of Iran Nuclear Weapons Program
May Be Fraudulent
[This work by Truthout is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License]
Thursday 18 November 2010
by Gareth Porter
Since 2007, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) - with the
support of the United States, Israel and European allies UK, France and
Germany - has been demanding that Iran explain a set of purported
internal documents portraying a covert Iranian military program of
research and development of nuclear weapons. The "laptop documents,"
supposedly obtained from a stolen Iranian computer by an unknown source
and given to US intelligence in 2004, include a series of drawings of a
missile re-entry vehicle that appears to be an effort to accommodate a
nuclear weapon, as well as reports on high explosives testing for what
appeared to be a detonator for a nuclear weapon.
In one report after another, the IAEA has suggested that Iran has
failed to cooperate with its inquiry into that alleged research, and
that the agency, therefore, cannot verify that it has not diverted
nuclear material to military purposes.
That issue remains central to US policy toward Iran. The Obama
administration says there can be no diplomatic negotiations with Iran
unless Iran satisfies the IAEA fully in regard to the allegations
derived from the documents that it had covert nuclear weapons program.
That position is based on the premise that the intelligence documents
that Iran has been asked to explain are genuine. The evidence now
available, however, indicates that they are fabrications.
The drawings of the Iranian missile warhead that were said by the IAEA
to show an intent to accommodate a nuclear weapon actually depict a
missile design that Iran is now known to have already abandoned in
favor of an improved model by the time the technical drawings were
allegedly made. And one of the major components of the purported
Iranian military research program allegedly included a project labeled
with a number that turns out to have been assigned by Iran's civilian
nuclear authority years before the covert program is said to have been
The former head of the agency's safeguards department, Olli Heinonen,
who shaped its approach to the issue of the intelligence documents from
2005 and 2010, has offered no real explanation for these anomalies in
recent interviews with Truthout.
These telltale indicators of fraud bring into question the central
pillar of the case against Iran and raise more fundamental questions
about the handling of the Iranian nuclear issue by the IAEA, the United
States and its key European allies.
Drawings of the Wrong Missile Warhead
In mid-July 2005, in an effort to get the IAEA fully behind the Bush
administration's effort to refer the Iranian nuclear dossier to the
United Nations Security Council, Robert Joseph, US undersecretary of
state for arms control and international security, made a formal
presentation on the purported Iranian nuclear weapons program documents
to the agency's leading officials in Vienna. Joseph flashed excerpts
from the documents on the screen, giving special attention to the
series of technical drawings or "schematics" showing 18 different ways
of fitting an unidentified payload into the re-entry vehicle or
"warhead" of Iran's medium-range ballistic missile, the Shahab-3.
When IAEA analysts were allowed to study the documents, however, they
discovered that those schematics were based on a re-entry vehicle that
the analysts knew had already been abandoned by the Iranian military in
favor of a new, improved design. The warhead shown in the schematics
had the familiar "dunce cap" shape of the original North Korean No Dong
missile, which Iran had acquired in the mid-1990s, as former IAEA
Safeguards Department Chief Olli Heinonen confirmed to this writer in
an interview on November 5. But when Iran had flight tested a new
missile in mid-2004, it did not have that dunce cap warhead, but a new
"triconic" or "baby bottle" shape, which was more aerodynamic than the
one on the original Iranian missile.
The laptop documents had depicted the wrong re-entry vehicle being
When I asked Heinonen, now a senior fellow at Harvard University's
Belfer Center, why Iran's purported secret nuclear weapons research
program would redesign the warhead of a missile that the Iranian
military had already decided to replace with an improved model, he
suggested that the group that had done the schematics had no
relationship with the Iranian missile program. "It looks from that
information that this group was working with this individual," said
Heinonen, referring to Dr. Mohsen Fakrizadeh, the man named in the
documents as heading the research program. "It was not working with the
Heinonen's claim that the covert nuclear weapon program had no link to
the regular missile program is not supported by the intelligence
documents themselves. The IAEA describes what is purported to be a
one-page letter from Fakrizadeh to the Shahid Hemat Industrial Group
dated March 3, 2003, "seeking assistance with the prompt transfer of
data" for the work on redesigning the re-entry vehicle.
Shahid Hemat, which is part of the Iranian military's Defense
Industries Organization, was involved in testing the engine for the
Shahab-3 and, in particular, in working on aerodynamic properties and
control systems for Iranian missiles, all of which were reported in the
US news media. "Project 11" was the code name given to the purported
re-entry vehicle project.
Heinonen also suggested that the program's engineers could have been
ordered to redesign the older Shahab-3 model before the decision was
made by the missile program to switch to a newer model and that it
couldn't change its work plan once it was decided.
However, according to Mike Elleman, lead author of the most
(1) of the
Iranian missile program thus far, published by the London-based
International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) last May, Iran
introduced the major innovations in the design of the medium-range
missile, including a longer, lighter airframe and the new warhead
shape, over a period of two to five years. Elleman, told me in an
interview that the redesign of the re-entry vehicle must have begun in
2002 at the latest.
