Nunn-Lugar helped more than twenty thousand Russian experts involved in Soviet weapons programs find alternative, and more peaceful, forms of research. Arzamas-16 even forged new, cooperative ties with Los Alamos. By 1993, Los Alamos and Sarov were officially sister cities.
Behind the public face of Nunn-Lugar, the CIA was also doing its part, quietly helping Russian nuclear scientists to defect and resettle in the United States, rather than go to Iran or Iraq, providing them new lives and enough money to keep their talents off the open market. It was this CIA defector program that brought the Russian to the United States.
But now, the CIA was no longer keeping the Russian engineer off the nuclear market, nor was it keeping Russian know-how under wraps. The blueprints the Russian was to hand over to the Iranians were originally from the Arzamas complex, brought to the CIA by another defector.
The Russian was to hand over blueprints to the Iranians were originally from the Arzamas complex, brought to the CIA by another defector.
What better way for the CIA to hide its involvement in this operation than to have a veteran of Arzamas personally hand over the Russian nuclear designs.
His CIA case officer had coached the Russian as best he could on how to make contact with the Iranians. It wasn’t easy; you don’t just look up the address for the covert Iranian nuclear weapons program in the Yellow Pages. Still, maybe there was a way you could make contact on the Internet. Maybe it really was as simple as sending out e-mail.
At the case officer’s urging, the Russian started sending messages to Iranian scientists, scholars, and even Iranian diplomats stationed at the IAEA in Vienna. In his e-mails, he would explain that he had information of great interest to Iran and that he was seeking a meeting with someone who could hear him out. The messages were designed to be playfully intriguing, but not quite revealing. Just enough to prompt a response.
He also started attending academic conferences in the United States attended by Iranian-American scientists. These conferences sometimes attracted scientists visiting from Iran, and they might be good contacts. The Russian stood out like a sore thumb among the Iranian academics, but that was the point. He wanted people to notice him. He was a nuclear salesman, ready for business.
Of course, it wasn’t unusual for Russian and Iranian scientists to mix, and that was another point the CIA was counting on. There was a well-established channel of Russian technical support for Iran’s nuclear power generation program. Moscow had an $800 million contract to help Iran build a light water reactor at Bushehr. The United States had publicly complained that Iran was using Bushehr and the country’s commercial nuclear program to advance its nuclear weapons development efforts. American officials, in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, consistently asked why Iran needed a nuclear power program when it had so much oil and natural gas; in one State Department statement, Washington noted that Iran annually flares off more natural gas than Bushehr could produce. For at least a decade, a key sticking point in U.S.-Russian diplomatic relations has been Russia’s ties to Iran and Moscow’s willingness to view Iran as an eager customer for Russian arms, rather than as a growing strategic threat in the Middle East.
With Tehran serving as a major shopping bazaar for Russia s post-Cold War arms sales, it certainly wasn’t unusual to find Russian and Iranian technicians and bureaucrats mingling. The Russian defector could exploit that tendency to make inroads with the Iranians.
As he mingled with the scientists and other academics, the Russian picked up business cards and e-mail addresses. The Russian began to e-mail his new contacts, sending intriguing messages explaining that he wanted to talk with them about his ability to provide materials of interest to Iran. Finally, at one conference, he hit pay dirt when he met a physics professor visiting from Tehran.
After the CIA checked out his background, the agency decided that the contact with the Iranian professor was promising. The CIA
Hoped the Iranian academic might serve as the Russian’s entree into the secret world of Tehran’s nuclear program. At the least, he might be able to put the Russian in contact with the right people in Iran.
The Russian followed up his chance encounter with e-mails to the scientist back at his university in Iran. The Russian explained that he had information that was extremely important, and he wanted to make an offer. After some delays, the Iranian finally responded, with a wary message, asking what he had in mind.
That was enough for the CIA. Now the Russian could tell Iranian officials in Vienna that he had been in touch with a respected scientist in Tehran before he showed up on their doorstep.
The CIA had discovered that a high-ranking Iranian official would be traveling to Vienna and visiting the Iranian mission to the IAEA, and so the agency decided to take the next step and send the Russian to Vienna at the same time. It was hoped that he could make contact with either the Iranian ambassador to the IAEA or the visitor from Tehran.
The CIA sent him to Vienna without any backup. Langley didn’t want to risk exposure. The CIA station in Vienna wasn’t asked to play any role to support the Russian; this operation was dubbed a “special access program,” and its existence was a tightly held secret. Only a handful of CIA officers knew of the existence of MERLIN. Better to let the Russian get lost and fumble his way around town than tell more officers about the operation. Sending him to Vienna without any minders would also convince anyone watching that he was just what he appeared to be—an amateur at this game, freelancing.
The Russian’s cover story was that he was the go-between for the other Russian scientist who had brought the nuclear blueprints out of Arzamas. In truth, he had never met the other defector, but that didn’t matter. The story would help answer any questions the Iranians might have about how he came to acquire the blueprints, which were not easy to access or remove from Arzamas.
The Russian was also told not to try to hide the fact that he now lived in the United States. His story should be as close to the truth as possible. Just because he was living in America didn’t mean he was working for the CIA.
