Read an Excerpt
8 February 2013
Uranium Enrichment Facility, Natanz, Iran
Natanz lay only 150 kilometers to the north of his headquarters in Isfahan, so General Moradi had flown up early in the morning with his aide, Captain Hejazi. Moradi’s staff had urged him to wait, to not rush up there the same day, that afternoon. “They won’t know anything,” Colonel Nadali had warned. “They’ll bury you in raw data and argue with each other.”
The general had learned to listen to Farzad Nadali, his chief of staff. The colonel’s patience and good humor complemented Moradi’s own fiery temperament. Nadali had counseled Moradi to wait until the scientists had something to tell him.
So finally, two days later, they were flying north in an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Mi-17. Instead of jump seats for troops, the Russian-made transport helicopter was fitted for VIP travel, with increased soundproofing, comfortable seating, and fold-down work surfaces. A few hundred meters below them, the landscape was empty and broken, painted in shades of brown and gray, with stony hills rising from the left. It was still winter, and the morning cold did nothing to soften the desert landscape.
Moradi had made the trip often, and hardly noticed the harsh beauty of the ground below. Instead, he studied a briefing prepared by the scientists and e-mailed to his headquarters that morning. The general was sure they’d been up all night working on it, but he was not sympathetic. A few more sleepless nights might have prevented this disaster.
Captain Hejazi’s voice interrupted his review. “Sir, Natanz is in sight.” Moradi understood that his aide was referring to the uranium enrichment facility. They’d spotted the town of Natanz proper five minutes ago. The facility was thirty kilometers farther to the north, surrounded by desert and rocky hills, but not isolated. Its front gate was just south of the Isfahan-Kashan road, a six-lane highway that actually passed through the outer ring of air defenses. A moment later the aide added, “Major Sadi is monitoring our approach.”
Moradi nodded, acknowledging the report. Sadi was in charge of the facility’s air defenses, and simply because they were a scheduled flight didn’t mean they couldn’t be shot out of the sky.
The enrichment site itself was a rough square, a kilometer and a half on each side. A perimeter fence enclosed the pilot enrichment plant, the gigantic buried centrifuge halls, and the support buildings for those two vital facilities.
A few hundred meters out, a road paralleled the perimeter, connecting dozens of antiaircraft gun emplacements and watchtowers. Each gun position, a pair of manually aimed 23mm or 35mm autocannons, was ringed with sandbags and sited on an earthen mound to give it a better field of fire.
Farther out, a second ring bristled with even more guns: larger four-gun batteries of 100mm weapons, radar-directed 35mm batteries, scores of the manually aimed guns, and half a dozen batteries of surface-to-air missiles. Three early warning radars covered Natanz and the surrounding area. It was possible that Natanz was the most heavily defended place in Iran, except, of course, for Tehran itself.
And a lot of that was Moradi’s doing. Since he’d been placed in charge of the nuclear weapons program five years ago, he’d tripled the number of SAM batteries and ordered a second ring of antiaircraft guns placed around Natanz. He’d also handpicked Sadi for his post. The major was inexperienced, but competent, hardworking—and loyal.
Moradi felt the helicopter descend, and he saved his notes and closed the laptop. As Hejazi packed up the general’s computer, the helicopter hovered and then set down smoothly. The crew chief moved aft to open the side door, and Moradi remembered to remove his uniform cap before the rotor wash snatched it away.
The blades slowed, and figures outside ran toward the open door. A few were ground crew, but most were officers, with a few civilians scattered through the group. Moradi recognized the Natanz facility’s commander, Colonel Zamanian, with his staff, including Sadi, and Nadali, who’d arrived yesterday to manage the recovery and the investigation. Colonel Nadali was a great organizer, and he’d been right to go ahead and manage things. Moradi knew he’d probably have fired the lot on the spot.
The officers immediately fell into two ranks, and the civilians wandered about for a few moments, deciding where to stand. There was more than a little tension between the scientists, engineers, and the military. The civilians seemed reluctant to fall in line, but finally formed a knot at one end, not quite in line, but not sticking out either.
Nadali, who’d placed himself at the near end of the front rank, saw Moradi appear in the open door and called “Attention!” The officers saluted as one, and even the civilians managed to stand a little straighter.
