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Case Against Iran Differs From Iraq

Times Staff Writer

In stark contrast to U.S. allegations against Iraq three years ago that were based on secret intelligence, today’s suspicions about Iranian nuclear ambitions draw on evidence made public by a U.N. agency, the same one that found no case against Saddam Hussein.

The information appears in a series of reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear monitoring arm, whose latest assessment of the material is due out early this week. The IAEA has credibility internationally as an impartial analyst, which may explain the greater consensus in the world community about the need for a concerted response to Iran.

“Since Iraq, who’s going to believe intelligence? Who is going to believe anybody but a neutral agency?” said Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy, the Egyptian ambassador to Austria and a vice chair of the IAEA board of governors.

U.S. officials agree that the agency’s role on Iran has been crucial.

“If the information comes from the inspectors on the ground, it is more readily acceptable.... I think there are very few governments that have any doubts about Iran’s intentions at this point,” said Robert Joseph, the undersecretary of State for nuclear nonproliferation.

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When the Security Council gets Iran’s case next month, it will base any decision about sanctions on the agency’s reports, which show a concerted effort to enrich uranium and signs of interest in learning how to make and detonate a nuclear bomb.

Although the reports hardly provide proof that Iran seeks the capability to make a nuclear weapon, they describe a number of activities that are difficult to square with purely civilian intentions.

Iran has argued that nuclear-armed countries, such as the United States and Britain, are casting Tehran’s behavior in the worst light to stop its efforts to advance by gaining sophisticated technology. But experts from many nations say that Iran’s failure to disclose its nuclear program for 18 years to the IAEA, as required under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, casts doubt on Tehran’s explanations. Western countries say their intelligence dovetails with the IAEA reports, and in some cases goes further.

In the months before the Iraq invasion, information about nuclear, chemical and biological weapons gathered by U.S. and British intelligence sources formed the case for going to war. It turned out that some of the evidence was fabricated and some just plain wrong.

Gary Samore, a former advisor to President Clinton on nuclear nonproliferation, said of the case against Iran: “I don’t think you have to trust the U.S. or the British.... Is Iran building an enrichment plant? Yes. Does it create a nuclear weapons option? Yes. So to me all these secret documents, they are interesting, but I think it’s really irrelevant to the central issue. Iran is trying to develop an industrial-scale [uranium] enrichment facility.”

The enrichment process converts raw uranium ore into fissionable material, the most difficult component of a nuclear weapon to obtain. The same basic process produces both low-level enriched uranium, which can be used for nuclear reactors that generate electricity, and, with technical adjustments and additional processing, the highly enriched uranium used for bombs.

The IAEA reports leave open the possibility that Iran may still have a secret program, this one with military connections, to enrich uranium. In particular, there is some evidence that Iran tried to obtain sophisticated, ultra-fast centrifuge machines known as P-2s, which could cut in half the time it takes to make highly enriched uranium.

“The risk is [if] they have a P-2 program we don’t know about.... Then they could have the bomb in a year,” said a senior U.S. diplomat who declined to be identified.

There is also evidence that Iran had plans to develop a second processing facility to convert raw uranium into “green salt,” an intermediary stage before it is turned into a gas that can be fed into centrifuges. Those plans were found in a military facility, making them all the more suspect. Iran previously refused to answer questions about green salt, but over the weekend IAEA inspectors flew to Iran because Tehran finally said it was prepared to explain the design plans.

Iranian officials deny any interest in making a nuclear weapon and have told IAEA inspectors that all nuclear activities are managed by a civilian government agency.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA director-general, resists drawing any conclusions other than those based strictly on the scientific data unearthed by his inspection teams. His agency’s information remains less than conclusive; Iran has repeatedly stymied IAEA inspectors in their effort to understand how far the country’s nuclear program has progressed toward perfecting the technology for enriching uranium and toward figuring out how to turn the enriched uranium into a weapon.

But enough questions remain that at an emergency meeting of the IAEA board of governors this month, ElBaradei could offer no assurances that Iran’s aspirations were solely peaceful. ElBaradei said Iran posed no “imminent threat,” hardly a ringing endorsement.

Iran’s record of secrecy and its reluctance to answer questions from U.N. nuclear inspectors have heightened distrust.

“You can certainly say suspicions are mounting,” said a Western diplomat familiar with the evidence under review by the IAEA, but not authorized to speak publicly about the program.

The difficulty for the United States and the European Union is that they read Iran’s record as pointing inexorably in one sinister direction, whereas most nonaligned and Muslim countries see Iran as struggling to retain its right to civilian enrichment despite some unsettling transgressions.

Russia and China, two crucial players on the Security Council, reluctantly went along with referring Iran to the council this month, but have made it clear that they do not view Iran’s actions as egregious enough to warrant sanctions.

Moscow is holding talks with Tehran over building a joint uranium-enrichment facility on Russian soil. The EU and the U.S. say that would be acceptable as long as Iran completely gives up domestic development of nuclear fuel technology.

