Iran nuclear talks: Why the trust gap is so great

Part of the reason for Iran's distrust lies in the CIA's infiltration of a UN weapons inspection team in Iraq in the 1990s.

By , Staff writer

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    This January 2011 file photo shows Iran's heavy water nuclear facilities near the central city of Arak, 150 miles southwest of Tehran. Success with Iran nuclear talks this weekend in Istanbul with world powers will depend on bridging a trust gap that has widened since the last round of talks failed 15 months ago.
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Any "success" in new nuclear talks between Iran and world powers will depend on bridging a trust gap that has widened since the last round of talks failed 15 months ago.

In that time, Iran has advanced its uranium enrichment expertise and material stockpiles, and not resolved questions about possible past nuclear weapons-related efforts.

Though Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declares that having nuclear weapons is a "sin," and vows that the Islamic Republic will never pursue them, the US and some other nations demand incontrovertible proof.

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But Iran also has reasons for mistrust, as it sits down in Istanbul on April 14 with the so-called P5+1 (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany), represented by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

The Islamic Republic has been targeted by an escalating covert war, widely attributed to the United States and Israel and their proxies. That war has included the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, the Stuxnet computer virus, American CIA spy drone flights deep into Iranian airspace, and a host of unexplained explosions and acts of espionage.

"I think [Iran] has reason to be suspicious," says Rolf Ekeus, the Swedish former director of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) in Iraq in the 1990s. "The Iranians don't trust the other side at all. When these killings are taking place ... they have all the more reason to be angry and upset; it's cruel [killing] scientists going to their job."

Iranian officials say that nuclear inspectors of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have contributed to that toll, whether they are aware of it or not. They accuse the IAEA of breaking its own rules, by exposing secret information gleaned during inspections that, they charge, has been grist for hostile intelligence agencies seeking regime change in Iran.

"This has been proven to Iranians," says Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former member of Iran's nuclear negotiating team who is now at Princeton University in New Jersey.

"There is a consensus within Iran that more access [with the IAEA], more cooperation, [means] more assassinations, more sabotage," says Mr. Mousavian. "Which means there is a great, great mistrust from the Iranian point of view to the real intention of the IAEA. They are really concerned that the IAEA has been used as an instrument for espionage, sabotage, covert action and preparing the ground for a military strike."

Iranians point to a high-profile example from the past, when UNSCOM was tasked with disarming Iraq in the 1990s. The CIA used UNSCOM for its own purposes, to create a secret parallel communications network to spy on Iraqi military moves, and in 1996 even planned a coup attempt against Saddam Hussein to coincide with an UNSCOM inspection.

Did IAEA expose Iran nuclear scientists to assassins?

Experts on the IAEA say that despite numerous past leaks by the agency, that confidential information may not have pinpointed scientists, who could have been identified by other means.

Yet Iran formally complained to the IAEA in June 2010 that "leakage of confidential information" had gone on "quite a while," and was "profoundly in violation" of Iran's Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA, which requires protection of such "secrets."

The first scientist to be killed, a senior physics professor, died in January 2010, when a bomb-rigged motorcycle blew up near his car.

In November 2010 – the same month that another Iranian nuclear scientist was killed, and yet a third wounded in back-to-back bomb attacks in Tehran – IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano circulated an internal note on information security.

Following up in a March 2011 speech, Mr. Amano said the IAEA "continued to raise staff awareness of the vital importance of respecting confidentiality." He noted that 2,000 staff and contractors from the agency had passed a "mandatory information security test," and declared that the IAEA followed the "best practice in all aspects of information security."

Since then, in July 2011 in Tehran, gunmen on a motorcycle killed an Iranian electronics student, described in some news reports as working on high-voltage switches with a nuclear weapons use.

And in January, chemistry expert Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, who was also a procurement director of Iran's largest uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, was killed by a magnetized bomb stuck to his car while in traffic.

After that killing, Iran's deputy UN ambassador Eshagh al-Habib condemned the “terrorist attacks” and told the UN Security Council that Mr. Roshan had recently met with IAEA inspectors, "a fact that indicates that this UN agency may have played a role in leaking information on Iran's nuclear facilities and scientists."

Senior Iranian lawmaker Zohreh Elahian charged that there was "credible evidence" of IAEA involvement in "espionage on our nuclear activities."

The IAEA would not confirm or deny any previous inspector meetings with Roshan to the Monitor, and referred instead to a quote that IAEA spokeswoman Gill Tudor gave to Reuters shortly after the assassination: "The Agency has not released this man's name. We do not know him."

Two unnamed senior US officials confirmed to NBC News last month that operatives of the opposition Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK, or MKO) who were trained and financed by Israel, had carried out the killings. Such reports confirm earlier claims by Iran – and foster deeper mistrust that pressure on the nuclear issue is a pretext for regime change.

How Roshan may have become a target

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "categorically" denied any American role in the assassination of Roshan. The names of those scientists would have been available by other means to intelligence agencies hostile to Iran, experts say.

"I think this is politically motivated ... to challenge the integrity of the IAEA," says Olli Heinonen, the head of safeguards at the IAEA until mid-2010, referring to the Iranian allegations.

"Certainly the IAEA had some names, but I don't think we have ever interviewed anyone," says Mr. Heinonen, now at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "So these [names] are coming mainly from the public [profile]. They have published items which are relevant to this nuclear program. Most of the names certainly are known to any intelligence agency in the world. So I think the targets come from there, and not from the IAEA."

