Playing Poker with Armageddon

By Kenneth R. Timmerman | February 9, 2006

[Ken's weekly column appears on Thursday]


The prospect that the Islamic Republic of Iran could acquirenuclear weapons ought to be too serious for it to succumb topolitical spin, especially from within the U.S. intelligencecommunity.

But leakers seeking to embarrass the Bush administration have beenfuriously spinning the extraordinary information obtained over thepast eighteen months from an Iranian walk-in about Iran's nuclearintentions, seeking to downplay its importance and suggesting thatthe intelligence community is divided over how to interpret it..

Here is what we know about the extraordinary documents provided bythe walk-in on a laptop computer. They include:

-design information for modifications to the re-entry vehicle ofIran's Shahab ballistic missile, to allow it to carry a nuclearwarhead to Israel;

-drawings of a deep underground shaft, fitted out withremote-controlled sensors and a distant control booth, which analystsacknowledge has all the hallmarks of a nuclear weapons testshaft;

-a complete set of drawings, worked up by an front company inTehran for Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps, for a small,clandestine uranium-conversion facility that could replace the large,commercial plant in Isfahan should the U.S. or Israel take it out ina military strike.

Last Thursday, the IAEA Board of Governors examined anextraordinary report from the agency's chief inspector in Iran, thattwice cited "nuclear weapons" work in Iran. Foreign diplomats whoheard the report said it was "astonishing," and was the first timethe Agency had ever openly referred to evidence of an Iranian weaponsprogram.

"No one doubts any longer what the Iranians are up to," a Bushadministration official tracking Iran's nuclear development told meyesterday. "Even the Russians and the Chinese know exactly what theIranians are doing."

The only ones who don't understand what Iran is up to, it seems,can be found in the U.S. intelligence community  - at least,those members of it who are furiously leaking to the Bush-bashingpress.

A front page analysis in yesterday's Washington Post, forinstance, claimed that "U.S. and allied intelligence analysts"estimate that Iran could be "as much as a decade away" from nuclearweapons capability. Even that rosy projection assumed  that theproject "encounters no major technical hurdles." Beyond that, thePost asserted, whether Iran's leaders have actually decided to pursuea weapons program and the "concrete progress" they have made "remaindivisive questions among government analysts and U.N.inspectors."

Proof of how iffy the intelligence obtained from the defector'slaptop, according to the Post, was the fact that "nowhere, forexample, does the word 'nuclear' appear" on the test shaft andcontrol room drawings. "What do expect them to do," a Bushadministration official said, "write 'nuclear-weapons document' allover these things?"

The intelligence spin-meisters convinced the gullible Postreporters that "other suggestive evidence is cloaked in similaruncertainty." For example: "U.S. intelligence considers the laptopdocuments authentic but cannot prove it…. CIA analysts, some ofwhom had been involved only a year earlier on the flawed assessmentsof Iraq's weapons programs, initially speculated that a thirdcountry, such as Israel, may have fabricated the evidence."

Now there's a novel spin. If the world is concerned that Iran isdeveloping nuclear weapons, it's all because of the Jews! That suchnonsense passed muster at the Post shows yet again just how far aonce great newspaper has fallen.

It took eighteen paragraphs of spin for the Post to include theview of "some policymakers" in the administration who "have begunpushing back, suggesting that the CIA is demanding an unrealisitcallyhigh standard of evidence before reaching conclusions that the WhiteHouse believes are obvious."

Must be those pesky "neo-cons" again. Perhaps Vice PresidentCheney has been hanging out at Langley again, asking questions -heaven forbid! - of CIA weapons analysts.

But the most damaging thing about the leaks to the Post was thispiece of intelligence:

"Experts at the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico ran theschematics [for the Shahab-3 nuclear-capable warhead] throughcomputer simulations. They determined two things: The drawings werean effort to expand the nose cone of the Shahab-3 to carry a nuclearwarhead, and the modification plans, if executed, would notwork."

Now, developing the intelligence and the computer capabiltities tocome to that conclusion cost the United States hundreds of billionsof dollars and fifty years of nuclear weapons expertise to develop.Thanks to a dumb reporter at the Washington Post, we just gave it tothe Iranians for thirty-five cents.

The United States provided the documents taken from the defector'slaptop to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, whichshared them with the Iranians last fall. The Iranians understoodimmediately that the jig was up, and didn't need to caveat thatconclusion.

In response, they hardened their tone, cut off negotiations withthe IAEA and the EU-3, and made a variety of dire threats, includingunilateral Iranian military action against the United States, Israel,and our Middle East allies.

And now for the really bad news. A U.S. intelligence official, whohas reviewed intelligence reports from Europe, tells me there aresource reports from Iran that suggest the Iranian regime is preparingfor a nuclear-related test before March 20 - the date of the Iraniannew year.

Separately, an Iranian defector, who held a senior position in theintelligence office of the Supreme Leader until July 2001 andmaintains face-to-face contact with top intelligence and militaryofficials inside Iran, told me recently that Iran has conducted "morethan four" tests of non-nuclear components for a nuclear explosivedevice in recent months.

That suggests that Iran is attempting to build an implosiondevice, a sophisticated design that can be made small enough to fiton top of a ballistic missile. An implosion device usesspecially-shaped high-explosives, packed around a hemispherical coreof highly-enriched uranium, to trigger the nuclear chainreaction.

If so, Iran would need to test the weapon to validate the design,according to a former senior U.S. intelligence official, since thehigh explosive charges must be shaped with extraordinary precision tocompress the HEU core rapidly enough to explode. Any mistake in thedesign could cause the weapon to "fizzle."

Not all nuclear weapons designs require testing. U.S leaders feltconfident enough of the bulky gun-design weapon dropped by the EnolaGay onto Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 that they never tested it. (Thefirst U.S. nuclear weapons test in the Alamogordo test site in NewMexico three weeks before Hiroshima was of a more complex implosiondevice).

So why would Iran go to the trouble of designing a 400-meter deeptest shaft, complete with submerged precision instruments to measurethe blast and a remote monitoring site?

Is Iran really ten years - or more - away from being able toconduct such a test? Or are they just six weeks away? Or six months?Or six years?

Getting the answer to that question right may be the single-mostimportant task facing the U.S. intelligence community. And yet, theanswer given so far - ten years or more -  reminds me of achronic gambler who stakes his winnings on the hope that his opponentis just bluffing.

Any reasonable analyst - U.S., or other - must assume that theIranians are serious, capable, and doing their best to hide theircapabilities from the IAEA and from foreign intelligence agencies. Weshould be assuming that they have more, not less, than what meets theeye.

We can't afford to be playing poker with Armageddon. It's assimple as that.

Copyright©2006, Kenneth R. Timmerman