The world was still in mourning after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks when Mohammed N. compiled a list, the contents of which were explosive in the truest meaning of the word. On three handwritten pages in Farsi and "in the name of God," he noted the information he and his team needed to complete the Islamic Republic of Iran's most important classified venture – "Project 110," as the Iranian government called it.
In the previously unknown list, which has been obtained by DIE ZEIT, N. requests "details about the warhead" and he inquires about the "final weight of the missile" and the "ballistic flight phase." He also asks about the parameters pertaining to atmospheric reentry. The list, apparently, didn't just pertain to long-range ballistic missile, but to a missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.
A nuclear bomb.
At the time, the Iranian Mohammed N. was considered an authority in the field of missile technology. But he was more than that: He was also a spy. Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the BND, had managed to recruit him as a source, and whenever N. flew to conferences abroad, he would send a small present to the Germans: copies with drawings of detonators, for example, or technical diagrams from the nuclear program within which N. was responsible for missile technology.
The BND considered the reports to be so highly sensitive that it shared them with the CIA and later with Israel's Mossad. The American agents even gave the spy an alias: "Dolphin." Mohammed N. was the dolphin swimming in Iranian waters on behalf of the West.
Dolphin, though, was far from being an altruist. To him, it wasn't about preventing a war. It was about money. And a better life. The BND was to help smuggle N. and his family out of Iran so they could start a new life in the West. In return, Dolphin promised to turn over all the classified documents that he had collected on his laptop. It was the stuff of a Hollywood blockbuster.
It also marked the beginning of a battle that still hasn't been decided today: Iran has been working for many years to build a nuclear weapon. Israel and the United States want to prevent exactly that. And those interests haven't changed since. Presidents, prime ministers, religious leaders and heads of secret services have come and gone, but the Iran conflict persists.
The material finds its way out of the country but the master spy is executed
When we hear in the news today, in the summer of 2019, of hijacked tankers in the Strait of Hormuz; of limpet mines detonating on the hulls of ships; of American President Donald Trump threatening to use "really very violent force" against Iran after his withdraw from the international nuclear deal; when we hear of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeting, "If someone rises up to kill you, kill him first" – then all this is the latest, but not the last, chapter in what has become an epic conflict.
Journalists from DIE ZEIT and the New York Times spent one year reporting on what may be the most dangerous geopolitical clash of our times. They spoke with intelligence officials, politicians, diplomats and scientists in Iran, Israel, the U.S. and Germany. From their accounts, a history of the crisis has emerged, many parts of which were previously unknown. It is a history in which assassination became a political tool. One in which destructive computer programs took over the function of bombs and one in which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as he admitted for the first time in an interview, would have launched a possibly uncontrollable war if his own cabinet hadn't held him back.
But Mohammed N., the spy they called "Dolphin," is long since dead.
Something went terribly wrong as his defection approached back then, in 2004. The Iranians, as several Western intelligence agents would later tell DIE ZEIT, had been keeping an eye on Dolphin. His wife and two children just barely managed to flee and they made it to Istanbul, where the U.S. Consulate General was expecting them. There, they handed Dolphin's laptop over to the CIA.
The papers on the computer provided deep insight into the Iranian nuclear program. They included instructions for detonation technologies and a drawing of a 300-meter deep shaft of the kind typically used for nuclear weapons tests. Most important, however, were the drawings for the construction of a warhead.
The secret trove of documents made it out of the country, but not the master spy himself. Mohammed N. was arrested and executed.
Some inside the BND blamed the CIA for Dolphin's death, and a fierce argument with the Americans ensued. A BND agent who participated in the operation still believes today: "It was the mistakes made by the CIA that cost our man his life." The CIA didn't answer a request for comment on the matter by DIE ZEIT.
Mohammed N. became the victim of the far-reaching, dirty and occasionally lethal struggle of the intelligence services, for whom information is sometimes more important than human life. The evaluation of the laptop removed all remaining doubt that the Americans, Israelis and Germans may still have harbored that Iran was seeking to develop the bomb. The country's religious leaders had apparently abandoned their long-held conviction that nuclear power was "un-Islamic."
Following the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini initially condemned the shah's former nuclear program as a "suspicious Western innovation" and even issued a fatwa against the bomb. But when Iraq, under the leadership of Saddam Hussein – and supported by American logistical assistance – invaded Iran, and the country could only be defended with massive losses of life, Khomeini saw no other option than to sign a cease-fire with Iraq in 1988. It was a step that was "more bitter than poison," as he would later say. At the time, a commander in the Revolutionary Guard issued an appeal to the revolution's leader to allow the construction of the most powerful of all weapons.
The result was that at some point in the 1990s, the country quietly began to make preparations for the development of a nuclear weapon.