Iranian nuclear program and role of A.Q. Khan network in it

Iran’s nuclear aspirations had deep roots. They predated the 1979 Iranian Revolution that brought the current theocratic government to power, originating in the critical period of the mid-1970s. Flush with oil money, the Shah of Iran publicly declared that he wanted to move forward with an ambitious nuclear energy program. In 1976 Iran signed a deal with a Ger- man company to build nuclear reactors at Bushehr, on a sandy peninsula in the South East of Iran, on the coast of the Persian Gulf. Though the plant in Bushehr would ostensibly be devoted to nuclear power, U.S. intelligence suspected that the Shah also had a modest clandestine weapons development program or was at least keeping that option open through research work. As the same enrichment plants and reactors can be used for either purpose, it is difficult to tell whether facilities are for civilian purposes or for nuclear weapons. For the Shah, as with Iranian leaders decades later, nuclear technology was not just a means of delivering security but also a matter of prestige, a means of restoring status to the proud Persian people who had once ruled an empire.

Whatever the Shah’s real intent, his decision in turn led Saddam Hussein in Iraq to press his own officials to move forward with a nuclear program to balance that of neighboring Iran, a typical domino effect created by nuclear ambitions. Iran’s move was a “triggering factor,” explains Iraqi nuclear chief Jafar Dhia Jafar as Saddam purchased a reactor from France.1 Iran and Iraq were conscious of living in a dangerous neighborhood and were wary of each other’s ambitions. Each was fearful of being outpaced by the other. The smallest suspicion of a nuclear program on the part of a neighbor was enough to drive the other forward. Each would maintain the story that it was only nuclear power they were after not the bomb, but both knew that the same technology could easily be used for both.

From 1984 nuclear research in Iran had begun to pick up under the Speaker of Parliament (and later President) Hashemi Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani was a wily, enigmatic politician who would become a key proponent of developing Iranian nuclear capability. His task would not be easy: the 1979 revolution had left Iran with a paltry scientific and technological base with which to develop its own program. Thousands of students were sent abroad again and Iran even tried to lure former scientists back to the country but this was largely unsuccessful.5

China’s cooperation with Iran began in the mid-1980s in the field of missile technology. The first nuclear agreement came in 1989. In 1991 a major nuclear deal was signed when a senior Chinese official visited Iran, touring around facilities near the ancient city of Esfahan, one of Iran’s most historic sites situated south of Tehran. Secretly that year, China provided Iran with three cylinders, one large and two small, containing 1.8 tons of Uranium ore, a deal that Iran did not report to the IAEA. This allowed the Iranians to carry out experiments in the 1990s without the IAEA noticing any diversion of existing material that the agency had been monitoring. China also agreed to build the Iranians a complete uranium conversion plant at Isfahan. As the decade wore on, China grew warier of Iran’s intentions and the United States began to exert more and more pressure on China to halt its support. Eventually, a 1997 deal with the United States led China to cut off remaining assistance. But Iran already had the plans and continued to build the conversion facility at Esfahan using the Chinese designs.

Through the 1990s as China’s support waned, Russia was perceived as the main facilitator of any Iranian nuclear program.

The United States put in enormous amounts of diplomatic time and energy during the 1990s to try and prevent Russia and China from passing on technology to Iran in the field of both missile and nuclear technology. But while Russian and Chinese help was useful to the Iranians, there was another secret partner. Iran, just like Pakistan in the 1970s, had realized that the plutonium reprocessing route to the bomb was highly visible and thus subject to diplomatic pressure, but enrichment could be much easier to conceal. It was to be the enrichment route pioneered in Pakistan by A. Q. Khan and then exported to Iran that would bring Iran closest to the bomb. In many ways, the Iranian path would be a close parallel to that of Pakistan.

In 1985 the Iranian leadership made the decision to begin work on its own enrichment program. Researchers were told to scour through publicly available technical literature for any clues on how to master the complex technology. But the Iranians would find that it was far easier to buy in outside help than do all the difficult research themselves. They knew that Pakistan was developing the bomb and that Khan was the man who was working on it and so discreet inquiries began. It was under President Zia’s watch that the first contacts were made between Pakistan and Iran in the nuclear field and these were on an official state-to-state level.

Even though they were secret, some of the contacts were at the highest level between the two states. Iran-Pakistan relations had been difficult in the early 1980s as Pakistan was closer to Saudi Arabia who in turn was backing Iran’s enemy in its war, Iraq. But relations began to improve from around 1983. By 1986 economic and technical cooperation was increasing as Pakistan began importing Iranian oil. The Iranian president, Ali Khamenei, who would later become the country’s supreme leader, was a long-time proponent of the nuclear option and paid a visit to Pakistan in February 1986.

