Inside Intel / How Iran Was Sold a Lemon

This past spring, when U.S. President George W. Bush invited his new director of national intelligence Admiral Michael McConnell for a discussion, he expressed his surprise and anger at the fact that the information about Iran's nuclear program was skimpy, and demanded that intelligence-gathering efforts be intensified to find more current, comprehensive information.

The U.S. Congress made a similar demand. Bush hoped that the new report would provide him with a solid intelligence foundation and a justification for concluding his term at the end of 2008 with a dramatic achievement: an attack on Iran's nuclear sites.

McConnell fulfilled the president's orders. In November he gave the White House and the Congress a National Intelligence Estimate about Iran. But as in the story of Balaam, who came to curse the Israelites and wound up blessing them, the report does not provide Bush with the intelligence he had hoped would justify the attack.

In effect, the report distances the Bush administration from deciding to attack Iran. The conclusion of the report is that in 2003, Iran froze its secret nuclear weapons program. However, the report emphasizes that Iran can renew the program at almost any given moment.

Since the publication of the main points of the report (four pages out of 150; the rest were kept secret) it has been at the center of a political dispute. This is essentially an international discourse among groups whose opinion is biased and predetermined. Those who supported a nuclear attack against Iran have criticized the report, and those who were opposed have welcomed it. Only a few have asked to examine the basis for the report, which takes into account the intelligence collection and analysis of all 16 agencies within American National Intelligence.

The report itself says it relies on many indicators, from a variety of human and technological sources. They include, among other things: agents in Iran; documents; wiretapped phone conversations and communications between senior Iranian government members and Revolutionary Guard members; satellite photos; aerial reconnaissance; ground photos taken by agents; soil, air and water samples from areas near nuclear plants and research laboratories; testimony from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors who visited nuclear sites in Iran; and an examination of the nuclear materials and equipment in Iran's possession.

The report is a product of cooperation between the main U.S. intelligence agencies - the CIA; the National Security Agency, which is responsible for wiretapping; the National Reconnaissance Office; the Air Force; the Navy; the Pentagon; and the State Department - as well as international cooperation. This is unprecedented cooperation, not only in terms of exchanging information and intelligence assessments, but also in terms of joint operations with other intelligence communities: British intelligence, including the GCHQ - Government Communication Headquarters, which operates a base in Cyprus that covers the entire Middle East; as well as French, Italian, Polish and - according to sources in the U.S. administration - Israeli intelligence.

It is very doubtful whether the British media's revelation that British intelligence believes American intelligence fell victim to a sophisticated Iranian fraud campaign is true, since one U.S. intelligence group investigated precisely this issue: Is our information merely Iranian psychological warfare? They ruled this option extremely unlikely.

To develop nuclear weapons, a country needs three things: fissionable material, technological expertise to assemble the fissionable material into a bomb (the "weapon group"), and a means of launching.

Since 1988, Iran secretly has been trying to achieve these three things. This began getting exposed between 2002 and 2004 by Western intelligence services, who "laundered" the information by means of IAEA reports, in order not to expose sources and methods of data collection.

Iran began producing fissionable material in a plant for enriching uranium in Natanz. It has means for launching (in the guise of Shihab missiles), although it is not clear whether Iran has the expertise and ability to install a nuclear warhead. As far as a weapons group, it turned out that Iran secretly purchased, by means of its foreign acquisition networks, beryllium and plutonium 210, which are required to create a bomb.

Another important discovery was a computer was dubbed "the laptop of death." In the spring of 2004, a mysterious hand made sure that IAEA inspectors would see drawings stored on a laptop belonging to an Iranian Atomic Energy Committee scientist. The computer contained about 1,000 pages of diagrams, drawings and calculations in Farsi regarding a facility for enriching uranium, and a computer simulation of a bomb detonating 600 meters above a target - a height considered ideal for a nuclear explosion. The drawings were prepared by an Iranian company called Kimeya Madon, which at the time of the discovery was no longer in operation. This fact increased suspicion that this was a straw company established by the Iranian defense department or the Revolutionary Guard.

The laptop had been smuggled from Iran to Germany, where it was handed over to German foreign intelligence, the BND. After inspecting it, the Germans transferred it to the CIA. The Iranians, as usual, denied a computer had been stolen from them. Afterward they claimed the information on the computer had been fabricated by Israeli intelligence in order to create the impression that Iran was developing a nuclear warhead. In the end, the Iranians claimed it was a real computer with real drawings, but of a conventional missile, not a nuclear warhead.

After additional inspections, with the help of the national nuclear laboratories Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California and Sandia National Labs in New Mexico, the American experts concluded this was "the real thing," an attempt to develop a nuclear warhead. Based on this and additional information, the American intelligence community concluded in 2005 that Iran had a clandestine program to develop nuclear weapons.