But now that he was in Vienna, he was playing the role of bumbling scientist too well, unable to find the Iranian mission, uncertain even where to get off the train. “I spent a lot of time to ask people as I could [language problem and they told me that no streets with this name are around,” the Russian later explained to the CIA, in his imperfect English.
Maybe deep down, he didn’t want to get off the tram, and didn’t want to find the right office. He had to find time to think.
He could not stop thinking about his trip to San Francisco, when he had studied the blueprints the CIA had given him. Within minutes of being handed the designs, he had identified a flaw. “This isn’t right,” he told the CIA officers gathered around the hotel room. “There is something wrong.” His comments prompted stony looks, but no straight answers from the CIA men in the room. No one in the San Francisco meeting seemed surprised by the Russian’s assertion that the blueprints didn’t look quite right, but no one wanted to enlighten him further on the matter, either.
In fact, the CIA case officer who was the Russian’s personal handler had been stunned by the Russian’s statement. During a break, he took the senior CIA officer aside. “He wasn’t supposed to know that,” the CIA case officer told his superior. “He wasn’t supposed to find a flaw.”
“Don’t worry,” the senior CIA officer calmly replied. “It doesn’t matter.
Directly because unfortunately I could not find them. Of course, I tried many other ways to attract attention to this info by telling little bit about what I have but it does not work. Whole misunderstanding, and accordingly wasting time and disappointing. So I decided to offer this absolutely real and valuable basic information for free now and you can evaluate that. Also I sent e-mail to inform [the Iranian professor] about this possible event. Please let him [now you have this package.
What is purpose of my offer?
If you try to create a similar device you will need to ask some practical questions. No problem. You will get answers but I expect to be paid for that. Let’s talk about details later when I see a real interest in it.
Now just take your time for professional study of enclosed documentation. My contact info on next page.
The Russian was thus warning the Iranians as carefully as he could that there was a flaw somewhere in the nuclear blueprints, and he could help them find it. At the same time, he was still going through with the CIA’s operation in the only way he thought would work.
The Russian slid his letter in with the blueprints and resealed the envelope.
After his day of floundering around Vienna, the Russian returned to his hotel, near the city’s large State park. He did a computer search and found the right street address for the Iranian mission. His courage bolstered, he decided he would go back and finish the job in the morning.
By 8:00 a.m., he found 19 Heinstrasse, a five-story office and apartment building with a flat, pale green and beige facade in a quiet, slightly down-at-the-heels neighborhood in Vienna’s north end. The street was crowded with tobacco shops, bars, and cafes, a tanning salon, even a strip club. Now the Russian realized why he had missed it; there was no sign announcing the Iranian mission. The only proof that this was the right place was a mail directory, Tenants’ names on the wall beside the building’s front door. Amid the list of Austrian tenants, there was one simple line: “PM Iran.” The Iranians clearly didn’t want publicity.
The Russian’s fevered rush of adrenaline as he approached the building suddenly cooled when he realized the Iranian office was closed for the day for some unexplained reason. Once again, he spent the day walking Vienna, and once again mulling over the CIA’s orders. He returned to his hotel again that night, still clutching the undelivered documents.
He returned one last time to the Iranian mission early the next morning and stood for a few agonizing minutes on the empty sidewalk outside.
He came back that afternoon, and an Austrian postman finally helped him make up his mind. As the Russian stood silently by, the postman opened the building door, dropped off the mail, and walked quietly away to complete his neighborhood rounds. His courage finally reinforced, the Russian decided to follow suit; he now realized that he could leave his package without actually having to talk to anyone. He slipped through the front door, and hurriedly shoved his envelope through the inner door slot at the Iranian office.
“At 1:30 p.m. I got a chance to be inside of the gate,” at the entrance to the Iranian mission, the Russian later explained in writing to the CIA. “They have two mailboxes: one after gate on left side for post mail (I could not open it without key) and other one nearby an internal door to the mission. Last one has easy access to insert mail and also it was locked. I passed internal door and reached the mission entry door and put a package inside their mailbox on left side of their door. I cover it old newspaper hut if somebody wants that is possible to remove this package from mailbox, in my opinion. I had no choice.”
The Russian fled the mission without being seen. He was deeply relieved that he had finally made the handoff without ever having to come face to face with a real live Iranian. He flew back to the United States without being detected by either Austrian security or, more important, by Iranian intelligence.
From its headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, the National Security Agency monitors global airline reservation databases, constantly checking on the travel arrangements of foreign officials and others targeted by American intelligence around the world. In February 2000, the NSA was also eavesdropping on the telephone lines of the Iranian mission in Vienna. It could intercept communications between the mission and Tehran. In addition, the NSA had broken the codes of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, Iran’s foreign intelligence service. The Americans had several different ways to track the movements of Iranian officials in and out of Vienna.
Just days after the Russian dropped off his package at the Iranian mission, the NSA reported that an Iranian official in Vienna abruptly changed his schedule and suddenly made airline reservations and flew home to Iran. The odds were that the nuclear blueprints were now in Tehran.
The Russian scientist’s fears about the operation were well founded. He was the front man for what may have been one of the most reckless operations in the modern history of the CIA, one that may have helped put nuclear weapons in the hands of a charter member of what President George W. Bush has called the “axis of evil.”