The last two weeks have seen a flood of media reports describing landmarks in Iran's progress toward building a nuclear weapon. Far from being random, they were carefully orchestrated.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources have sourced most of them variously to the American Central Intelligence Agency, the German BND intelligence agency and the Israeli Mossad. They were all carrying out the directives of their respective masters to drop particles of the data in their possession onto the pages of respected publications.
The object of this gambit is obviously to set the scene for tougher sanctions against Iran for failing to comply with international rules. It is equally obvious that the data leaked is fragmentary and some of the particulars doctored both to obscure sources and keep Iranian security agencies guessing while Western agencies deepen their penetration.
A typical example of this tactic appeared in a story run by the London Sunday Telegraph of December 13, which claimed that an Iranian scientist who disappeared six months ago had betrayed his country's nuclear secrets to international inspectors. According to this paper, the scientist, Shahram Amiri, at a clandestine meeting at Frankfurt airport on Oct. 24, briefed UN nuclear monitors, just hours before they flew to Iran to inspect a hidden uranium enrichment plant. French intelligence sources were quoted.
An award-winning atomic physicist, Amiri had worked at the heavily-guarded underground site at Qom. In May, he disappeared while on a pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, defecting in an elaborate international cloak-and-dagger operation coordinated by the CIA.
So says the Sunday Telegraph.
However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources find it hardly credible that the American intelligence agency chose to bring Shahram Amiri, if he is indeed in their custody, to Frankfurt international airport, a place crawling with foreign agents, including Iranians. Neither do they believe he would have been allowed the exposure of a rendezvous with IAEA inspectors, whose Vienna headquarters has one of the densest populations of undercover and double agents of any place on earth.
Our intelligence experts rate three other reports in this category as more credible:
1. On December 2, the German Der Spiegel carried this disclosure: “Iranian scientists are believed to have successfully simulated the detonation of a nuclear warhead. Detonation is one of the most technologically challenging problems in the construction of this type of nuclear weapon.
“Experts believe that it could take Iran as little as a year to acquire the expertise and a sufficient quantity of highly enriched uranium to build a real nuclear warhead.”
Then, Monday, December 14, The Times of London reported the following: “Confidential intelligence documents obtained by The Times show that Iran is working on testing a key final component of a nuclear bomb.
“The notes, from Iran's most sensitive military nuclear project, describe a four-year plan to test a neutron initiator, the component of a nuclear bomb that triggers an explosion. …An Asian intelligence source last week confirmed to The Times that his country also believed that weapons work was being carried out as recently as 2007 – specifically, work on a neutron initiator.
“The technical document describes the use of a neutron source, uranium deuteride, which independent experts confirm has no possible civilian or military use other than in a nuclear weapon. Uranium deuteride is the material used in Pakistan's bomb, from where Iran obtained its blueprint.”
An intelligence agency praises a leak?!
On Tuesday, December 15, Philip Crowley, the US State Department spokesman, said of the report: “It’s safe to say the United States Government will be investigating … the revelations this week about nuclear triggers.”
He praised the report in The Times, calling it a “fine piece of journalism.” (Has anyone every heard an American government official praise an intelligence leak to the media?)
On the same day, the Washington Post, under the headline Evidence of Iran's Nuclear Arms Expertise Mounts, published the following: “The internal (Iranian) documents (published by The Times in London), and expert analysis point to a growing Iranian mastery of disciplines including uranium metallurgy, heavy-water production and the high-precision explosives used to trigger a nuclear detonation…
“…U.S. intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged there have been 'serious concerns for some time about where Iran may be headed with its nuclear activities…'”
While these disclosures are intriguing, the next phrase in the Washington Post article is the most momentous:
“A recent IAEA report called on Iran to 'provide information on the origin' of the heavy water.
“'It was a complete surprise,' said a European diplomat who agreed to talk about the internal debate on the condition of anonymity. We assumed that the Iranians had purchased it from elsewhere, but no one really knew. No one believes they could have made it at the existing plant' – a small facility at Khonab that has been mostly idle since it opened three years ago.”
Even the Bushehr reactor is not innocent after all
“In a closed-door session of the IAEA governing board on Thanksgiving, The WP reports, the head of one of the Northern European delegations asked the chief Iranian nuclear official, Ali Akbar Salehi, to explain how Iran had acquired such a quantity of heavy water.
“'We made it,' Salehi reportedly shot back.” End of Washington Post quote.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly intelligence sources note that since Iran's heavy water reactor at Arak is still unfinished and inoperative, Salehi's admission means that a clandestine Iranian facility is churning out heavy water in large quantities at some unknown location.
This revelation has three new implications:
1. The emergence of yet another secret nuclear facility in Iran, in addition to the Fordor enrichment plant near Qom exposed in September, makes one wonder how many Iranian nuclear plants remain hidden and how many have Western intelligence services discovered.
2. Iran's possession of large stocks of heavy water indicates rapid progress for developing plutonium-based nuclear bombs, possibly even faster than its parallel enriched uranium nuclear weapon program.
3. It also sheds new light on the tasks awaiting the nuclear reactor at Bushehr, in southern Iran, and the reason why the Russians applied the brakes on its completion before it was fully operational.
Even intelligence circles took it for granted that Iran wanted the Bushehr reactor to provide electric power, accepting it as the single above-board Iranian nuclear project. But the presence of heavy water changes all that. By keeping back the nuclear rods supplied by Russia to power the reactor, Iran can use it to perform the separation process for yielding weapons-grade plutonium, once the plant is on line.
By lifting a corner of the veil concealing Iran's dual-track nuclear weapons programs, the intelligence agencies of at least three world powers are providing solid reasons to justify international action to stop Iran going all the way to a nuclear weapon – i.e. sanctions, at the very least.