Uzi Mahnaimi – Sunday Times September 23, 2012
A MONITORING device disguised as a rock exploded when it was disturbed by Iranian troops near an underground nuclear enrichment plant, according to western intelligence sources.
Revolutionary Guards were on a patrol last month to check terminals connecting data and telephone links at Fordo, near Qom in northern Iran, when they saw the rock and tried to move it, the sources said.
Iranian experts who examined the scene of the explosion found the remains of a device capable of intercepting data from computers at the plant, where uranium is being enriched in centrifuges.
It is feared a significant source of intelligence may have been lost for the West, which believes Iran could be preparing to use enriched uranium to make a nuclear bomb.
The Iranians initially kept news of the explosion secret. But last week Fereydoun Abbasi, the country’s vice-president and head of its nuclear energy agency, disclosed that power lines between Qom and the Fordow facility had been blown up on August 17.
The site, which was unknown until its existence was revealed three years ago, has been under scrutiny by American, British and Israeli intelligence agencies. Up to 3,000 centrifuges are hidden beneath 260ft of rock. Early reports suggested the blast was intended to cut power supplies to the plant and damage the centrifuges. But inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), who visited Fordow the day after the explosion, made no mention of any damage or disruption in their report.
Mr Abbasi alleged “terrorists and saboteurs” might have infiltrated the IAEA to undermine the nuclear programme, which Iran maintains is for peaceful purposes.
Intercepting the computer and phone lines from the plant would have enabled western analysts to estimate the output from the centrifuges, which are delicate and subject to frequent breakdowns.
The Iranians’ enrichment of uranium has become a question of considerable diplomatic importance. Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, warned last week that Iran would have what it needed for a nuclear weapon by the middle of next year, and has threatened a unilateral attack. London and Washington believe Iran is making slower progress.
Mossad, Israel’s overseas intelligence service, is believed to have killed several Iranian nuclear scientists. British and American agents are also reported to be active.
British officials admitted earlier this year that a fake rock found in Moscow in 2006 contained monitoring and transmission equipment used for espionage.