Jeffrey LewisNCRI Did Not Discover Natanz

The debate about whether Iran has constructed a clandestine centrifuge program drives me nuts.

You mean other than the one we already found?

And by we, I mean the United States—or at least its intelligence community. As I understand the sequence of events, the United States—knowing full well that Iran had a clandestine centrifuge program—watched Iran dig two MASSIVE HOLES near Natanz (see the big picture), then ratted the Iranians out to the IAEA. About the same time, someone leaked that information to an Iranian dissident group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), which then released the second-hand dope in a press conference where they got the details wrong.

This is something that has come up in the comments, so I think I should take the time to walk a timeline using what information we have. (Your grandkids will know for sure, when this stuff gets declassified.)

The whole public debate did begin in August 2002, when NCRI identified Natanz as an undeclared nuclear facility (correct!) responsible for the production of “nuclear fuel production” (not so much).

In December 2002, however, Mark Hibbs reported (no online copy) that the United States had briefed the IAEA on the purpose and location of Natanz before the NCRI allegations, at the optimal time to buy maximally incriminating satellite photographs:

For about a year, analysts at U.S. intelligence agencies and national laboratories, in part based on high-resolution reconnaissance imagery, and supported by procurement information, have been hardening suspicions that Iran was building a clandestine uranium enrichment plant in Natanz and a heavy water production facility in Arak, Western officials told NuclearFuel.


About six months ago, sources said, a limited amount of crucial information from the U.S. findings, including the precise geographical coordinates of the sites, was provided to the IAEA. Officials there said the agency then tasked a handful of Vienna personnel to examine the data using commercial satellite photos of the two locations.

Mark Hibbs, “U.S. Briefed Suppliers Group in October on Suspected Iranian Enrichment Plant,” Nuclear Fuel 27:26, December 23, 2002, p. 1.

(ElBaradei confirmed the six month bit to AP’s Ali Akbar Dareini in December, as well.)

In December 2002, ISIS released those satellite photographs of Natanz, explaining that “it is unlikely that the site contains a fuel fabrication facility, but it possibly has a uranium enrichment plant … most likely … a gas centrifuge facility.” ISIS’s Corey Hinderstein, speaking on CNN, was the first person to publicly identify Natanz as a gas centrifuge facility.

Hibbs’ account and the correct identification by ISIS, however, didn’t seem to dislodge the conventional wisdom that NCRI had discoverd the sites, rather than merely passing along second hand information.

In February 2004, former DCI George Tenet tried a more direct approach, claiming it was “flat wrong” that the IC was surprised. In May 2005, Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball cited “current and former senior U.S. national-security officials” claiming athat “all the major revelations MEK publicly claims … were reported in classified form—and from other sources—to U.S. policymakers before MEK made them public.”

Part of the problem is that US intelligence sources didn’t want to say how they knew—and, thus, how much we knew—so the story that NCRI ratted out the Iranians persisted. This summer, though, I think the last piece of the puzzle appeared.

In The One Percent Doctrine, Ron Suskind confirmed
that US intelligence had flipped Urs Tinner —a member of the Khan network—in the 1990s and had allowed him to remain in place to identify Khan’s customers.

This also helps explain why the Clinton Administration was so persistent in its (successful) efforts to cut off foreign assistance to Iran’s uranium conversion facility at Esfahan, as well as as series of pre-August 2002 721 reports stating that “Iran has continued to attempt using its civilian nuclear energy program to justify its efforts to establish domestically or otherwise acquire assorted nuclear fuel-cycle capabilities … well suited to support fissile material production for a weapons program …”


  1. Bob Parson (History)

    Why all the heat to deny the NCRI ratted out the Iranians? Hmm,let me guess. The CIA wants to cover up its ass.

  2. Jeffrey Lewis

    They flipped Tinner! What more do you want?

  3. Chet Kinsman

    Actually, Scott Ritter claims in his new book, Target Iran, that Israeli intelligence used the NCRI to launder their info on Natanz. Since he worked with them during his UN inspector days, this seems plausible. He also claims the Israeis directly briefed the IAEA on other intel, then again had the NCRI do a briefing so the IAEA had plausible deniability when they asked to inspect a site.

  4. SQ

    What are Ritter’s sources on anything related to Iran? Iraq was his area of specialty, and who would talk to him nowadays?

    The allegation about NCRI being an Israeli cut-out appeared in a Seymour Hersh article in the New Yorker a couple years back. It makes no sense: intelligence agencies can always leak to the media. They have no need to task disreputable “dissident” organizations with holding press conferences.

  5. John Smith

    I stand corrected. However, why the intelligence community had to wait for the dissidents to start a debate is unclear, to put it mildly. For example, releasing imagery would not reveal any secret capabilities, yet would provide the IAEA with information on the layout and location of the sites.

