Pressed, Iran Admits It Discussed Acquiring Nuclear Technology

Posted in Iran | 28-Feb-05 | Author: Elaine Sciolino and David E. S| Source: The New York Times

Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mohamed ElBaradei delivers a statement to the media prior to the start of the IAEA's 35-nation board of governors meeting, on Monday, Feb. 28, 2005, at Vienna's International Center.

As the International Atomic Energy Agency prepares to open a meeting today to review Tehran's nuclear program, Iranian officials have reluctantly turned over new evidence strongly suggesting that Iran discussed acquiring technologies central to making nuclear arms and hid that fact for 18 years, according to American and European officials.

The officials said the evidence, a document dated 1987, was handed over after I.A.E.A. investigators confronted Iranian officials with evidence gathered in interviews with members of the network run by Pakistan's top nuclear expert, A. Q. Khan. The document, according to officials who have seen it, includes an offer by Mr. Khan's representatives to provide a package of technologies - for a price that ran from tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a European diplomat - including the difficult-to-master process of casting uranium metal.

That is a critical step toward making the core of a nuclear warhead, though investigators note that Iran could come up with other explanations for why it wanted to fabricate uranium in a metal form.

Iran's contact with the network run by Mr. Khan has been known for some time. But the government's failure to turn over documents detailing the nature of those discussions until confronted with evidence is being cited by American and European investigators as another example of the country's continued reluctance to disclose the inner workings of its program, which Iran insists is for commercial energy production, not weaponry. Over the past two years, it has hidden nuclear facilities, including some designed to enrich uranium, until the I.A.E.A. confronted it with evidence and forced it to open those facilities to inspectors.

While Iran is believed to have taken up only parts of the deal offered by the Khan network, its scope appears to resemble the package deal that the network ultimately sold to Libya a decade later. Libya also received the blueprints for a Chinese-designed nuclear weapon; it is unclear whether Iran was offered the same plans.

The New York Times first reported the outlines of the 1987 negotiations in January 2004. The Washington Post published more details yesterday, including Iran's insistence, as it turned over the document, that it had turned down the opportunity to buy the technology necessary to build the core of a nuclear weapon.

The meeting today in Vienna is not expected to result in more than a progress report on Iran's compliance with I.A.E.A. inspections. Iran has voluntarily suspended enrichment of uranium while it negotiates with Britain, France and Germany about the future of its nuclear program, though Iranian officials say they have no intention of permanently giving up uranium production, as allowed for use in commercial reactors under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The 1987 nuclear offer does not prove that Iran has secretly been seeking to make a bomb, though it gives a sense of how aggressively Mr. Khan's network was peddling the bomb-making technologies to the country. European and American investigators said Iran cut back on its active contact with the network in the mid-1990's.

Still, European and American officials said they considered the 1987 offer as some of the best evidence to date that Iran sought, starting at least 18 years ago, to assemble the technologies needed to build a nuclear arsenal. It joins with accounts that have portrayed an elaborate Iranian effort to keep I.A.E.A. inspectors from finding centrifuges and other equipment and sites critical to producing both commercial and weapons-grade uranium.

"It adds a piece to the puzzle that makes the whole thing more incriminating," said one European official with access to the intelligence. "But is this a smoking gun? No. Does this make people more suspicious? Yes."

Despite the new document, the I.A.E.A. will present no clear-cut evidence that Iran is violating its nuclear agreement with the Europeans when the agency's 35-country ruling board begins meeting today, European and American officials said.

But the agency will fault Iran for conducting activities that erode an atmosphere of trust and that seem to conflict with the spirit of its agreement, which requires Iran to freeze its nuclear enrichment programs, the officials added.

Agency officials are also expected to remind the board of two outstanding, unresolved issues involving Iran's lack of complete cooperation, according to European diplomats.

One is Iran's incomplete explanation of how one type of its centrifuge machines, capable of enriching uranium for both energy and bombs, became contaminated with uranium enriched at levels high enough to be of more use for weapons than electricity production.