Brigadier General Adel Moradi of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Pasdaran, stepped from the helicopter. The Revolutionary government’s propaganda machine had dubbed him “The Lion of Karbala,” for his bravery in the war with Iraq, but he knew his real nickname, the one his staff thought he didn’t know about: “The Rhino.”
Smoothly slipping on his uniform cap, Moradi returned the salute. His hat was a dark olive green ball cap, matching his fatigues and emblazoned with the emblem of the Pasdaran in gold thread. The symbol was repeated on his breast pocket.
In his late fifties, Moradi was trim, almost athletic. His aide, Hejazi, was taller, but Moradi was still six foot one. Solidly built, his physical presence had always been an asset, both on the battlefield and in politics. Trimmed close, his beard was only lightly threaded with gray. It outlined a broad, weathered face that seemed to settle naturally into an impatient scowl.
Nadali didn’t wait for Moradi to speak. Shouting over the helicopter’s slowing turbines, the colonel reported, “We’re ready for you, sir.” He pointed to a line of jeeps, and Moradi got into the lead vehicle without saying a word.
As Colonel Nadali climbed in the backseat, Moradi asked him, “Is there anything worth seeing at the pilot plant?”
Nadali shook his head sharply. “No, sir, and as a matter of fact, they’re encouraging us to keep clear of the area while they make another sweep for radiation and toxicity.” He saw Moradi’s expression and continued. “When they spot-checked the first survey results, there were several errors—all underreporting.”
Moradi’s scowl deepened. “When will they be done?”
“They couldn’t start until it was daylight this morning. It will be late this afternoon.”
“Wonderful,” Moradi rumbled. “I wonder how many other mistakes they’ve made.” His tone made it clear that he was sure there were more. The other jeeps were pulling away, and Nadali ordered their driver to head for the administration building.
Nadali took the general to a conference room. Pasdaran sentries, armed with automatic weapons, flanked the door, and Nadali led the staff inside. When one of the civilians tried to go in the room, Nadali waved him back. “The scientists will brief the general in half an hour. We just have some housekeeping and organizational issues to go over.” The civilian nodded nervously and hurried away.
As soon as the general was seated, a middle-aged major looked over at Nadali, who nodded. “The room has been swept, and is clear,” the officer reported. “The spaces on all sides of us, and above and below, are occupied by my people.” Major Hassan Rahim was Moradi’s intelligence and counterintelligence officer. He also belonged to VEVAK, the Ministry of Intelligence, but although everyone knew it, nobody ever mentioned it.
“It was a careful sweep, Rahim? There are some clever people here,” Nadali observed.
“Not from what I’ve seen,” Moradi countered. “What have you found, Hassan?”
Rahim was a small officer—short, and older than would be expected for a major. There were rumors that his real rank was much higher, but changed to match the assignment. His glasses gave him a professorial look, but his gaze was hard, and his tone cold. “The centrifuges failed on their own, sir. I can find no sign of sabotage, either from foreign agents or someone inside.”
“It’s hard to prove the absence of something,” Moradi offered.
Rahim pulled out a notepad and flipped through the pages. “This is already one of the most secure installations in Iran. My people have enhanced those measures. We’ve been able to correlate the movements of everyone on base that day with the entrance and exit logs for each building. Dr. Sabet has helped us with scenarios for sabotage, and who would have the knowledge to perform it. Everyone on the list is being watched. Most have been questioned.”
Moradi nodded as he took in the information. He’d expected this result. If Rahim had found anything amiss, the perpetrators would have been arrested instantly. VEVAK might have different masters than the Shah’s SAVAK, but they used the same methods.
“Could it have been that damned computer worm again?”
“Unlikely, sir. I had every computer on the installation checked, as well as all personal computers in the dormitories. Every CD and flash drive was also examined. There was no sign of the Stuxnet worm. As you recall, we found this worm on dozens of computers when the cyber attack was first discovered three years ago,” remarked Rahim.
Stuxnet was a devilishly effective piece of malware that sought out and attacked the motor controllers on the centrifuges, causing them to undergo wild variations in speed. This greatly reduced an infected centrifuge’s performance, and even caused damage to the main support bearing. But even though the worm destroyed itself after having completing its dirty work, numerous computers were infected as the malware worked its way from its original source to the centrifuges.
