U.N. calls U.S. data on Iran's nuclear aims
Tips about supposed secret weapons sites and documents with
missile designs haven't panned out, diplomats say.
By Bob Drogin and Kim Murphy, Times Staff Writers
Angeles Times" -- - VIENNA — Although
international concern is growing about Iran's nuclear program
and its regional ambitions, diplomats here say most U.S.
intelligence shared with the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency has
proved inaccurate and none has led to significant discoveries
The officials said the CIA and other Western spy services had
provided sensitive information to the Vienna-based International
Atomic Energy Agency at least since 2002, when Iran's
long-secret nuclear program was exposed. But none of the tips
about supposed secret weapons sites provided clear evidence that
the Islamic Republic was developing illicit weapons.
"Since 2002, pretty much all the intelligence that's come to us
has proved to be wrong," a senior diplomat at the IAEA said.
Another official here described the agency's intelligence stream
as "very cold now" because "so little panned out."
The reliability of U.S. information and assessments on Iran is
increasingly at issue as the Bush administration confronts the
emerging regional power on several fronts: its expanding nuclear
effort, its alleged support for insurgents in Iraq and its
backing of Middle East militant groups.
The CIA still faces harsh criticism for its prewar intelligence
errors on Iraq. No one here argues that U.S. intelligence
officials have fallen this time for crudely forged documents or
pushed shoddy analysis. IAEA officials, who openly challenged
U.S. assessments that Saddam Hussein was developing a nuclear
bomb, say the Americans are much more cautious in assessing
American officials privately acknowledge that much of their
evidence on Iran's nuclear plans and programs remains ambiguous,
fragmented and difficult to prove.
The IAEA has its own concerns about Iran's nuclear program,
although agency officials say they have found no proof that
nuclear material has been diverted to a weapons program.
Iran's Islamist government began enriching uranium in small
amounts in August in a program it says will provide fuel only
for civilian power stations, not nuclear weapons.
On Thursday, the IAEA released a report declaring that Iran had
expanded uranium enrichment and defied a Security Council
deadline to suspend nuclear activities. In the meantime, the
agency is locked in a dispute with Tehran over additional
information and access to determine whether the program is
In November 2005, U.N. inspectors leafing through papers in
Tehran discovered a 15-page document that showed how to form
highly enriched uranium into the configuration needed for the
core of a nuclear bomb. Iran said the paper came from Pakistan,
but has rebuffed IAEA requests to let inspectors take or copy it
for further analysis.
Diplomats here were less convinced by documents recovered by
U.S. intelligence from a laptop computer apparently stolen from
Iran. American analysts first briefed senior IAEA officials on
the contents of the hard drive at the U.S. mission here in
The documents included detailed designs to upgrade ballistic
missiles to carry nuclear warheads, drawings for subterranean
testing of high explosives, and two pages describing research on
uranium tetrafluoride, known as "green salt," which is used
during uranium enrichment. IAEA officials remain suspicious of
the information in part because most of the papers are in
English rather than Persian, the Iranian language.
"We don't know. Are they genuine, are they real?" asked a senior
U.N. official here. Another official who was briefed on the
documents said he was "very unconvinced."
Iran's representative to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh,
dismissed the laptop documents as "fabricated information."
Iran, he said, has produced 170 tons of "green salt" at a
uranium conversion facility in Esfahan that is monitored by the
"We are not hiding it," he said in an interview. "We make tons
of it. These documents are all nonsense."
The U.S. government is not required to share intelligence with
the IAEA, and relations between Washington and the U.N. agency
are at times testy. In March 2003, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei
embarrassed the White House when he told the U.N. Security
Council that documents indicating Hussein's government in Iraq
had sought to purchase uranium in Niger were forged. The Bush
administration subsequently opposed ElBaradei's reappointment to
While it confronts Iran's nuclear ambitions, the Bush
administration also has tried to implicate Iran as a supplier of
munitions and training for insurgent groups in neighboring Iraq.
But the quality of its information has limited this effort too.
U.S. officials recently compiled evidence purporting to show
that the Iranian Quds Force, an elite unit of the Revolutionary
Guard, had supplied Iranian-made weapons to Shiite militias that
have attacked U.S. forces in Iraq.
After U.S. officials unveiled the evidence to reporters in
Baghdad two weeks ago, however, Secretary of Defense Robert M.
