility were on the laptop allegedly stolen from an Iranian whom German intelligence tried, unsuccessfully, to recruit as an informant. It was whisked out of the country by another Iranian who offered it up to foreign intelligence officials in Turkey as evidence of a nuclear weapons program. Nowhere on any of the laptop documents, however, does the word "nuclear" appear.

"It's a complex-looking thing. You see the drawings but nothing beyond them, and you wonder, 'Can we be sure?' " a foreign official said.

Nowhere are there construction orders, payment invoices, or more than a handful of names and locations possibly connected to the projects. It remains unclear on whose authority the conversion work was done. Fueling suspicion, however, is the fact that the offices mentioned on the laptop documents are connected to an Iranian military officer, Mohsen Fakrizadeh.

Fakrizadeh is believed by U.S. intelligence to be the director of Project 111, a nuclear research effort that includes work on missile development. For years, U.S. intelligence knew of an Iranian endeavor that the Iranians code-named Project 110, believed to be the military arm of the country's nuclear program. U.S. officials believe its sequential successor may be the link between the country's nuclear energy program and its military, but they cannot be certain without more information from Fakrizadeh. "We want him produced for U.N. inspectors," said one U.S. source.

According to information on the laptop, Kimeya Madon appears to have ceased operation in the early spring of 2003, leading U.S. and allied intelligence services to suspect that it was a front company for the Iranian military. The last set of known drawings for the conversion facility are dated February 2003, as U.N. inspectors were making their first trip to Iran and U.S. troops were poised to invade neighboring Iraq.

Shooting Star

When the CIA began poring over thousands of pages of drawings contained in the laptop, the ones that garnered immediate attention were the schematics for Iran's most famous missile, the Shahab -- Persian for "shooting star."

Experts at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico ran the schematics through computer simulations. They determined two things: The drawings were an effort to expand the nose cone of the Shahab-3 to carry a nuclear warhead, and the modification plans, if executed, would not work.

Negroponte appeared to hint as much in his public briefing when he said Iran had not yet acquired the ability to integrate a nuclear weapon into its ballistic missiles.

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