“Have any of the staff suffered a family tragedy, or had some other personal crisis?” Moradi knew he was reaching, but he had to ask.
Rahim shook his head. “No, sir. I’ve reviewed the local security officer’s records, and confirmed their accuracy with my own sources, as well as the reliability of the officers themselves.”
“Thank you, Major. You’ve removed the possibility of malign influence. Unfortunately, that would have been the simpler answer.”
The next meeting was the important one, with the physicists and engineers who had failed in their fourth attempt to create an improved centrifuge design. Iran had built a working centrifuge, but it was primitive, “first-generation” technology, and it was based on a design provided by a Pakistani nuclear scientist, A. Q. Khan. Centrifuges separated two uranium isotopes from each another by spinning uranium hexafluoride gas at tens of thousands of revolutions per minute. One isotope, U-238, was marginally heavier than the other, more desirable U-235. The difference of three neutrons pushed the heavier, unwanted U-238 toward the outside. The gas near the center, slightly richer in U-235, was removed.
But the increase was infinitesimal. Natural uranium contained less than 1% U-235 by weight. This had to be increased to about 4% to be used as reactor fuel, and to 90% for a weapon. And each centrifuge only enriched the gas by a few hundreds of a percent.
So the centrifuges were ganged together, each one taking the product of the one before and increasing the concentration of U-235 by some tiny amount. The sixty-four-centrifuge test cascade that had torn itself apart produced a trivial increase. The buried halls at Natanz had thousands of centrifuges installed in series, but even then the product had only just exceeded 4% thus far.
And that was the problem. It was taking too long to produce even small amounts of reactor-grade material. Iran needed to move quickly from reactor-grade to weapons-grade levels, and in large quantities. They could not build just one bomb. They needed several, at least a half dozen, to have a viable nuclear weapons capability.
Unfortunately, the Pakistani first-generation centrifuge design was inherently inefficient, and the Iranian versions didn’t even reach that low mark. That meant an improved centrifuge design was absolutely essential. But it had to work before they could begin production, and they needed to produce them in the thousands.
* * *
Although they didn’t fill the auditorium, it was a sizable group. Moradi saw Colonel Zamanian and his staff seated together on one side, then in a separate group, the scientists and engineers, with Dr. Moham, the head of the centrifuge program, fidgeting in the front row.
Davood Moham was young, brilliant, and outspoken. He’d been picked for the job three years ago, after the “second-generation” centrifuge design had failed. The physicist had been critical of the attempt, correctly predicting how it would fail. Now, after two major failures of his own, he was looking over his own shoulder. Only in his thirties, he looked much older, his hair thinning, and his face drawn. It looked like he hadn’t gotten a lot of fresh air.
Dr. Rashid Sabet, the civilian who managed the entire nuclear weapons program, had flown in last night from Arak, looking for his own answers. If Moham represented youth and energy, Sabet was experience and wisdom. Even hardened war veterans knew Sabet’s reputation. The Iranian government and people treated him almost like a national treasure. In his seventies, thin and almost frail, he projected a presence almost as strong as Moradi’s, and while Sabet technically reported to the general, Moradi sometimes felt like a university student, and found himself deferring to Sabet almost automatically.
Moradi heard the chatter die as he approached the stage. They would be scared, defensive. They knew his reputation, and some were nervously glancing toward “Major” Rahim. Frightened people were not helpful.
Instead of heading for his own seat, the general turned and walked over to the pair, greeting Moham and Sabet warmly. Smiling and offering his hand to Moham, the general said, “Dr. Moham, I’m glad nobody was injured in the accident.” Surprise flashed across the civilian’s face, but he quickly hid it and rose to shake the general’s hand. “I’m sure we’ll be able to recover from the setback quickly,” Moradi continued. “I’m looking forward to your recommendations.”
“Yes.” Moham paused, unsure of how to answer. Moradi could tell that his positive tone had unsettled the physicist. That was good. Nodding to Dr. Sabet, Moradi took his place with his staff. Conversation immediately stopped, and Moham stood and announced, “Mr. Yazdi will start with a summary of the accident and what we have learned.”
