Musharraf's intriguing remark about Dr. AQ Khan's planned secret visit to Iran
New Worry Rises on Iranian Claim of Nuclear Steps
William J Broad and David E. Sanger
Of all the claims that Iran made last week about its nuclear program, a one-sentence assertion by its president has provoked such surprise and concern among international nuclear inspectors they are planning to confront Tehran about it this week.
The assertion involves Iran's claim that even while it begins to enrich small amounts of uranium, it is pursuing a far more sophisticated way of making atomic fuel that American officials and inspectors say could speed Iran's path to developing a nuclear weapon.
Iran has consistently maintained that it abandoned work on this advanced technology, called the P-2 centrifuge, three years ago. Western analysts long suspected that Iran had a second, secret program -- based on the black market offerings of the renegade Pakistani nuclear engineer Abdul Qadeer Khan -- separate from the activity at its main nuclear facility at Natanz. But they had no proof.
Then on Thursday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that Tehran was ''presently conducting research'' on the P-2 centrifuge, boasting that it would quadruple Iran's enrichment powers. The centrifuges are tall, thin machines that spin very fast to enrich, or concentrate, uranium's rare component, uranium 235, which can fuel nuclear reactors or atom bombs.
Mr. Ahmadinejad's statements, and those of other senior Iranian officials, are always viewed with suspicion by American and international nuclear experts, because Iran has, at various times, understated nuclear activities that were later discovered, and overstated its capabilities. Analysts and American intelligence officials, bruised by their experience in Iraq, say they are uncertain whether Mr. Ahmadinejad's claim represents a real technical advance that could accelerate Iran's nuclear agenda, or political rhetoric meant to convince the world of the unstoppability of its atomic program.
European diplomats said a delegation of Iranian officials is due to arrive on Tuesday in Vienna, where the International Atomic Energy Agency will press them to address the new enrichment claim, as well as other questions about Iran's program, including a crude bomb design found in the country.
''This is a much better machine,'' a European diplomat said of the advanced centrifuge, which was a centerpiece of Pakistan's efforts to build its nuclear weapons and was found in 2004 in Libya, when that country gave up its nuclear program. The diplomat added that the Iranians, among other questions, will now have to explain whether Mr. Ahmadinejad was right, and if so, whether they recently restarted the abandoned program or have been pursuing it in secret for years.
If Iran moved beyond research and actually began running the machines, it could force American intelligence agencies to revise their estimates of how long it would take for Iran to build an atom bomb -- an event they now put somewhere between 2010 and 2015.
Robert Joseph, the Bush administration's under secretary of state for arms control and international security, who is known as one of the administration's hawks, said in an interview on Saturday that President Ahmadinejad's claim constituted ''the first time I've ever heard the Iranians admit'' to have a significant effort on the advanced technology. Iran, Mr. Joseph added, ''has never come clean on this program, and now its president is talking about it.''
The new claim focuses renewed attention on Iran's rocky relationship with Mr. Khan, who provided it with much of the enrichment technology it is exploiting today. If Mr. Ahmadinejad's claim is correct, it probably indicates that relationship went on longer and far deeper than previously acknowledged. Mr. Khan and his nuclear black market supplied Iran with blueprints for both the more elementary machine, known as P-1, and the more advanced P-2.
There are other indications that Mr. Khan may have been dealing with Iran as recently as six years ago. President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan disclosed recently that he fired Dr. Khan, a national hero credited with developing Pakistan's bomb, in 2001 after discovering that he was trying to arrange a secret flight to the Iranian city of Zahedan, known as a center of smuggling.
Dr. Khan refused to discuss the flight, saying it was important and very secret. ''I said, 'What the hell do you mean? You want to keep a secret from me?' '' Mr. Musharraf recalled in an interview with The New York Times for a Discovery Times television documentary, ''Nuclear Jihad.''
''So these are the things which led me to very concrete suspicions,'' Mr. Musharraf said, ''and we removed him.''
Last year, Pakistan said its investigation into the Khan network was closed. But the Iranian crisis has led to renewed questioning of Dr. Khan, American intelligence officials and European diplomats say.
