Secret Iran Nuclear Plan Discovered

Times Staff Writers

International inspectors have discovered that Iran hid blueprints for a powerful device to enrich uranium, in an apparent breach of Tehran’s promise last year to disclose all of its nuclear activities, officials in Vienna and Washington said Thursday.

The discovery of the concealed blueprints for a state-of-the-art centrifuge, which could be used to enrich uranium for civilian reactors or nuclear bombs, raised questions about whether Tehran also has bought designs for a nuclear weapon from the same black-market sources, the officials said.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Feb. 14, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday February 14, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Iran plans -- An article Friday in Section A on the discovery of nuclear-related blueprints in Iran incorrectly stated that staff writer Douglas Frantz reported from Islamabad, Pakistan. He filed his report from Istanbul, Turkey.

Washington will discuss with its allies whether to ask the International Atomic Energy Agency to refer Iran’s nuclear activities to the United Nations Security Council for debate, U.S. officials said. Washington has not yet decided whether to advocate international sanctions against Iran, and will await a report from the IAEA next week before deciding what course to take, they said.


The IAEA Board of Governors is scheduled to meet March 8-10 in Vienna.

“This is the smoking gun,” said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Washington-based Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. “They lied -- again.”

Iran has maintained that its nuclear program is strictly for civilian purposes.

But John R. Bolton, the U.S. undersecretary of State for arms control, said Thursday in Berlin, “There’s no doubt in our mind that Iran continues to pursue a nuclear weapons program.”

Gregg Sullivan, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department’s Near Eastern Affairs Bureau, said the American “policy and our sentiments are based on suspicion” of the existence of a weapons program.

Over the next three weeks, Washington will discuss the severity of the Iranian issues with IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei and European Union partners, Sullivan said.

“It also gives the Iranians three weeks to come up with some accounting for their behavior,” he said. “There’s time for some diplomacy here.”

But a decision to seek sanctions could follow.

“I can’t say we’re going to charge in and go to the Security Council, but that’s always a possibility if the behavior of the Iranians isn’t demonstrating respect for the IAEA’s authority,” Sullivan said.


Independent analysts said the finding of a newer type of gas centrifuge design, called a G-2, was significant evidence of Iranian pursuit of a nuclear weapons program. Discovery of the blueprints was first reported Thursday in the Financial Times.

The G-2 centrifuge is a new model that can enrich bomb-quality uranium in half the time of the first-generation centrifuges that Iran previous admitted to having, Sokolski of the nonproliferation education center said in a telephone interview from London.

“This is like saying I prohibited you from having any motorized vehicles, and you declared your motor scooter, and I discovered you had a Ferrari,” Sokolski said.

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency found the G-2 centrifuge design in Iran while comparing material that Tehran purchased with goods that Libya acquired from a “rogue” proliferation network, said several diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Abdul Qadeer Khan, a prominent Pakistani scientist and centrifuge expert, has admitted helping supply nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea. Khan was pardoned by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf last week, but his network’s activities remained under intense investigation.

The discovery of blueprints for the second type of gas centrifuge contradicted Iran’s claim that it fully disclosed the elements of its nuclear program to the IAEA in November, two of the diplomats said in telephone interviews from Vienna.

“It’s nothing big in terms of capability, but it certainly calls into question Iran’s good faith,” one of the diplomats said.

The discrepancy in Iran’s declaration occurred when IAEA inspectors began to compare material that the network sold to Libya with what Tehran said it had obtained through middlemen.

Two types of centrifuge assemblies have been discovered in Libya, along with blueprints for a crude nuclear weapon that it said were obtained from Khan, the diplomats said.

“The inspectors have been matching up everything Libya got with what we know Iran to have,” one of the diplomats said. “The concern is, if the Iranians got everything so far, do they have a weapons design? That would be the biggie.”

Michael Levi, a nuclear physicist at the Brookings Institution, said it would be important for the IAEA to learn whether Iran used the blueprints to build any centrifuges, and, if so, in what configuration. But bomb blueprints, if discovered, would pose far more serious problems, he said.

“If Iran has purchased bomb blueprints, then it is going to be very hard for us to verify that they’ve given them up,” Levi said. “Even if they say they’re giving them up, how do we know there isn’t a copy?”

In that case, the international community would have to take strict measures to limit Iran’s access to bomb-making materials, he said.

“You have to wonder, if [Khan’s network] would give a weapons design to Libya, then why not Iran?” Sokolski asked. “If it was, as I believe it was, an Islamic bomb project, they had an incentive to give them a bomb design.”