Yazdi looked like a university student, with glasses and longer-than-fashionable hair. Nervously, he walked to the podium and opened a laptop computer. He pressed a key and the auditorium’s screen came to life with a simple title, “Natanz Centrifuge Cascade Failure Reconstruction.” The corners of the screen labeled the presentation as “Top Secret.”
“General, Dr. Sabet, this briefing will describe our investigation and findings of the accident.” The engineer pressed a key on his laptop and the next slide appeared—a time line.
Moradi waited for the third slide before speaking up. “Is this the same material I was sent?”
Yazdi, a little flustered, quickly nodded. “Yes, sir. We didn’t know if you’d had a chance to review it.”
“Well, ask before you waste my time. Is there anything new in this? Any changes since you sent it to me?”
“Ah, no, sir.”
“Then go to the last slide,” Moradi ordered impatiently.
Yazdi fiddled with the laptop for a moment, and a page labeled “Conclusions” appeared on the screen.
Moradi spoke after a moment’s quiet. “Why did you stop the investigation at this point?”
Yazdi, who was supposed to be briefing the general, seemed surprised by the question. After a moment, he answered, “Sir, we are confident that we’ve found the cause.” He pointed to the screen, quoting the text. “Voids created by improper curing allowed microfractures to form, causing carbon fiber delamination at high rotational speeds.”
“That’s all fine,” Moradi answered. “But what steps are you taking to correct the error? Who was supervising the curing process? Why didn’t they follow proper procedure?”
Yazdi looked hopefully at his director, and Dr. Moham rose. “General, we reviewed all the steps in production as a part of the investigation. Every procedure was followed and double-checked. An error might cause an anomaly in one or two centrifuges, but not the whole cascade. Once we knew what to look for, we found voids and microfractures in every centrifuge, even the ones that were only damaged—hence our conclusion of improper curing.”
Moradi appeared confused, but also irritated and impatient. “And you are saying all the centrifuges were manufactured improperly? Why was such a serious error allowed to occur? Who was responsible?”
Dr. Sabet now stood to join Moham. “General, please. There was nothing that suggested there was an error during the manufacturing process. We developed the procedure ourselves; we had to due to the sanctions. It was incorrect. But now we know better and we’ll devise a better curing process.”
Moradi now understood, but clarity didn’t bring enlightenment. “How long?”
Sabet looked to Moham, who didn’t answer immediately. Several expressions passed across his face, all of them thoughtful. “We only confirmed the cause late last night. It will take a few days just to develop a systematic plan.” He paused again, then estimated, “It will take at least several months.”
Moham warmed to the plan as it took shape in his mind. “We’ll investigate every part of the process. It’s most likely the epoxy resin chemistry, but it could be the temperature, or even something mechanical like vibration or rotation during the curing process.” Moham’s tone was earnest, full of dedication. “We can’t tell right now. I wouldn’t even hazard a guess. But we’ll find it, General. I’m sure we can make this process work.”
“But you can’t predict how long it will take to find a solution,” Moradi answered.
“I won’t even guess until we’ve narrowed down the possibilities. As I said, at least several months—and first we have to rebuild the lab, or set up a new one.” He paused, realizing what kind of news he was delivering. When he continued, the physicist’s tone was less animated, but more earnest.
“We’re in unexplored territory, sir.” Dr. Moham gave a small smile. “The technical challenge is what attracted me to this position. This is new technology. It can’t be rushed. If we had access to high-quality steels, this would be much less expensive, in both time and money.”
“Don’t wish for what we can’t have,” Moradi growled. Improved centrifuge designs required maraging steel, a high-strength, high-temperature alloy that could be used in guided missiles, jet engines, and enrichment centrifuges, as well as dozens of peaceful applications. But Iran couldn’t make it. Iranian metallurgy wasn’t up to the task, and would not be for the foreseeable future. And they couldn’t buy it abroad. The sanctions did have some effect.
So they tried end-arounds and substitutes. Moradi often thought of the Germans, late in World War II. Denied strategic metals and petroleum, they developed processes to turn coal into gasoline, and built fighters out of wood. But it was always harder and took longer. Engines didn’t work as well using substitute gasoline. And some of the fighters crashed.
And sometimes, the centrifuges failed. And failed again. And again.
