WASHINGTON — In late 2012, just as President Obama and his aides began secretly sketching out a diplomatic opening to Iran, American intelligence agencies were busy with a parallel initiative: The latest spy-vs.-spy move in the decade-long effort to sabotage Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure.
Investigators uncovered an Iranian businessman’s scheme to buy specialty aluminum tubing, a type the United States bans for export to Iran because it can be used in centrifuges that enrich uranium, the exact machines at the center of negotiations entering a crucial phase in Switzerland this week.
Rather than halt the shipment, court documents reveal, American agents switched the aluminum tubes for ones of an inferior grade. If installed in Iran’s giant underground production centers, they would have shredded apart, destroying the centrifuges as they revved up to supersonic speed.
But if negotiators succeed in reaching a deal with Iran, does the huge, covert sabotage effort by the United States, Israel and some European allies come to an end?
“Probably not,” said one senior official with knowledge of the program. In fact, a number of officials make the case that surveillance of Iran will intensify and covert action may become more important than ever to ensure that Iran does not import the critical materials that would enable it to accelerate the development of advanced centrifuges or pursue a covert path to a bomb. In the case of the covert effort to purchase the specialty aluminum, the Iranians actually discovered the switch before they installed the tubes, and now say they are racing ahead to develop a next-generation centrifuge that would produce nuclear fuel far faster, a prospect that has become a major sticking point in negotiations.
In public, the Obama administration says economic sanctions on oil exports and financial transactions drove Iran to negotiations — and the prospect of getting those restrictions lifted are the best chance of persuading Iran’s leadership to take a diplomatic deal limiting Iran’s production of nuclear fuel for a decade or more.
In private, officials say sabotage was the other big stick — a persistent effort to slow Iran’s progress, and a signal that the United States had other ways to deal with the nuclear program. On occasion they allude to it, as Stephen J. Hadley, President Bush’s national security adviser, did at a presentation on sanctions last year, when he talked about how the financial penalties were supplemented by “things directed at their program, which we can’t talk about.”
Although American officials remain suspicious of Iran operating a covert nuclear facility, they say they see no solid evidence of a hidden operation today. And if a new one was started, it would explicitly violate the agreement that appears to be taking shape in Switzerland. Sabotage, in contrast, is not likely to be addressed in any agreement — though it would clearly violate the spirit of a new relationship between Washington and Tehran.
It is entirely possible that if an accord is reached, President Obama could call a pause in what has been more than a decade of attacks, the most famous of which was a yearslong effort, code-named Olympic Games, which inserted into Iranian facilities the most sophisticated cyberweapons ever deployed. One of them was the Stuxnet worm that disabled about 1,000 centrifuges, but also spread around the world, revealing the program.
But reaching an accord is quite different than reaching a state of trust. Inside Iran, there will be pressure to keep making slow progress on a nuclear program that is central to the ambitions of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and thousands of scientists who have labored for years. And in the uneasy alliance among Israel, the United States and Europe there will be continued debate about whether to supplement diplomatic pressure with covert action to keep Iran from getting to the threshold of being able to build a weapon. For the past decade or so, the covert war to halt Iran’s nuclear program has included high-profile assassinations of their top scientists — widely attributed to Israel — and cyberattacks.
The assassinations suddenly stopped a few years ago, after they were publicly denounced by the United States. The cyberattack efforts may be continuing, probably at a lower level: a recently disclosed document from the National Security Agency, written in 2013, describes “NSA’s planned battle rhythm” to attack Iran’s systems in case of a crisis, and “Iran’s discovery of computer network exploitation tools on their networks in 2012 and 2013.” They make it clear that the N.S.A. has played a crucial role in the negotiations, in “support to policy makers” during negotiation on Iran’s nuclear program.
The ultimate goal of the covert program of industrial sabotage, according to intelligence and weapons specialists, is to produce damage obscure enough to evade easy detection, but extensive enough to result in random failures that seriously impede Iran’s nuclear drive. “It’s clearly slowed things down,” said Ian J. Stewart, a nuclear expert in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, who was an author of a recent study on the Iranian sabotage and formerly worked for the British Ministry of Defense.
Iran insists that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful and has even started displaying evidence of Western sabotage. Last September, it mounted an exhibition of equipment it said had been tampered with. The items ranged from pressure sensors and giant industrial pumps to delicate parts for the centrifuges — the tall, silvery machines that spin faster than the speed of sound as they purify uranium, a main fuel of reactors and atomic bombs. The machines are enormously sensitive.
“The exhibition shows only a small part of the hostile measures,” Asghar Zarean, a senior official of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, told journalists. The enemy, he added, “is more hostile to us every day.”
Iran’s biggest claim of sabotage centers on its Arak reactor complex, which is still under construction. It is a central issue in the last stages of the negotiations, because if the facility goes into operation, it will create plutonium — a second route to a bomb, and a way to make smaller, often more powerful weapons. Israel has made it clear it will consider attacking the facility the way it destroyed a Syrian reactor in 2007, and the remote site at Arak is ringed by miles of security fences and dozens of antiaircraft batteries.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator, said in an interview with The New York Times last summer that someone had tried to sabotage the reactor’s cooling system.
“It would have caused an environmental catastrophe,” he said, adding that the effort had been detected by Iranian scientists. American officials steadfastly refuse to say if they had anything to do with the operation — but immediately note that if a catastrophic failure had struck the plant, its design and its remoteness would have limited the impact on the nearby population.
If the accord is reached, Iran likely would be able to operate it only at low levels, using a fuel that produces less plutonium. When it comes to accusations like Mr. Zarif’s, it is often hard to separate fact from propaganda.
But the latest case of covert action was those aluminum tubes, a story not revealed by the Iranians. The details were in a criminal complaint, unsealed in Illinois, against an Iranian identified as “Individual A” who operates from Iran and through “front companies in the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia.”
It described an effort by the Iranian and an alleged middleman, Nicholas Kaiga, to buy the tubing from an Illinois firm from 2008 through 2012. Many of the conversations were recorded, and the complaint includes some of the discussions about where the tubing was headed — an effort, the government claims, to cover up that Iran was the ultimate destination.
What the Iranians wanted was something called aluminum 7075 — a designation for lightweight, yet incredibly strong material that is often used to manufacture fighter jets.
According to the court documents, in late 2012 the Iranians discovered that cheaper aluminum had been substituted for the tubes, and they complained to a business associate who, it turns out, was an undercover agent.
“Are you sure?” the agent asked in a recorded phone call, according to the complaint.
“Yes yes,” the Iranian replied, “that’s sure.”
New York Times