    Nevertheless, we, not the dissidents, found Natanz. Here a lot of “buts” come into the picture. As Jeffrey noted, the facilities are hardly well-concealed and would not have been very difficult to locate by sattellite. Then there is the problem that cracking the Khan network gave the US information on the initial setup of the Iranian programme, but not its development after Khan.

    This means that if the Iranians can conceal their nuclear sites and the procurement of centrifuge materials, America has a very big problem.

    A case in point are Debka’s wild rumours of an enrichment plant in Neyshabur. We can say that Iran doesn’t have even 10,000 centrifuges there, because the number is ridiculous, but noone can guarantee that a site analogous to or more advanced than Natanz has not been constructed.

  6. Jeffrey Lewis

    The IC waited until the appropriate time.

    The US briefed the IAEA before the disclosure by dissidents, at the point when the Iranians had done something so big and obvious that it could be found with commercial satellite images. Telling the IAEA, which would confront the Iranians with the satellite photographs, therefore, would not harm sources or methods.

    After the information was cleared to go to the IAEA, it also leaked to NCRI (which rushed to hold a press conference) and ISIS, which bought satellite photographs.

    The disclosure was timed for maximum effect, before Iran installed any centrifuges but late enough that their intention to conduct the program in secret was evident to any objective observer.

  7. J (History)

    While Scott Ritter is a nutcase, it is entirely plausible that Israel decided to to use an indigenous dissident group, no matter their disrepute, to air the intelligence.

    Even back in 2002, Israel was privately and publicly stating that Iran was a graver threat to its security than Saddam’s Iraq, and that Iran’s nuclear progam was the real WMD concern in the Middle East. At the same time, Israel must have seen the role that the Iraqi National Congress had played in fostering support for regime change in Iraq.

    Israeli leadership may have thought that having SCIRI air the intel could produce a greater impact and earn more credibility than having a newspaper cite mysterious “intelligence sources”, which many would have suspected and written off as typical Israeli fear-mongering.

    Regardless of the source, the SCRIRI press conference in August 2002 did bring much attention to the budding Iranian nuclear program. Whoever wanted the intelligence to be circulated must have been pleased with the final results.

  8. frank (History)

    I think the point is being missed here; the ‘clandestine’ activity in Jeffrey’s first line above is probably in addition to the activity at Natanz

  9. Anon

    In fact, ISIS did not get the information leaked to them. They used the NCRI description of the site to search the area and find the Natanz site using the satellite image archives. Once the satellite photos were acquired, ISIS determined it was likely an enrichment plant and not a fuel fabrication plant as NCRI said. The decision to go to CNN was made after Iran repeatedly canceled the IAEA’s scheduled visits to Natanz. It was known to ISIS that the IAEA and USG knew about the sites and that is why the IAEA had been quietly trying to gain access—access that was being blocked by Iran. It was thought that perhaps public pressure would change that equation, and it did. The IAEA got into Natanz in February 2003 after all the news coverage starting in December, and there they discovered the installed centrifuges at the pilot plant. If you look back at the coverage, in fact, there were only a handful of news stories generated by the NCRI release of August and the bulk of the coverage came after the satellite photos were shown on CNN in December. To NCRI’s credit, they got Arak right and were the first to release the name “Natanz” as a nuclear site which really spurred the rest to happen as it did

  10. SQ

    The discussion of the NCRI (not SCIRI) press conference of Aug. 2002 inspired me to go find a text. Here’s one:

    There is a surprising amount of detail beyond the existence and nature of the Arak and Natanz site. For example, the speaker, Alireza Jafarzadeh, mentions Kala Electric, the infamous “watch factory” that provided cover for centrifuge-related activity. I’m not sure what we should infer from that.

    Nor do I know what to conclude from the frequency of erroneous claims in NCRI disclosures about Iran. Anything is possible, but J.’s speculation about an Israeli connection strikes me as a little far-fetched. My own suspicion is that NCRI is assembling rumors and gossip from the Iranian expat community. Everybody knows somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody. I couldn’t prove that’s how they do it, either, of course.

  11. hass (History)

    A fact that’s missing from all of this – Iran was under no obligation to report the existence of Natanz so it wasn’t “clandestine” and secondly Iran’s intentions and plan to develop uranium enrichment was never a secret.

  12. Jeffrey Lewis

    That makes no sense. Something can be clandestine, even if they are not under obligation to report. Consider the Pakistani nuclear program.

  13. hass (History)

    Something can be clandestine, even if they are not under obligation to report….and just because Natanz was supposedly “discovered” doesn’t mean that it was clandestine in the first place. Clandestine means hidden. Natanz was not hidden. It was not even intended to be hidden nor could it have remained hidden once it started operations. In fact Iran’s plans for enrichment were quite explicitly stated over and over again, going back to the early 1980s when it was announced ON IRANIAN NATIONAL RADIO. Sheesh.

  14. Andy (History)

    Not intended to be hidden? Why build it underground then, at huge expense, along with hidden entrances if it were not meant to be hidden?