Moradi let Colonel Nadali run the rest of the meeting. The test facility had to be rebuilt and materials for the new test program obtained. As they hammered out plans, the general studied them, half-listening, wondering if it was all wasted motion.
He had handpicked these men for the most important task in Iran, just as the Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had chosen him. Had he made a mistake? The Supreme Leader had given his personal assurance that Moradi could call on any resource the country had. Surely with the entire nation behind them, they could construct a nuclear device.
Or could they? Fifty-five years after the first atomic bomb was built, knowing the design and bringing it into existence were two different things. And while Iran was a large country, it was not very wealthy—despite its petroleum resources—and the world was arrayed against them.
Moradi expected that. It was part of, almost required by, the Revolution and what it represented. Iran stood alone, and wanted to stand alone. She had been invaded, occupied, and manipulated by other nations since Darius had been beaten by Alexander the Great. She was surrounded by ethnic enemies like Iraq and Saudi Arabia, or historic ones like Russia, and was now ringed by American bases in Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
He could feel the pressure as a physical thing, a wall trapping them, or a net being drawn tighter. America talked openly of “containing” Iran, using the Cold War tactic of encircling an enemy nation and strangling it. Sanctions, spies, alliances, wars, all were part of an American plan to destroy the Revolution and replace it with another one of their puppets. He sometimes imagined what it would be like if Iran could trade freely, healing the wounds they still carried from the war with Iraq. What would Iran look like then? What would the Islamic Republic be able to do?
Nuclear weapons would elevate Iran among the world’s nations, demanding respect, commanding leadership in the region and the Islamic world. Pakistan had the bomb, but the fractured and crippled government could not use it except as a counter to India’s weapons. Iran could use it to break the sanctions, a demonstration of national will in the face of any opposition.… If they could ever get it built.
Moradi watched the meeting break up. Nadali had them motivated and almost rushing out the door, eager to get back to work. Moham led the charge, and Moradi and his staff found themselves alone in the auditorium. The colonel started organizing the trip back to their headquarters in Isfahan. There was nothing more to do here, but Moradi interrupted him. “Colonel, I’d like to speak to Dr. Sabet privately. Have Major Rahim set up security again.” Rahim had been listening, and with a nod from Nadali, rushed off.
Moradi and the elderly scientist took their time, and when they finally returned to Nadali’s temporary office, the sentries were posted, and Rahim reported the area was secure. Nadali ushered the two men in, Moradi following the older man. The general had said a “private meeting,” so Nadali stepped out, closing the door behind him.
Someone had left two cups of tea on the desk, and Sabet picked one up, sitting across from the empty desk. It was a subtle acknowledgment of his position. Moradi had been given charge of the nuclear program, but Sabet was the guiding intellect. The general respected the scientist’s experience and achievements, his piety, and his dedication to the Revolution, but he lacked Moradi’s sense of urgency, and to Moradi’s mind, pushing was how the big jobs got done.
The general sat down behind the desk, and sipped his tea quietly, almost afraid to ask the next question. “What is the news from up north?”
Sabet said, “No more bad news; a little good news. They have almost finished debugging the simulation. It can model the thermal and hydraulic performance of a malfunctioning reactor.”
Moradi almost laughed. “We have one of those, Doctor.” Near Khondab, about ninety kilometers southwest of Arak, Iran had built a nuclear reactor, following the plans provided by the Pakistani nuclear scientist. It used natural uranium fuel with no enrichment, which Iran could produce. Transformed by the nuclear reaction, the spent fuel contained about 1% plutonium by weight, most of which was Pu-239, which could be extracted and used to make a nuclear bomb. It was the second doorway into the nuclear clubhouse, bypassing the complex, time-consuming, and so far unattainable uranium enrichment process. All one had to do was build a specialized nuclear reactor.
Unlike the civilian and very public pressurized light-water reactor at Bushehr, built to a Russian design, the “IR-40” at Arak used heavy water to moderate the nuclear reaction. Heavy water paired two deuterium atoms, an isotope of hydrogen with an extra neutron, with an oxygen atom. It looked like regular water, and while it wasn’t as efficient as regular water at slowing down neutrons, heavy water didn’t absorb neutrons as readily as light water and this enabled a reactor to use natural, unenriched uranium as fuel.