But since then, the American intelligence community has received more current information, which brought about the latest twist in the story. Apparently the new conclusion is based on the interception and deciphering of senior officers' conversations, which give the impression that Iran froze its clandestine program in 2003; and the testimony of General Ali Riza Asgari, the deputy defense minister and a senior member of the Revolutionary Guard, who defected to Turkey in 2007 and has received a new identity.

Vincent Cannistraro, former director of the CIA Counterterrorism Center, believed Asgari was a senior agent in the American or British intelligence who operated in Iran for a long time before defecting and providing important information on his country's nuclear program. Another important source of information was the straw companies established by Western intelligence bodies. Through these companies, they managed to penetrate the Iranian nuclear program, supplying it with defective equipment and giving it difficulties operating its uranium enrichment program at Natanz. According to various reports, the centrifuges with which Iran enriches uranium are collapsing and exploding. This kind of activity is called "poisoning the system."

On the basis of all this, the American intelligence community concluded that even if Iran renews its clandestine nuclear program, it will be unable to develop a nuclear bomb before 2013. And nevertheless, the report creates a contradiction: It states one of the reasons Iran stopped its military nuclear program was the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Iran was afraid it would be next. However, by publishing the report and cleansing Iran, the international pressure is being removed, and this will give the Iranians an incentive to renew their nuclear efforts.

Prof. Louis Rene Beres had no doubt that, in spite of the report's arguments, Iran is still trying to obtain nuclear weapons. Therefore, he says Israel must not stop preparing for a military attack in Iran. The report, he says, is "a shameless acknowledgment that Israel has been abandoned yet again by Washington." But in spite of that, "Israel's right of anticipatory self-defense against Iran is now greater than ever."

"Naturally, such a preemptive act of self-defense would be directed exclusively at Iranian hard targets (pertinent industrial and military infrastructures) and would be entirely conventional in nature," he says. "The American NIE notwithstanding, it is incontestable that Iran still seeks nuclear weapons and that its orientation toward Israel remains authentically genocidal."

Beres is a professor of international relations and law at Purdue University in Indiana. He was born in Switzerland, studied at Princeton and writes a great deal about Israel's security and nuclear policy. In recent years, he was a member of Project Daniel, a group of American and Israeli researchers, army officers, intelligence experts and political advisers, most of whom hold right-wing or conservative worldviews, are connected to the periodical Nativ and the Ariel College of Judea and Samaria's research center. Among them are former MK Yoash Tsiddon-Chatto and Dr. Rand Fishbein, a former member of the U.S. National Security Council and an aide to Senator Daniel Inouye (Democrat-Hawaii).

In 2003, the members of Project Daniel submitted a report to then-Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, emphasizing the dangers Israel faces from weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Arab countries and Iran, and their efforts to develop such systems.

"If Israel fails to exercise its legitimate right of anticipatory self-defense against Iran - a right that could even employ nuclear weapons according to the 1996 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice - it will then have to 'live' with a nuclear Iran," Beres says. "This is is the case because it is certain that no other state on this earth will act with courage, correctness and conviction in this matter." In that case, what is the significance of a nuclear Iran for Israel, the U.S. and Europe?

"Although no one can know for certain, it is highly unlikely that a sort of Cold War stability would ever be obtained between Israel and Iran," Beres says. "Rather, deterrence here would be inherently unstable, especially in view of obvious tilts toward irrationality displayed in Tehran. In the end, a decision to allow Iran to 'go nuclear' would heighten the probability of a regional nuclear war and - of course - of nuclear terrorism against the United States. Such a decision, therefore, would actually be distinctly 'anti-peace.'"

For years, this Haaretz writer has warned that Israel is becoming a refuge for shady arms dealers, who have sold non-Israeli weapons to various countries and groups. These dealers continued with their activities even when the UN Security Council and other international bodies passed resolutions forbidding them. The Defense Ministry responded to these publications mostly with denial, disregard and claims such as "We didn't know" and "We do not have legal tools to act against them."

This week, the Defense Ministry indirectly confirmed that Israel had in fact served as a refuge for such arms dealers. Before a new law on monitoring defense exports came into force, defense establishment legal adviser Ahaz Ben Ari warned that one of the important issues the law addresses is the monitoring of Israeli middlemen's involvement in the sale of foreign arms. Ben Ari warned at a convention of arms dealers and defense export companies, "Israel cannot be a refuge for people who deal in defense exports to places where the defense establishment has decided to impose an embargo." He also mentioned the serious punishments and high fines mandated by law for such activity.