Iran Moves to Shelter Its Nuclear Fuel Program

Iran is moving its most critical nuclear fuel production to a heavily defended underground military facility outside the holy city of Qum, where it is less vulnerable to attack from the air and, the Iranians hope, the kind of cyberattack that crippled its nuclear program, according to intelligence officials.

The head of Iran’s atomic energy agency, Fereydoon Abbasi, spoke about the transfer in general terms on Monday to an official Iranian news service. He boasted that his country would produce the fuel in much larger quantities than it needs for a small research reactor in Tehran that produces medical isotopes.

The fact that Iran is declaring that its production will exceed its needs has reinforced the suspicions of many American and European intelligence officials that Iran plans to use the fuel to build weapons or to train Iranian scientists to produce bomb-grade fuel.

Describing the new facilities in an interview with the news service, the Islamic Republic News Agency, Mr. Abbasi, who narrowly survived an assassination attempt last year, said that a 2009 proposal for the West to supply Iran with new fuel for the small research reactor, in return for an end to Iranian production of the fuel, is dead.

“We will no longer negotiate a fuel swap and a halt to our production of fuel,” he said. “The United States is not a safe country with which we can negotiate a fuel swap or any other issue.”

At the White House, Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said that the Iranian plan “to install and operate centrifuges at Qum,” in a facility whose existence President Obama and Europeans leaders made public two years ago, “is a violation of their United Nations security obligations and another provocative act.”

Mr. Vietor noted that Iran has said that international inspectors “will continue to have access to these centrifuges as part of its inspection activities in Iran,” which would make it likely that any diversion of the fuel for weapons use could be detected. So far, Iran has allowed periodic visits by inspectors, but refused to provide information they demanded about the facility, or interviews of its personnel. A report updating the agency’s findings in Iran was expected in the next few days.

In interviews, current and former United States government officials provided new details of internal debates in recent years over how to deal with the Iranian nuclear program. Those discussions weighed the risks of a traditional covert attack on Iran’s facilities versus a cyberattack.

They laid the groundwork for what in 2009 and 2010 became the most successful effort thus far to slow Iran’s nuclear ambitions — the computer worm known as Stuxnet, which disabled about a fifth of country’s working centrifuges and temporarily halted Iran’s planned expansion of its capabilities.

The officials involved in the discussions about Iran said the Bush White House asked the Central Intelligence Agency in the summer of 2008 to assess the feasibility of covert action to blow up or disable crucial elements of Iran’s nuclear facilities. But when the agency delivered the plans, they were quickly rejected, all the officials said, for fear that any kind of obvious attack on the facilities could touch off another conflict in the Middle East just as a new American president was assuming office.

The options were developed in part to assess whether a physical attack on the facilities would be significantly more effective than more subtle — and deniable — sabotage of the Iranian facilities, including cyberattacks. That presentation and subsequent discussions led to a detailed exploration of Iran’s vulnerability to a sophisticated cyberattack.

“There were a range of options from the highly kinetic to the other end of the scale,” one former official involved in the decision-making said, using the military’s jargon for the use of physical force against a target. The officials who described the discussions would not speak of the specific operations under consideration, which remain classified, but said that the Obama transition team had been fully briefed on the possibilities.

The New York Times reported in January that Stuxnet was primarily the work of the American and Israeli governments, and was the most successful example yet of a computer-based attack to destroy another nation’s physical infrastructure. But neither the United States nor Israel has ever publicly discussed how the sophisticated computer worm came into existence, or who was responsible for releasing it.

It is not clear whether Stuxnet had been written or tested by the time the Bush administration explored the computer-based options in late 2008. It hit Iran roughly one year into the Obama presidency. Experts disagree on exactly how much it set the Iranian program back; internal American intelligence assessments say it was delayed by one to two years, but some outside experts believe the interruption was briefer.

The account of the Bush administration’s deliberations came in interviews with four top former and current officials, all of whom were involved in the debate over how to stop, or at least slow, Iran’s nuclear progress. None would speak on the record about an issue of such sensitivity, and they declined to discussed classified operations that the Bush or Obama administration had approved.

Their revelation that the C.I.A. was asked to provide a range of options so late in Mr. Bush’s presidency is an indication of how worried the administration was about leaving office with Iran’s program still under way and relatively unimpeded. One senior official said that the C.I.A. “laid out the art of the possible, and what the likely effects would be.” Among those attending the meeting, that official said, were Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, and Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser.

Senior officials in the Bush administration said that there was a broad consensus, which included President Bush himself, that hitting Iran’s nuclear facilities was far too risky. Early in 2008, the officials said, the United States denied a request from Israel for equipment that might have helped mount an air attack.

Vice President Dick Cheney was known to be a strong advocate of direct action against the facilities, either through covert means or by helping Israel build up its capability to strike. Mr. Cheney does not discuss the issue in his new memoir, published this week, other than to say that he favored an American military strike against Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007, partly as a warning to Iran.

Source: The New York Times