The IR-40 reactor was entirely an Iranian enterprise. The Iranian scientists had a good theoretical understanding of nuclear reactor design, and they had been running small research reactors for decades. Using the plans provided by Pakistan, it should have been a straightforward task. However, the transition from theory to practice is rarely a smooth road. And in the case of the IR-40, the road was more of a goat path.
For some reason that they didn’t understand, the IR-40’s main cooling system wasn’t working properly. In several of the narrow coolant channels, the water was starting to boil, reducing the flow of water over the adjacent fuel rods, which then started to warp and crack. Moradi knew it had to do with the design of the core, but he depended on Sabet and his people at the facility to understand and fix it. That was not only frustrating, but was thus far unproductive.
The core of the IR-40 had to be redesigned, but how? Their basic understanding of reactor core design had to be improved, and quickly. For Moradi, everything had to be done quickly.
Sabet saw his expression. “General, I truly believe computer simulation is our best option. You can’t use trial and error with nuclear reactors. Mistakes could be deadly, even worse than what happened here, and their effects last for decades. Modeling the core’s behavior in a computer will improve our understanding, as well as enable us to explore different core designs. Such techniques are used in Europe and America all the time.”
But Iran had not been able to acquire the software, again because of sanctions. Theft, espionage, and black-market purchases had provided the software, but then it had to be documented, adapted, and finally completely understood. Otherwise they would have no idea whether the computer’s output was a bug or a correct result. That process had taken almost a year.
Intellectually, Moradi could accept Sabet’s explanation. Simulation was the logical course, but it reduced the struggle to develop a plutonium bomb to a roomful of computer geeks arguing over a printout. Moving ones and zeroes around on an invisible battlefield made it impossible for the general to see any progress, or any way to improve the situation.
Moradi’s frustration was clear in his tone. “We are pouring resources into both the enrichment process and the heavy-water reactor because it gives us two paths to a nuclear capability.” He sighed heavily. “Both are effectively stalled.”
“Moving forward slowly,” Sabet corrected quietly. “Sometimes it’s difficult to see, General, but even a failure can be viewed as progress. I’ve been involved in projects that had even worse setbacks. You have to take the long view.”
Moradi’s answer had an edge to it. “We don’t have an infinite amount of time, Doctor. The West, and now even Russia are aligned against us. They work to undermine not only this program, but also our government and our economy. They are hurting us, and I’m not sure how much more damage we can stand.”
Sabet nodded, agreeing with Moradi, but the general pressed his point. “Doctor, you don’t understand. The government can issue all the press releases it wants, but the sanctions do have an effect. And it’s getting worse. The situation is not static, nor is it in our favor.”
The doctor answered, “Of course, you may have access to information I don’t. Is there anything specific we need to worry about? Is there a deadline?”
Moradi shook his head. “Nothing specific. But eventually, we won’t be able to find a key material or technology, even on the black market. What do we do then?
“This is a battle, Dr. Sabet. Even without guns and trenches, the rules are the same. A short battle is better than a long one. Move slowly and your opponent has time to react. He may block your advance or even find a way to defeat you.” He gestured toward the crippled pilot plant. “And it gives your own people more time to make mistakes.”
“You approved the test schedule.…”
“Based on their recommendations. I’m not a fool, Doctor, or a scientist. I will let the specialists practice their craft, as long as they get results. And I don’t see any.”
“Are you saying it’s fruitless to…” Sabet started to ask.
“No, Doctor, your scientists and engineers should redouble their efforts. Tell them time is limited, and precious. But if we’re blocked on two paths, it’s time to look for a third.”
“A short cut? General, we are already cutting corners.”
“A bypass, an end-around,” Moradi replied. “We’ve gotten quite good at those.”
* * *
General Moradi bid Dr. Sabet farewell by the Mi-17, then followed his staff onto the helicopter for the trip back to Isfahan. Their mood was upbeat, chatting happily as they belted in, pleased to be returning home after a few days away. Moradi’s own feelings were harder to define. He wasn’t as angry or frustrated as he’d expected to be, or depressed about the program’s setback. Certainly his conversation with the Supreme Leader would be unpleasant. As the helicopter took flight, he realized he’d reached a conclusion.
This wasn’t going to work.
Copyright © 2011 by Larry Bond and Chris Carlson