So far his answers have been vague, investigators say. Iran, for its part, has said virtually nothing about its P-2 program. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, an arms analysis group in London, said in a report last year that Iran's failure to provide more information about its P-2 program led many analysts to suspect that the advanced centrifuges formed ''the nucleus of a secret enrichment program.''
David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a private research group in Washington that monitors the Iranian program, said Mr. Ahmadinejad's declaration, whether political rhetoric or technical reality, now gave the world ''something to further investigate and worry about.''
Tehran says its nuclear program is entirely peaceful and meant for producing nuclear power.
But the Bush administration argues otherwise. ''A. Q. Khan was not in the business of civil nuclear power development,'' Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in an interview for the documentary. ''Why, if you only intended a civil nuclear program, would you have lied about activities at Natanz?'' Later she added, ''Why are they still unwilling to answer some of the questions that the I.A.E.A. has?''
The P-2 mystery began years ago when Iran told international inspectors that it had received plans for the advanced centrifuges around 1994 but had done nothing with them until 2002, when it hired an Iranian contractor to try to make the complex machines.
The P-2, a second-generation Pakistani model, was the most advanced centrifuge sold by Dr. Khan's network. With superstrong rotors, it could spin faster and enrich uranium faster.
Iran repeatedly denied receiving any P-2 centrifuges from Dr. Khan, which would greatly ease the making of duplicates. Moreover, it said it did no research on the production of the advanced centrifuges between 1995 and 2002 because of management changes in its nuclear program and a lack of skilled personnel.
In report after report, the I.A.E.A. has questioned that explanation. For instance, last September it said the Iranian contractor, who allegedly first saw the P-2 plans in 2002, made considerable research progress ''within a short period,'' which seemed to undermine Iran's claim of doing no past research.
Iran said that the research failed to produce operating machines and that it ended the experimental P-2 work in 2003 and instead focused on the easier P-1 design.
But scraps of evidence gathered by the international agency and the accounts of some members of the Khan network have cast doubt on those denials. As recently as last Thursday, when the director general of the agency, Mohammed ElBaradei, visited Tehran, he insisted on detailed answers during a private meeting, diplomats briefed on the meeting said.
Suspicions arose because inspectors knew that Dr. Khan had supplied Libya and North Korea with actual P-2 centrifuges in the late 1990's, and they repeatedly heard that he had done likewise with Iran.
B. S. A. Tahir, the chief operating officer of the Khan network, now in prison in Malaysia, has reportedly said that Iran received far more P-2 technology than it has admitted and that some shipments took place after Dr. Khan and the Iranians supposedly ceased doing business around 1995.
Speaking to reporters in Washington on Thursday, just hours after Mr. Ahmadinejad's claim, senior intelligence officials said they had seen nothing yet that would lead them to revise their estimate that Iran is still five to 10 years away from making a weapon.
Kenneth C. Brill, the director of the National Counterproliferation Center, created to track programs like Iran's and North Korea's, cautioned against accepting at face value Tehran's recent claims about producing enriched uranium and plans to produce 54,000 centrifuges.
''It will take many years,'' he said, ''to build that many.''
At the same time, intelligence reports circulating inside the American government, according to several officials who were granted anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, have raised questions of whether the Iranian government's decision to boast about its progress is part of an effort to hide more significant activity.
They suspect that a clandestine program, if it exists, would concentrate on the P-2 because it can produce enriched uranium so fast.
I.A.E.A. officials say solving the mystery of the P-2 shipments has become one of the most critical issues on which they need answers in the next two weeks, before Mr. ElBaradei issues a report to the United Nations Security Council on April 28.
Other pressing questions include Iran's reluctance to discuss a document found by inspectors -- one that the Iranians were not willing to let the inspectors take out of the country -- that sketches out how to shape uranium into perfect spheres, the tell-tale shape for a primitive weapon. Investigators say that document, too, appears to have come from the Khan network.
It is also unclear whether Dr. Khan sold the Iranians a complete Chinese-made bomb design similar to the one Libya turned over to the United States when it gave up its weapons program. Questions about other copies of the bomb design have been met with silence, in Iran and in Pakistan.
''Frankly, I don't know whether he has passed these bomb designs to others,'' Mr. Musharraf said. Even under a loose form of house arrest for the past two years, he said, Dr. Khan ''sometimes has been hiding the facts.'