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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.

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"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."

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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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