Wednesday, June 25, 2003

CIA finds papers, parts in Iraq for enriching uranium

By Bill Gertz

The CIA has uncovered components of a gas centrifuge used to enrich weapons-grade uranium, and a stack of nuclear arms documents in the back yard of an Iraqi scientist, an indication Baghdad was hiding its arms program for future use, a U.S. intelligence official said yesterday.

Iraqi scientist Mahdi Shukur Obeidi, who came forward with the documents and components in late May, hid the items in his back yard under a rosebush 12 years ago, said an official familiar with details of the discovery. Officials confirmed the discovery after it was first reported by CNN.

"These documents and components were deliberately hidden at the direction of Iraq's senior leadership with the aim of preserving the regime's capacity to resume construction of a centrifuge that at some point could be used to enrich uranium for a nuclear device," the intelligence official said.

The official said that the discovery was "not a smoking gun" indicating that Iraq had nuclear weapons, only that it planned to develop them once United Nations sanctions barring Iraq from operating a nuclear-weapons program were lifted. The sanctions were imposed after the Persian Gulf war.

"Their existence validates our long-standing view that Iraq had hidden nuclear technology," the official said. "And this new evidence indicates that the Iraqis concealed proscribed documents and examples of critical centrifuge components, some of them extremely difficult to manufacture, in contravention of U.N. Security Council resolutions."

David Kay, a former U.N. weapons inspector now working as an adviser to the CIA, said the finding in Iraq "begins to tell us how huge our job is."

"Remember his material was buried in a barrel behind his house in a rose garden," Mr. Kay told CNN. "There's no way that that would have been discovered by normal international inspections. I couldn't have done it. My successors couldn't have done it."

The centrifuge components were part of Iraq's pre-1991 uranium-enrichment program, the official said.

"Doctor Obeidi told us [the documents] represent a complete set of what would be needed to rebuild a uranium-enrichment program," the official said.

The scientist also disclosed to U.S. intelligence that the concealment of the components and documents were "part of a secret high-level plan to reconstitute the nuclear weapons program once sanctions ended," the official said.

The components include some of the most difficult parts of a centrifuge to produce. Centrifuges require high-strength steel and special bearings because of the high speeds involved in the spinning process.

The disclosure comes as U.S. intelligence agencies are under fire from critics in Congress who said intelligence on Iraq's hidden weapons of mass destruction were exaggerated to support the policy of going to war.

So far, no hidden stocks of weapons have been found, but two mobile vans were found. U.S. intelligence analysts believe the vans were part of Iraq's hidden biological-weapons program.

"I don't want this to proliferate because of the potential consequences if it falls in the hands of tyrants and the hands of dictators or of terrorists," Mr. Obeidi told CNN.

Officials said Mr. Obeidi and his family were relocated out of Iraq to a third country.

Iraq secretly developed a gas-centrifuge program in the early 1990s that was kept secret from U.S. intelligence until shortly before the start of the 1991 Persian Gulf war. The disclosure showed that before that war, Iraq was close to producing a nuclear bomb.

Gas centrifuges are used to spin gaseous uranium hexafluoride that is enriched into the fuel of a nuclear bomb.

Centrifuges were used to make the first U.S. atomic bombs and the technology is considered the earliest method of making the fissionable material for a bomb. The centrifuges have no other purpose but uranium enrichment.

Army Lt. Gen. John P. Abizaid, the nominee to be the next commander of the U.S. Central Command, said during his Senate confirmation yesterday he believes Iraq's weapons eventually will be found.

Gen. Abizaid told the Armed Services Committee that he is confident that evidence "at some point ... will lead us to actual weapons of mass destruction."

The general told senators that at one point recently he called his top staff together and asked if anyone believed no weapons would be found. "And to a man and to a woman, they all said we would find it," he said. "So the confidence of the intelligence professionals and my confidence in them was high, and actually it remains high."

Friday, June 06, 2003

U.N. faults Iran's nuclear program

By Sharon Behn

A U.N. watchdog agency accused Iran yesterday of failing to abide by international safeguards on its nuclear program, bringing an immediate U.S. demand that Tehran disclose all aspects of its nuclear activities.