The latest case, of Roshan, "is a different thing," adds Heinonen. Involved in procurement, he was not the type of person the IAEA would normally meet at Natanz.

"Why would he become a target? I can make an educated guess," says Heinonen. As one tasked with acquiring equipment, "he roams around all over the world and sends faxes and telexes, and is close to this black market that tries to buy things for Natanz, and maybe he was the one buying them for Qom. I have no evidence, but I think this is the way his name [became known to his assassins]. I think the IAEA learned his name when they read the newspapers after the assassination, and were probably surprised."

'He suddenly detected the lock was changed'

The IAEA also has a very different way of working than the ad hoc weapons inspection teams deployed by UNSCOM in Iraq, for example, which relied on nations to provide their own specialists, who often also reported to – or were agents of – their home intelligence service.

The IAEA only uses its own staff inspectors, and Iran rules out certain nationals for nuclear inspections, as permitted under its safeguard agreement with the IAEA.

"There is no American on those teams, because the Iranians don't accept Americans, Germans, British," notes Heinonen. The same goes for Canadians and Australians, among others. "There is no way that the US can place their guy on this team and go to Iran, because the Iranians don't accept them."

The same was not true of UNSCOM in Iraq, which in fact worked closely with intelligence agencies from Tel Aviv to Washington, and was considered the UN’s first-ever “intelligence gathering” operation. For years in the 1990s, Iraqi officials complained that the intrusive inspection process conducted by UNSCOM was also being used to spy on the regime.

Those claims were widely dismissed, until the Washington Post reported in 1999 that the CIA had for years been infiltrating agents and espionage gear into Iraq, unbeknownst to UNSCOM, to eavesdrop on Iraqi military communications.

The Post story described how CIA technicians officially working for UNSCOM had surreptitiously built a parallel listening network onto the UN's remote monitoring system, which used a series of antennas and repeater stations to beam real-time imagery from up to 300 suspect sites across Iraq to the Baghdad headquarters.

Mr. Ekeus, a veteran Swedish diplomat and UNSCOM director at the time, was livid when he found out. He recalls that a Swedish admiral at the headquarters building in Baghdad let him know.

"He suddenly detected that on one big installation, the lock was changed," says Ekeus, contacted in Stockholm. The American engineer refused orders to open it.

"We managed to get it open, and it was clear that this guy – who had been helping us with the [radio] mast building – had been adding listening devices," says Ekeus. "You can imagine my anger."

Ironically, the first outsider to discover the CIA operation was by all accounts an Iranian agent in Baghdad. He detected data bursts from the UNSCOM HQ, which later proved to occur every time an American U-2 spy plane flew overhead.

The Iranian agent's report back to Tehran was intercepted by British intelligence, which confirmed the data burst-U-2 flight correlation and queried the CIA about it. The CIA then reluctantly confirmed to the British that they had installed a "black box" for electronic transmissions inside UNSCOM offices. Partly, the effort was tied to a CIA coup attempt planned for 1996.

"The CIA needed the best possible intelligence about the security of Saddam Hussein, so that the coup plotters would be able to know exactly where to strike and when," writes former UNSCOM inspector Scott Ritter in his 2005 book "Iraq Confidential," which details the secret CIA role as well as the failed coup. "The CIA also needed to keep track of the Iraqi military order of battle."

'They can ask to see the bedroom of the Leader'

The result of such infiltration has rippled widely ever since, as predicted by Ekeus's successor as UNSCOM chief Richard Butler. He warned in 1999 that the CIA's piggyback operation "would have serious implications for the independence of multilateral arms control work."

That effect could not be more plain than in Iran today, where UNSCOM is cited as a precedent to blame the IAEA for providing the raw material – true or not – for the US-Israeli covert war against Iran.

After the latest assassination in Tehran, for example, JavanOnline news site, affiliated to the Revolutionary Guard, linked UNSCOM to the IAEA, and alleged that inspectors were gathering targeting data for military strikes.

"Of course, intelligence agencies are very active and even if they can't dispatch spies to our country, they will make contact with the inspector and buy our secrets for a hefty price," read the report.

UNSCOM people were collecting information ... and passing it on, without management's knowledge,” says Robert Kelley, an American nuclear engineer and former IAEA inspector who retired three years ago. Today within the IAEA, he says, "this is a very small, very focused single-purpose team" on Iran, with perhaps 10 "real insiders."

"I can't say there have been leaks to intelligence agencies, but the kind of stuff that's come out [in the press] – there have been some really horrendous leaks," especially in the past three to four years, says Mr. Kelley. "I get the impression that [IAEA chief Yukiya] Amano is trying to crack down, maybe fairly successfully. I don't think as much is leaking now."

Any such change has been lost on Iranians, as the toll has risen.

That trust gap is among "very clear national security concerns" for Iran, and includes inspections beyond declared nuclear sites, particularly military bases such as the twice-inspected Parchin, says Mousavian, the former Iranian nuclear team member. UN Security Council and IAEA resolutions demand total access, but the fine line between the inspectors' right and sovereign right blurred before, in Iraq.

"It has no limit," says Mousavian. "Even tomorrow, they can ask to see the bedroom of the Leader. They may say, 'We are suspicious [that there are] enrichment activities there.' UNSCOM was an example."

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