Skepticism over Iranian nuclear data

U.S. has texts from stolen computer that reportedly prove arms program

November 13, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In mid-July, senior U.S. intelligence officials called the leaders of the international atomic inspection agency to the top of a skyscraper overlooking the Danube in Vienna and unveiled the contents of what they said was a stolen Iranian laptop computer.

The Americans flashed on a screen and spread over a conference table selections from more than a thousand pages of Iranian computer simulations and accounts of experiments, saying they showed a long effort to design a nuclear warhead, according to a half-dozen European and American participants in the meeting.

The documents, the Americans acknowledged, do not prove that Iran has an atomic bomb. They presented them as the strongest evidence yet that, despite Iran's insistence that its nuclear program is peaceful, the country is trying to develop a compact warhead to fit atop its Shahab missile, which can reach Israel and other Middle East countries.

The briefing for officials of the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency, including its director, Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, was a secret part of a U.S. campaign to increase international pressure on Iran. But while the intelligence has sold well among countries like Britain, France and Germany, which reviewed the documents as long as a year ago, it has been a tougher sell with countries outside the inner circle.

The computer contained studies for crucial features of a nuclear warhead, said European and U.S. officials who had examined the material, including a telltale sphere of detonators to trigger an atomic explosion. The documents specified a blast roughly 2,000 feet above a target -- considered a prime altitude for a nuclear detonation.

Nonetheless, doubts about the intelligence persist among some foreign analysts. In part, that is because U.S. officials, citing the need to protect their source, have largely refused to provide details of the origins of the laptop computer beyond saying that they obtained it in mid-2004 from a longtime contact in Iran. Moreover, this chapter in the confrontation with Iran is infused with the memory of the faulty intelligence on Iraq's unconventional arms. In this atmosphere, though few countries are willing to believe Iran's denials about nuclear arms, few are willing to accept the United States' weapons intelligence without question.

Robert G. Joseph, the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, who led the July briefing, called the warhead intelligence one of many indicators "that together lead to the conclusion Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons capability."

Even if the documents accurately reflect Iran's advances in designing a nuclear warhead, Western arms experts say that Iran is still far away from producing the radioactive bomb fuel that would form the warhead's heart. U.S. intelligence agencies recently estimated that Iran would have a working nuclear weapon no sooner than the early years of the next decade.

Still, nuclear analysts at IAEA studied the laptop documents and found them to be credible evidence of Iranian strides, European diplomats said. A dozen officials and nuclear weapons experts in Europe and the United States with detailed knowledge of the intelligence said in interviews that they believed it reflected a concerted effort to develop a warhead. "They've worked problems that you don't do unless you're very serious," said one European arms official. "This stuff is deadly serious."

In fact, some nations that were skeptical of the intelligence on Iraq -- including France and Germany -- are deeply concerned about what the warhead discovery could portend, according to several officials. But the Bush administration, seeming to understand the depth of its credibility problem, is only talking about the laptop computer and its contents in secret briefings, more than a dozen so far.

President Bush has never publicly referred to the documents.

Until now, there has been only one official reference to them: A year ago in a conversation with reporters, Colin L. Powell, then secretary of state, briefly referred to new, missile-related intelligence on Iran. Since then, reports in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and other publications have revealed some details of the intelligence.

In interviews in recent weeks, analysts and officials from six countries in Europe and Asia revealed a more extensive picture of the intelligence briefings. In turn, several U.S. officials confirmed the intelligence. All who spoke did so on the condition of anonymity.

Officials said scientists at U.S. weapons labs, as well as foreign analysts, had examined the documents for signs of fraud. Officials said they found the warhead documents, written in Persian, convincing because of their consistency and technical accuracy and because they showed a progression of developmental work from 2001 to early 2004.

The Iranians deny any knowledge of the warhead plans.

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