On the eve of the Oct. 1 Iran-P5+1 talks "in a secluded villa on the edge of Geneva," IAEA director and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Mohamed ElBaradei said there was "no credible evidence" that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, despite claims to the contrary by British and Israeli intelligence.[1]  --  But he disagreed with Iranian claims that Tehran's Sept. 21 revelation of a hitherto unknown nuclear facility in Qom was in accord with Iran's obligation, saying that "Iran had been under an obligation to tell the agency 'on the day it was decided to construct the facility.'"  --  The New York Times, meanwhile, published an article of a very different tenor, saying that "some intelligence officials and inspectors," none of them named, "have suspected that Tehran maintained a network of clandestine nuclear sites, projects, and personnel that paralleled the nuclear program that Iran declared," and that "the hunt has long been on for a hidden production network that replicates the public one."[2]  --  The Times described a "set of documents obtained by Western intelligence agencies about something called the Green Salt Project," which Iran has dismissed as fabrications and forgeries, but which the Times has mentioned several dozen times in the past four years.  --  BACKGROUND:  Here is a summary of the history of Iran's nuclear program, as presented by William Broad and David Sanger in the New York Times of Mar. 5, 2006:  "In 1987, the Iranians secretly began buying drawings and parts for centrifuges from Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani nuclear expert. . . . [T]he deals eventually included parts for about 500 primitive used centrifuges.  --  Tehran, apparently unhappy with their quality, turned to Moscow.  In early 1995, it made a secret deal to buy an entire plant of centrifuges. . . . But after the Clinton administration persuaded Moscow to back out, Iran accelerated its secret drive to copy Dr. Khan's centrifuges.  It also started building the huge enrichment plant near Natanz, in central Iran. . . . In August 2002, Iranian dissidents revealed the existence of the Natanz site, beginning the current confrontation with the West.  The next year, Iran agreed to suspend work while negotiating with Europe over the program's fate. . . . Iran is also struggling to turn concentrated uranium ore, or yellowcake, into uranium hexafluoride, the toxic gas fed into the centrifuges for enrichment.  Such conversion is done at a site on the outskirts of Isfahan.  --  Iran began the conversion effort in the early 1990's, asking China to help build the complex.  But in 1997, the Clinton administration persuaded Beijing to stop the deal.  The Iranians got blueprints but little else.  So they started building on their own. . . . Iran, which tried to hide most of its nuclear sites, voluntarily revealed Isfahan to international inspectors in 2000.  But the plant encountered problems during its first runs in early 2004, its output laced with impurities, in particular molybdenum, a silvery element often found in uranium ore. . . . Western officials worry that the conversion has a secret side run by a military group seeking to integrate the nuclear program with the design of missiles that could deliver a weapon.  In a Jan. 31 report, the I.A.E.A. revealed that it had documentary evidence of a shadowy operation, the Green Salt Project.  Tehran dismissed the charge of a hidden military effort as baseless and later called the documents forgeries." ...


World news


By Julian Borger and Richard Norton-Taylor

** Mohamed ElBaradei says Iran was 'on the wrong side of the law' but rejects British intelligence claims **

Guardian (London)
September 30, 2009


The U.N.'s chief weapons inspector, Mohamed ElBaradei, said today he had seen "no credible evidence" that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, rejecting British intelligence allegations that a weapons program has been going on for at least four years.

The claims and counter-claims came on the eve of a potentially decisive meeting in Geneva between diplomats from six world powers and an Iranian delegation about Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

Iran insists its program is for peaceful purposes, and that there is nothing illegal about a uranium enrichment plant under construction near the city of Qom, the existence of which was revealed last week. Iranian leaders say they did not have to inform the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) until six months before the first uranium was processed.

But ElBaradei, the outgoing IAEA director general, publicly disagreed today, saying Iran had been under an obligation to tell the agency "on the day it was decided to construct the facility." He said the Iranian government was "on the wrong side of the law."

However, ElBaradei rejected British intelligence claims that Iran had reactivated its weapons program at least four years ago. By making the claims the U.K. broke with the official U.S. intelligence position that Iranian work on developing a warhead probably stopped in 2003. They said that even if there was a halt, as reported in a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) two years ago, the program restarted in late 2004 or early 2005.