Iranian officials said Sunday that a deal with Russia was close. But Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov, cautioned that negotiations were far from complete and that the Iranians had yet to agree to a moratorium on domestic fuel cycle development.

“We’ve never had a smoking gun like a [secret enrichment] facility to point the IAEA to,” a U.S. diplomat said. “Test documents and blueprints and designs, human sources and intercepts say that Iran is eager to obtain its own fissile material, but we’re lacking what the Russians and Chinese would consider conclusive.”

David Albright, a former IAEA weapons inspector who closely tracks Iran, urged caution in drawing conclusions. He agreed that even with the intelligence gathered by the United States, the evidence was not “a smoking gun.”

“Maybe everybody’s instincts are right” that Iran seeks nuclear weapons capability, he said, but because “international law is involved, [and] sanctions, possible military action, it should be based on very solid information.”

Iran’s aspiration to a civilian nuclear program is within its rights as a signatory of the nonproliferation treaty, the 1968 agreement that allows the development of nuclear technology to generate electricity and for other peaceful purposes. However, the treaty prohibits the acquisition of technology for weapons systems unless the country already had nuclear weapons when it signed the treaty, which Iran did not. And regardless, all countries must report any activities associated with uranium enrichment to the IAEA.

The IAEA has been investigating two military sites in Iran. One is Lavisan-Shian near Tehran; the other is Parchin. After several rounds of questions and visits to Parchin, IAEA inspectors appear satisfied that the Iranians did not conduct any nuclear activity there.

Lavisan-Shian is another story. A vast site that was razed shortly after Iran’s clandestine nuclear program was revealed, Lavisan was operated by the Defense Ministry. Iranian officials said the site’s flattening was part of a long-planned agreement with the city of Tehran, but turning the earth repeatedly also makes it almost impossible to detect traces of enriched uranium.

One of the facilities on the military site was the Physics Research Center. According to IAEA documents, the center imported large quantities of dual-use materials, including magnets and fluorine handling equipment that can be used for uranium enrichment. Weapons inspectors have asked for access to the equipment and to the man who headed the center, but the Iranians have yet to give access to either.

A second piece of evidence suggesting a military connection was a 15-page document that described how to purify uranium gas to the point that it becomes a dense metal and how to cast it into the hemispheric forms that can be affixed to a missile. The document was found in a box along with hundreds of other papers that Iran turned over to the inspectors.

“No one is sure whether they meant to turn it over, or just didn’t realize it was in the papers they were giving them,” a Western diplomat in Vienna said.

The significance of the document is that it is the rough design for a bomb. “To make a bomb, you put two hemispheres together into a ball and you have this circular core, and then you surround it with detonators,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, a nonproliferation expert at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies and a former State Department advisor on nonproliferation.

Iran contends, however, that the network of rogue Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, from which it obtained models and centrifuge equipment for setting up a uranium-enrichment facility, threw in the weapons design as an extra. Although that is implausible to the Americans and other Western intelligence sources, other experts say it could be true.

The IAEA noted that the document lacked dimensions or other specifications, suggesting that it was far from specific design material. Former weapons inspector Albright, who has examined the design information Khan’s network gave to other countries, says that Iran’s hemisphere document is similar to weapons design information, but far less detailed and complete.

“The document has a distinctive character,” Albright said. “It looks like what was found in South Africa ... part of a much bigger set of documents used by the Khan network. The question is, did Iran get the whole set?”

U.S. government officials and other Western intelligence sources underscore, however, that Iran has had the material for more than 15 years and that it is impossible to rule out that it has done further research into how to make enriched uranium.

“There is no real peaceful use for hemispheric uranium,” said a U.S. diplomat who has reviewed the document.

Some of the most recent intelligence shared with the IAEA by the United States included the drawings of the suspected green-salt facility. They were found with designs for modifying the nose cone of Iran’s Shahab-3 missile so that it could accommodate a hemisphere that U.S. intelligence sources believe is consistent with a nuclear bomb.

IAEA analysts are worried about the possibility that the Iranians have moved beyond the design stage, although even designs for a facility that processes uranium must be disclosed to the agency under the nonproliferation treaty.

“A green-salt facility would be very problematic because it has to do with nuclear material that is not declared to the IAEA,” said a diplomat in Vienna familiar with the agency’s thinking. “That Iran might not have declared uranium enrichment to the IAEA is bad enough, but undeclared activity on a military site is even worse -- it’s a smoking gun.”

Western intelligence sources have also said they found drawings of what appeared to be a 400-yard-deep shaft that they believe was to be used to test a nuclear weapon. Several miles away was a control-and-communications facility.

“It makes no sense for conventional weapons,” said an American diplomat who has seen the material. “It makes no sense for testing anything other than small nuclear explosives.”

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Times staff writers Paul Richter in Washington and Kim Murphy in Moscow contributed to this report.


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