The New York Times November 20, 2004
Doubts Persist on Iran Nuclear Arms Goals
By Douglas Jehl and William J. Broad;
Elaine Sciolino contributed reporting from Paris for this article.
Despite having collected substantial information about Iran's nuclear and weapons programs over the last several years, Western officials have limited intelligence about the crucial question of whether Tehran is trying to meld those two programs to produce a nuclear warhead that can be carried by a missile, administration officials said Friday.
The inability to answer that question so far poses an obstacle to the Bush administration's efforts to press for a hard line against the Tehran government.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said this week that he had seen intelligence indicating that Iran was ''working hard'' to produce a functioning nuclear-tipped missile. American officials said Friday that while such an effort would not be surprising, it would be significant if the new intelligence is true. But they suggested the intelligence had come from a single source and had not yet been verified, a detail first reported by The Washington Post.
A State Department spokesman, Adam Ereli, defended Mr. Powell's comments on Friday, saying, ''We believe we are on very, very solid ground in pointing to a clandestine effort by Iran to develop weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems.''
United Nations inspections in 2003 disclosed that Iran was capable of enriching uranium, the main ingredient in a nuclear bomb. In the past year, they have deeply investigated Iran's nuclear program, which Iran says is for civilian use.
In recent days, the inspectors discovered that Iran had mastered a central technology needed to produce weapons-grade uranium that can be used to make nuclear bombs, Western diplomats based in Vienna said Friday.
But the inspectors, with the International Atomic Energy Agency, have not been able to shed much light on whether Iran has begun work on a covert nuclear program that could produce a weapon within the next several years, as Western intelligence agencies believe.
American allies in Europe have now reached an agreement with Iran to suspend work on its nuclear program. The accord has yet to take effect.
The Bush administration has been skeptical of the deal, and President Bush is expected to raise the issue of Iran when he meets in Chile on Saturday morning with Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian leader.
Iran may also be discussed next week when Mr. Powell attends a conference at an Egyptian resort, Sharm el Sheik, which representatives of Iran are also expected to attend.
In many ways, the state of Western knowledge about the civilian nuclear program acknowledged by Iran is much more extensive than was the state of knowledge about Iraq at the time of the American invasion in 2003, after a long period without United Nations inspectors there.
Still, the problem that the administration is facing on Iran, in seeking to enlist allies behind a confrontational approach on the basis of limited intelligence, has echoes of the dilemma the Bush administration faced before the Iraq invasion.
After the experience in Iraq, where American intelligence about illicit weapons turned out to be badly overstated, the lesson now being applied in the case of Iran is ''to be appropriately skeptical about intelligence claims, and to really do your homework,'' a State Department official said Friday.
''We're not in a Feb. 5 mode on Iran,'' the official said, referring to the date in 2003 when Mr. Powell presented what later proved to be a flawed case against Iraq to the United Nations Security Council, ''in the sense that we're not ready to submit our information to public scrutiny.''
Intelligence on Iran, as was the case with Iraq before the invasion, is riddled with holes, some current and former government officials acknowledge.
''Prior to the invasion of Iraq, we knew our intelligence on Iraq was inadequate but we did not realize how poor it actually was,'' said Kenneth M. Pollack, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst who is the author of a new book on Iran. ''Today, most intelligence officials believe that our intelligence about Iranian decision making and weapons of mass destruction is even more fragmentary and uncertain than what we believed to be our state of knowledge about Iraq.''
Even so, United Nations inspectors have learned in recent days that Iran is producing large amounts of uranium hexafluoride at the gas processing facilities at its vast installation in Isfahan, said Western diplomats who are in contact with the I.A.E.A. Although Iran's uranium enrichment process is frozen under the agreement announced Monday with Britain, France and Germany, Iran has said it will begin suspension of its enrichment activities on Dec. 22.
Officials in Vienna, Paris and London who are familiar with Iran's nuclear program said they suspected that Iran intended to prove to the world its mastery of the crucial step of the process before the agreement goes into effect.
Beyond the United Nations inspectors, intelligence about Iran has come from a variety of sources.
In recent years, some of the most important information about Iran's nuclear program has been brought to the attention of American intelligence by a dissident group, the People's Mujahedeen of Iran. That group, which issued new claims this week, has sometimes shown an inconsistent record as a source of intelligence information.
Former intelligence officials said that in recent months American intelligence officers have gained a new window on Iran as a result of their operations in neighboring Iraq. But it was not clear whether the large flow of new information being gathered on Iran from Iraq was proving reliable, the former officials said.
American intelligence officials have always described Iran as a hard target, because of the impenetrability of the clerical government, which along with Iran's intelligence service and Revolutionary Guards maintains a monopoly on sensitive national security information. The Bush administration has said it believes that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program, but it has not presented evidence to back up those assertions.
Beyond the debate over Mr. Powell's comments on Iran, experts have long known that it is pursuing advanced missile and atomic programs. Mr. Powell's comments were the strongest suggestion to date from an American official that Iran might have gone far toward melding these two efforts to create a deliverable nuclear warhead, potentially crossing a deadly line.
The Iranians say that their nuclear reactor program is for making electricity and that the rocket program for making conventional military arms as well as for putting satellites into orbit. But the size, secrecy and aggressiveness of both programs have sown doubt among federal and private experts.
Suspicions soared in the past year as European inspectors found that Iran had hidden some of its most sensitive nuclear work for as long as 18 years, and that some equipment bore traces of uranium pure enough to make nuclear arms. In August, a new surprise emerged as Iran test-fired a rocket that bore a suspicious-looking nose cone.
The rocket was an updated version of their Shahab-3 missile, and the test ignited a quiet debate among experts over whether its advanced nose cone was designed to carry a nuclear warhead. For two decades, the Iranians have been developing generations of long-range rockets with the aid of North Korea, and the Shahab, which means shooting star in Persian, stands at the cutting edge.
After last summer's test-firing, Charles P. Vick, an expert on the Iranian program at GlobalSecurity.org, a research group based in Alexandria, Va., said, ''What I've seen fly is a prototype for a nuclear warhead.''
But other experts said the nose cone might be part of Iran's preparations for launching a satellite into orbit, which Tehran has said it plans to do in April. It was too thin, one said, to hold a relatively crude nuclear weapon.
''These guys need all the space they can get'' atop a missile, said a European expert who closely follows the Iranian program.
GRAPHIC: Photos: Mansoureh Modjahedpour, 82, of Fairfax, Va., at a protest against Iran's leaders yesterday near the United States Capitol. She displayed a photograph of her son Mojtaba, who was abducted and killed in 1982. (Photo by Jay Talbott for The New York Times) In August, Iran test-fired a long-range rocket with a new nose cone design. Some experts asked if it had been intended for a nuclear warhead. (Photo by Farnood/Sipa)Chart: ''Iran's Updated Missile''Iran's updated Shahab-3 missile, tested in August, resembles its predecessor in all respects except for the nose shape. But it is this feature that raises speculation on the country's nuclear intentions.Range: 839 to 994 milesPayload: Warhead weighing 1,102 to 1,433 poundsSize: 52 feet long, with a diameter of 4 feet 5 inchesDerivation: North Korean Rodong-1SHAHAB-3ASHAHAB-3B, THE NEW DESIGNExperts say the unusual shape of the nose suggests the 3B is a prototype for carrying a nuclear warhead.(Source by C. P. Vick, Globalsecurity.org)
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