British officials had been privately sceptical about the NIE finding since its publication in 2007, but this was the first time they had made detailed allegations about Iran's weapons program.

BND, the German intelligence organization, this year provided evidence in a court case saying it believed weapons work in Iran had continued after 2003. A leaked internal memo written by the IAEA also found that Iran probably had "sufficient information" to build a bomb, and that it had "probably tested" a high-explosive component of a nuclear warhead.

ElBaradei has angrily rejected claims from Israel, France, and the US that he had suppressed the internal IAEA report, saying all relevant and confirmed information had been presented to member states.

Tomorrow's talks will take place in a secluded villa on the edge of Geneva. The Iranian delegation will be led by its chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, who at a similar meeting in Switzerland last year delivered a lecture more than two hours long about recent Iranian history and the global balance of power. But he refused to discuss Iran's nuclear program.

Iranian officials say its program remains non-negotiable, despite five U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for Iran to suspend enrichment. Western negotiators say they will push for a date for an IAEA inspection of the Qom uranium plant, and further concrete steps from the Iranian government to restore international confidence in the peaceful purpose of its program. Failing that, multilateral talks will start on the imposition of more sanctions.

The Kremlin said today that the Russian position on sanctions would depend on the degree of Iranian cooperation with the IAEA. However, Russia and China are expected to resist the far-reaching measures aimed at Iran's energy sector being promoted by the U.S., Britain and France.



Middle East

By William J. Broad and David E. Sanger

New York Times (London)
September 30, 2009


They were two words heard round the world by the intelligence experts and atomic inspectors who are trying to decipher the riddle of the Iranian nuclear program.

On Monday evening, the chief of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, told Iranian state television that he and his colleagues were “working out a timetable for the inspection” of the just revealed nuclear site outside the holy city of Qom. Then Mr. Salehi said he was preparing a letter for international inspectors in Vienna “about the location of the facility,” adding, cryptically, “and others.”

That got everyone’s attention.

Since the start of the Iranian standoff with the West seven years ago, some intelligence officials and inspectors have suspected that Tehran maintained a network of clandestine nuclear sites, projects, and personnel that paralleled the nuclear program that Iran declared. Since inspectors visit the declared facilities, the thinking went, it would make little sense for the Iranians to divert fuel from them for a bomb project; the chances of being caught would be high.

So the hunt has long been on for a hidden production network that replicates the public one. The Friday revelation of the secret enrichment site outside Qom represents the first big breakthrough.

Mr. Salehi’s reference to “others” -- widely interpreted in the intelligence world as meaning other nuclear sites -- has given investigators guarded hope that more pieces of the Iranian nuclear puzzle may finally be coming into view.

That could start, they say, with shipments from a previously declared Iranian uranium mine near the Strait of Hormuz. Investigators have wondered about what happened to 30 to 50 tons of uranium from that mine that are unaccounted for.

But raw uranium is not the stuff of bombs. The Iranians would have to convert it into gas to move down the path to a weapon. As a result, investigators are looking anew at a set of documents obtained by Western intelligence agencies about something called the Green Salt Project, which some believe is meant to do exactly that.

Iran has previously dismissed the documents as fabrications and refused to answer questions from the International Atomic Energy Agency about them.

The project derives its name from uranium tetrafluoride, known as green salt, which is an intermediate product in the conversion of uranium ore into uranium hexafluoride. That is the gas that spinning centrifuges can enrich into fuel for nuclear reactors or, with a bit more enrichment, bombs.

There are also suggestions that the project coordinated work on high explosives that would provide the crushing force needed to start an atomic chain reaction, as well as design work for missile warheads.

“It makes a lot of sense now that they would have been working on all of these things,” one foreign intelligence official who has worked on the Iranian riddle for years said in an interview. The Qom plant, he added, “makes no sense in isolation.”

For years, the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna have struggled to persuade Iran to address the growing evidence of what they call a “possible military-nuclear dimension” to its nuclear program. Iran claims that its work is aimed solely at producing electrical power.

“It is against our tenets, it is against our religion, to produce, use, hold, or have nuclear weapons,” Mr. Salehi told Iranian television. “We have been saying this,” he said, for decades.