Last year, The Times reported that Iran appeared to be in the late stages of developing the capacity to construct a nuclear weapon.

The article, based on a three-month investigation, said that Tehran was concealing weapons research laboratories, secretly imported 1.8 tons of nuclear material from China in 1991 and had received help from Khan for years.

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi on Thursday rejected charges that his country was pursuing nuclear weapons, telling reporters in Rome that Tehran was prepared to answer any new questions raised by IAEA inspectors.

At European urging, the IAEA board agreed in November to forgo tough measures against Iran for hiding portions of its nuclear program, but warned that action would be taken if more surprises were found.

“Obviously if this is true, this is a very serious issue that must be addressed at the coming board meeting,” a Western diplomat in Vienna said.

Centrifuges spin natural uranium into enriched fissile material that can be used to fuel civilian reactors or produce bombs. Iran has no civilian need to enrich its own uranium because it can easily purchase it from abroad, Sokolski said.

The nuclear proliferation network operated by Khan and his associates sold blueprints and components for two types of centrifuges developed in Pakistan using designs that the scientist stolen from a European consortium in the 1970s, said officials unraveling the transactions with Iran, Libya and North Korea.

One type was a first-generation machine called a P-1 that used an aluminum cylinder to spin the uranium gas. Later, the Pakistanis developed the P-2, which used a cylinder made from a super-hard steel alloy that allowed the machine to spin faster and produce enriched uranium more efficiently.

The Libyans initially bought designs and components for the P-1 from the Pakistani-led network and renamed it the L-1. Later, they switched to the second design in hopes of developing a more efficient enrichment system.

Libya agreed to abandon its nuclear program in December after negotiations with the U.S. and Britain. As part of the deal, it turned over the records of its nuclear program and centrifuge assemblies to the IAEA and U.S. officials.

In a speech Wednesday, President Bush said Khan’s network had arranged for P-2 components bound for Libya to be manufactured at a plant in Malaysia.

A Western diplomat in Vienna said Libya had switched to the P-2 design within the last two years after Khan offered a good price on components from the plant in Malaysia.

In recent weeks, diplomats said IAEA inspectors had been comparing what the Libyans received through the Pakistani-led network with what Iran had bought. That was how they discovered the designs for the second type of centrifuge in Iran.

One of the diplomats in Vienna said the Iranians acknowledged having the G-2 designs only after they were confronted with evidence by the IAEA inspectors. He said the search for a possible weapons design was continuing.

IAEA inspectors saw only G-1 centrifuges last year when they visited a pilot enrichment plant near the central Iranian city of Natanz and other sites opened to them by Iranian authorities.

The existence of designs for the second type of machine renewed concern among some diplomats that Iran might be concealing a separate enrichment facility, an accusation made recently by an Iranian opposition organization.

A senior State Department official said Washington would wait for the IAEA findings before jumping to conclusions. The United States is already deeply concerned that Iran has not ratified the so-called additional protocol of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, a clause that allows expanded IAEA inspections of a country’s nuclear facilities on 24 hours’ notice. The U.S. has not ratified the protocol either, and Bush this week urged the Senate to do so.

“The news today is not of a nature to provoke immediate action, because it’s the kind of stuff that we figured was going on already,” the senior official said. “The question is, what has Iran done since the last [IAEA] Board of Governors meeting to meet the demands of the international community?”

As part of the U.S. drive to crack down on proliferation, Bush in his speech Wednesday promised a push to expand law enforcement cooperation with the administration’s Proliferation Security Initiative, which aims to intercept shipments of weapons of mass destruction before they can be delivered to “rogue” nations.

In an important breakthrough Thursday, the State Department announced that the U.S. and Liberia had signed an agreement allowing each country to board sea vessels registered to the other that are suspected of carrying illicit shipments of weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems or related materials.

The agreement is considered significant because Liberia has the world’s second largest registry of ships, but under international law, authorities need permission of the flag-carrier state to search vessels for suspected contraband cargo.

“This agreement sends a strong signal to proliferators that the United States and Liberia will not allow the use of their vessels for the transport or transfer of items of proliferation concern,” the State Department said in a statement.

The interception by U.S. authorities of a ship carrying some of those components in October hastened Libya’s decision to abandon its weapons program and cooperate with the Americans and IAEA.

Efron reported from Washington and Frantz from Islamabad, Pakistan.