Another issue is Iran's refusal to disclose the history and extent of its efforts to import and manufacture the two types of centrifuges in its possession.

The United Nations atomic agency is also expected to criticize Iran for not giving its inspectors permission to visit a second time its vast military complex at Parchin near Tehran, a site that has been linked by the United States to possible nuclear arms research. During a visit in January, the agency was allowed to choose only one area of the site to visit.

"There haven't been many developments in the last six months, nothing new coming our way as a result of our inspections or new intelligence so we just continue to fine-tune the picture," Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said about Iran in an interview with American reporters in mid-February.

The board meetings follow official meetings in Europe last week with Iran's senior nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rowhani. In a meeting with President Jacques Chirac of France in Paris on Thursday, Mr. Rowhani complained that the negotiations that could eventually give Iran economic and political rewards in exchange for a total cessation of its enrichment activities were moving too slowly, a senior French official said.

In an interview with Le Monde published Friday, Mr. Rowhani charged that the Europeans were "incapable of keeping their promises," but added that as long as talks continued, Iran "will not start up enrichment activities."

For the first time in two years, Dr. ElBaradei will not present the board with a formal written report detailing the history and status of Iran's nuclear activities and where the government has fallen short in living up to its international commitments.

Rather, he will mention Iran only briefly in his speech to the board today, leaving it to Pierre Goldschmidt, one of his deputies, to follow up with a presentation laying out specific areas of concern the next day.

That tactical shift was accepted by the board, which includes the United States, at its last meeting in November. It does not reflect a softening of the view by the agency that Iran is guilty of 18 years of deception in developing a nuclear program. But it is a concession to Iran that there will only be a full and critical report if there is enough evidence to warrant it.

That guarantees that the board meetings will not be nearly as contentious as they were in November, when Iran nearly sabotaged the nuclear accord with the Europeans by initially demanding the right to operate 20 sophisticated centrifuge machines to enrich uranium for research purposes.

This time, the agency will fault Iran for building tunneling just north of its uranium conversion facility at Isfahan without informing the agency before construction started, the officials said.

Construction on the tunnel, which has two entrances, began last fall was and first noticed by agency inspectors on satellite photos. When confronted, Iran said the tunneling was needed to store nuclear materials in case of an attack, and provided diagrams of the site.

The existence of the tunneling was first disclosed in November by the German magazine Der Spiegel, but received little attention and was not included in the lengthy report to the agency's board that month.

In the interview with Le Monde, Mr. Rowhani did not deny the tunneling, but said: "From the moment the Americans threaten to attack our nuclear sites, what are we to do? We have to put them somewhere."

The agency will also fault Iran for moving some nonessential centrifuge parts from its nuclear installation at Natanz, to a quality-control laboratory near Isfahan.

After the agency's inspectors uncovered the activity in December, it advised Iran to stop, explaining that quality-control work even on ordinary nuts and bolts could be considered part of the centrifuge manufacturing process and therefore a violation of its agreement with the Europeans.

When Iran did not stop, but brought more parts to be tested, the agency brought the issue to Mr. Rowhani himself and said it would have to report the matter to the board. It also reported the matter to Britain, Germany and France.

A final - although less serious - issue is that Iran conducted maintenance work on some valves involved in the enrichment program that were either broken or contaminated at the Natanz site. Iran said the work was necessary for safety reasons.

The Natanz site was under the agency's surveillance cameras, but the fact that Iran did not tell the agency what is was doing has caused suspicion that Iran is not acting in good faith.

It will be up to France, Britain and Germany - the three European countries that reached the nuclear accord with Iran in November - to decide how serious those activities are, the officials said.

Among Western officials, there is a sense that Iran wants to keep its nuclear program operating, both to underscore its determination never to give up its right to develop a peaceful nuclear ability and to keep commercial contracts alive and vast numbers of technicians and workers employed.

"They chip away at the confidence issue," said one British official. "But in the grand scheme of things, they are relatively minor activities."

William J. Broad contributed reporting for this article.