Iran signed up for a package from the Khan network comprising of P-1 designs, five hundred components for P-1 machines, as well as drawings for the more advanced P-2 centrifuge. The first deal provided designs and a shopping list, but this time the Iranians were getting more centrifuges and components, as well as designs for a much more efficient machine with which to enrich uranium. Following payment, these parts were delivered to Iran in two more consignments in late 1994 and early 1995. Tahir personally arranged for the transhipment of two containers of parts via Dubai using a merchant ship owned by an Iranian front company. Some components were shipped from storage in Dubai before payment was received, an unusual occurrence, making it possible that the network wanted to clear out the parts in a hurry from the ware- house in Dubai where they were stored, perhaps because they feared someone was on to them.

The centrifuges and components that Khan provided were secondhand cast-offs from the Pakistan program. It some ways, the deal looks almost like a “clear-out” sale from the warehouse run by the Khan network, offloading the bits and pieces no longer required that were stored in Dubai. This seems to be the case as there were odd numbers of components rather than a coherent set with the same quantities of each different part. It also explains why some of the material was shipped even before payment. Khan had been busy from the mid-1980s updating the centrifuges at Kahuta from the P-1 with its aluminium rotor to the more efficient P-2, which used maraging steel, leaving used machines and surplus components that could be sold.24 These were supposed to be sent to a company in Pakistan to be scrapped and destroyed. Instead, they appear to have been sold in a hurry on this occasion.

It is clear that Khan’s support was critical to Iran’s nuclear program and that Khan helped Iran overcome major technical hurdles. Both in the 1980s and 1990s, Khan helped jump start the Iranian program, allowing them to move much faster by providing plans, blueprints, technology, and advice.

But slowly Iran began to master the complex technology. By 2000 Iran was ready to begin the construction of the two enrichment facilities at Natanz: the smaller pilot plant was to have one thousand centrifuges, the larger fifty thousand. This would provide the capacity to produce highly enriched uranium for twenty to thirty nuclear weapons each year. Natanz was carefully built with deep bunkers reinforced by triple layers or con- crete and then covered with earth to hide their existence and to provide protection against any possible air strikes. A dummy building covered the vehicle entrance ramp and power lines were hidden. A building that housed the power supply was made to look like a cafeteria.

Analysts believe Iran could be pursuing is creating a secret parallel program, for a so-called “sneak out” capacity. A large declared facility makes it much easier to run a parallel undeclared facility since it provides cover for research and procurement activities. The fear is that Iran may have pursued such an option based around the P-2 information (and possibly material) it received from Khan.

The problem was that the scale and persistence of the contacts between Khan and Iran and particularly the large mid-1990s deals were missed (there were some rumors but no more). In the mid-1990s, just as the Iranian program was actually picking up a gear and becoming more secret, the expansion was missed, a failure that would have major consequences. U.S. intelligence on Iran became weaker with fewer sources. It was only at the end of the 1990s that there would be some signs of renewed Iranian activity. This was based around procurement patterns as European states began to report that dual-use technology, in other words technology that could be used for civilian or military purposes, was being sent to Tehran. British and American intelligence officials following Iran’s program had been aware that Iran was conducting research in both enrichment and reprocessing and was trying to buy components and materials. In the late 1990s some technical analysts in Britain warned that if Iran had enough fissile material, they judged the country would be able to build a bomb, perhaps, even a relatively advanced implosion device. However, at the time policymakers were trying to take advantage of the election of the moderate Mohammed Khatami as Iranian president in 1997, and there was resistance in pushing such views higher up the intelligence chain. Around 2000 the CIA also tried to pass on flawed information on the triggering mechanism for a nuclear weapon to the Iranians through a Russian agent, an- other indicator of the level of awareness and concern over the Iranian program long before it became public.47 The Iranians may have uncovered that operation but U.S. and Israeli intelligence are also believed to have tried to pass other flawed machinery and equipment to Iran to disrupt its program and cause technical difficulties.

Beginning in 2000 intelligence analysts in London and Washington watched Natanz being built. Every day they scoured satellite photography of the site they noted how the Iranians were clearly aware of the points at which satellites were not overhead to carry out certain work, leaving dis- crepancies between sequences of images (a trick they had apparently learned from the Indians in their 1998 test). The evidence of what was going on at the site was limited and no one was sure what was going on inside. There was some debate over what to do with the knowledge. Should it be made public? Should it be provided to the IAEA? But it was pointed out that building an enrichment site secretly did not actually break any of Iran’s international agreements, only the introduction of uranium and the carrying out of enrichment without notification would violate agreements and there was no proof yet of this kind of activity.

Every site that was revealed by the Iranian opposition in 2002 was already known to the British and American intelligence, but they had chosen not to show their hand. “It was not publicly known as it was secret information but it was shared among the close allies that work on this issue,” says Gary Samore who was in charge of non-proliferation in the White House until the start of 2001.48 But it was not appreciated just how far the Iranians had gone. Nor was Khan’s pivotal role in the Iranian program appreciated until it was too late. It was only after February 2003 when Olli Heinonen and the IAEA entered Natanz that a more complete picture began to emerge and with it the evidence of just how central Khan had been and how he had helped the Iranians move far faster than anyone suspected. Even now, much is still unknown about the scale of his assistance.

Excerpted from “Shopping for Bombs: Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity, and the Rise and Fall of the A.Q. Khan Network


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