Gates and other Pentagon officials scrambled to retreat from the
incendiary claim that the "highest levels" of the Tehran
government were directly involved.
"I don't know if it goes to the highest levels of the
government," Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the officer in
charge of daily operations in Iraq, told Pentagon reporters
Thursday. "What we do know is that the Quds Force has had
involvement with some extremist groups in Iraq."
Washington has sought to pressure Tehran into halting the supply
of "explosively formed projectiles" that are able to penetrate
heavily armored vehicles. The projectiles represent only a small
percentage of roadside bomb attacks in Iraq, but they are far
more lethal than ordinary explosives.
Administration officials also cite a growing effort by the
militant group Hezbollah, an Iranian protege and ally based in
Lebanon, to aid anti-American Shiite forces in Iraq.
U.S. military officials contend that Hezbollah has provided
training in Lebanon to hundreds of members of the Al Mahdi
militia, which is controlled by radical anti-American cleric
Muqtada Sadr. A smaller number of Hezbollah forces reportedly
have entered Iraq through Syria to provide such training.
The administration has ordered a second aircraft carrier group
into the Persian Gulf, a reminder that President Bush could
order an airstrike on Iran's nuclear sites even while U.S.
forces are tied down in Iraq. But White House officials have
denied that an attack is imminent.
Given the lack of clear evidence, Iran's strategic goals in Iraq
are a matter of debate, and concern has spread about its growing
influence there. Although Iran is mostly Persian and Iraq is
mostly Arab, both have majority Shiite populations that have
kept close religious, economic and cultural ties for centuries.
Iran's rulers view the U.S. as meddling in their backyard, or at
least in their sphere of influence.
Some outside experts think the Islamic Republic seeks to keep
the United States tied down indefinitely in Iraq and will
actively resist a settlement there for fear that Washington will
next turn its guns on Iran.
Ali Ansari, an expert on Iran at St. Andrews University in
Scotland and author of "Confronting Iran," counters that Iran
and America share some interests.
Iran is "looking for a stable Iraq," he said. "They want an Iraq
that is not fragmented. But the difference would be that they
don't want an Iraq that is militarily strong. They want an Iraqi
government that is elected democratically, which means a Shia
But Sunni-dominated governments in Egypt, Jordan and especially
Saudi Arabia have pushed the U.S. to expand Sunni representation
in Iraq's leadership as a way of countering Tehran. Some experts
fear that a nuclear-armed Iran would spark a regional arms race.
John D. Negroponte, former director of national intelligence,
told a House committee last month that Iran had extended its
"shadow in the region" since the U.S. ousted hostile regimes on
its borders: the Taliban in Afghanistan and Hussein's government
Iran also has increased regional political leverage, he said,
because of increased oil revenues, electoral victories by Hamas
in the Palestinian territories and Hezbollah's "perceived recent
success in fighting Israel" in Lebanon.
Iran and Syria since have resupplied arms to Hezbollah,
including stocks of long-range missiles that could reach deep
into Israel, U.S. officials contend.
Washington lists both Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist
The administration has also become alarmed by Iran's increasing
efforts to support Hamas after the group's victory in
Palestinian elections in January 2006. That worry lies behind an
$86-million U.S. plan to build up Palestinian Authority
President Mahmoud Abbas' Presidential Guard and national
security forces, rivals to Hamas.
Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has successfully
exploited the growing confrontation with Washington to gain much
needed political support at home. Nationalist sentiments run
deep in Iran and the claim that Tehran has the same right to
nuclear power as other nations has become a rallying cry that
undermines the government's domestic critics.
"None of us can accept the suspension of these activities
because people consider this our legal right," said Akbar Alami,
an independent lawmaker. "All the political parties agree with
this. We cannot stop."
Ahmadinejad's fiery rhetoric and defiance of the West also have
burnished his credentials as a populist leader in other Islamic
nations. That has raised alarms in Sunni governments around the
region that Iran's brand of militant political Islam,
potentially backed by the prestige of being a nuclear power, is
on the march.
"The Americans are worried about enriched uranium, and the Arabs
are worried about enriched Shiism," said Mamoun Fandy, senior
fellow for Persian Gulf security at the London-based
International Institute for Strategic Studies. Iran's growing
power, he said, "threatens every existing political order in the
Drogin reported from Vienna and Murphy from London. Times
staff writers Paul Richter and Peter Spiegel in Washington
contributed to this report.
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