"Iran has failed to meet its obligation ... with respect to the reporting of nuclear material, the subsequent processing and use of that material and the declaration of facilities where the material was stored and processed," the Vienna, Austria-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concluded in a hard-hitting report distributed to member states yesterday.

But the agency added that Iran is beginning to correct this problem.

"While these failures are in the process of being rectified by Iran, the process of verifying the correctness and completeness of the Iranian declarations is still ongoing," said the report, according to Agence France-Presse. AFP said the conclusions were made available to the news agency by a diplomat.

The report is likely to be seen as a vindication of U.S. efforts to pressure other governments to halt aid to Iran's nuclear programs.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, "We think the report, and Iran's programs themselves, are deeply troubling and need to be studied carefully by all members."

"Iran's clandestine nuclear program represents a serious challenge to regional stability, the entire international community, and the global nonproliferation regime. The U.S. will work with other members of the IAEA to ensure proper response," the department said in a statement.

The IAEA noted that Iran has said it will address the problems pointed to in the report, while officials in Tehran defended their country's record.

"We have answers for all the points mentioned," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told the Reuters news agency. "We have done nothing which violates our commitments."

IAEA "safeguard agreements" are designed to ensure that countries that are a party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) do not divert materials or use facilities to develop covert nuclear-weapons programs.

A U.S. official familiar with the process said the Bush administration was studying the report carefully and would be discussing it at length at the IAEA board of governors' meeting in Vienna on June 16.

President Bush has included Iran in his "axis of evil" that also includes Iraq and North Korea, and some in the Bush administration have pushed for a hard line against Tehran and its military programs in the wake of the Iraq war.

But "this was not a shot across the bow," said Rachel Bronson, director of Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Given the fact that Iran is in violation, you could have had a much more gloating, aggressive stance by the administration."

The United States has complained that a nuclear complex near the Iranian town of Natanz involved a uranium-enrichment plant, belying Iran's assertions that its nuclear program was for electricity production and strictly civilian.

"They don't need nuclear energy to produce energy in their country. They have sufficient energy from fossil-fuel sources, from gas and from oil. So that raises a concern," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer insisted late last month.

As an IAEA member, Iran is obliged to state whether it is involved in any activity in violation of the atomic energy agency's safeguards, including whether there is a processing plant that could be used in the development of nuclear weapons.

The report is the result of a round of comprehensive inspections and a tour of Iran's nuclear sites in February by IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei.

Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, co-chairman of the congressional Bipartisan Task Force on Nonproliferation, said the report reinforced his call for international nuclear inspections in Iran conducted without warning and without interference from officials in Tehran.

"Iran is violating the NPT by building nuclear facilities that could lead to the development and production of nuclear weapons," he said.

"Iran has denied this for some time, but it has been obvious to anyone who has paid attention, and now, finally, the IAEA has confirmed Iran's violations of their safeguards agreement for the rest of the world."

"We need to end the proliferation of nuclear weapons in Iran before they get much further down that path," Mr. Markey said.

According to the report, the IAEA is seeking more information about the role of uranium metal in Iran's nuclear-fuel cycle, as well as answers to questions relating to the use of heavy water, including heavy-water production and heavy-water reactor design and construction, the official said.

"The Natanz program was much more advanced than anyone had anticipated," said Miss Bronson.

The Bush administration has criticized Russia's decision to help build Iran's first reactor at Bushehr. But Moscow has dismissed charges it is helping Tehran develop nuclear weapons, insisting that any spent fuel would be returned to Russia.

"All we are doing within the framework of this cooperation is absolutely in all details in compliance" with the NPT, said Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Georgy Mamedov in an interview with the Russian newspaper Vremya Novostei, published yesterday.

Mr. Mamedov also discounted accusations that Iran was possibly working on a nuclear-weapons program.

"There are no evidences of the existence of that program, we believe. I stress the IAEA so far has identified no violations by Iran of the NPT."