The schematics on the laptop documents' redesigned warhead were dated
March-April 2003, according to the IAEA report of May 2008.
Heinonen's explanation assumes that the Iranian military ordered an
engineer to organize a project to redesign the warhead on its
intermediate-range ballistic missile to accommodate a nuclear payload,
but kept the project in the dark about its plans to replace the
Shahab-3 with a completely new and improved model.
That assumption appears wholly implausible, because the reason for the
shift to the new missile, according to the IISS study, was that the
Shahab-3, purchased from North Korea in the early to mid-1990s, had a
range of only 800 to 1,000 km, depending on the weight of the payload.
Thus, it was incapable of reaching Israel. The new missile, later named
the Ghadr-1, could carry a payload of conventional high-explosives
1,500 to 1,600 kilometers, bringing Israel within the reach of an
Iranian missile for the first time.
The missile warhead anomaly is a particularly telling sign of fraud,
because someone intending to fabricate such technical drawings of a
re-entry vehicle could not have known that Iran had abandoned the
Shahab-3 in favor of the more advanced Ghadr-1 until after mid-August
2004. As the IISS study points out, the August 11, 2004, test launch
was the first indication to the outside world that a new missile with a
triconic warhead had been developed. Before that test, Elleman told me,
"No information was available that they were modifying the warhead."
After that test, however, it would have been too late to redo the
re-entry vehicle studies, which would have the biggest impact on news
media coverage and political opinion.
Iranian statements about the Shahab-3 missile would have been
misleading for anyone attempting to fabricate these schematics. The
IISS study recalls that Iran had said in early 2001 that the Shahab-3
had entered "serial production" and declared in July 2003 that it was
"operational." The IISS study observes, however, that the announcement
came only after the US invasion of Iraq, when Iran felt an urgent need
to claim an operational missile capability. The study says it is "very
dubious" that the missile was ever produced in significant numbers.
Skepticism and Resistance at the IAEA
A second inconsistency between the laptop documents and the established
facts emerged only in 2008. At a briefing for IAEA member states in
February 2008, Heinonen displayed an organization chart
(2) of the
purported research program, showing a "Project 5" with two
sub-projects: "Project 5/13" for uranium conversion and "Project 5/15"
for uranium ore processing. Kimia Maadan, a private Iranian firm, is
shown to be running "Project 5."
One of the key documents in the collection, a one-page flow sheet for a
uranium-conversion process, dated May 2003, with Kimia Maadan's name on
it, is marked "Project 5/13."
Bush administration hardliners and the IAEA safeguard department had
been convinced in the 2004-2005 period that Kimia Maadan was a front
for the Iranian military. In a 2005 report, the IAEA questioned
(3) how that
company, with such "limited experience in ore processing,"
could have established an ore processing plant at Gchine in such a
short time from 2000 to mid-2001 on its own.
But in January 2008, Iran provided documents
(4) to the IAEA
showing that Kimia Maadan had actually been created by the
civilian Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) in 2000 solely to
carry out a contract to design, build and put into operation an
ore-processing facility. The documents also established that the firm's
core staff consisted entirely of experts who had previously worked for
AEOI's Ore Processing Center and that the conceptual design and other
technical information had been provided to Kimia Maadan by AEOI.
But the most explosive new evidence
(4) provided by
Iran showed that the code number of "Project 5/15" on ore
processing, supposedly assigned by the Iranian military's secret
nuclear weapon research program, had actually been assigned by the AEOI
more than two years before the purported nuclear weapons program had
been started. In the context of the documents on Kimia Maadan's
relationship with AEOI, the IAEA report of February 2008 acknowledged,
"A decision to construct a UOC [uranium ore concentration] plant at
Gchine, known as 'project 5/15,' was made August 25, 1999."
An unpublished paper by the IAEA safeguards department, leaked to the
media and the Washington, DC-based Institute for Science and
International Security (ISIS) in 2009, identified
(5) early 2002
as the formal beginning of what it called the Iranian
military's "warhead development program."
Asked about this contradiction, Heinonen told me he couldn't answer the
question, because he did not recall the specific dates involved.
After the IAEA had acquired that new evidence of fraud in January 2008,
an IAEA official familiar with the internal debate inside the agency
told me that some IAEA officials had demanded that the agency distance
itself publicly from the intelligence documents. But IAEA reports made
no concession to those demands. Instead, beginning with the May 2008
report, the agency began to use language implying that the documents
were considered reliable.
Behind the scenes, a conflict was about to boil over between Heinonen
and then IAEA Director General Mohammed ElBaradei, who was skeptical
about the authenticity of the laptop documents and refused to give them
any official IAEA endorsement. In late 2008, Heinonen began pushing
ElBaradei to approve publication of his department's favorable
assessment of the intelligence documents, which concluded that Iran had
done research and development on nuclear weapons components and
speculated that it was continuing to do so.
But ElBaradei refused to do so and in August 2009, diplomats from the
UK, France and Germany, who were supporting Heinonen's view of the
documents, leaked to Reuters
(6) and The
Associated Press (7)
that, for nearly a year, ElBaradei had been
suppressing "credible" evidence of Iran's covert work on nuclear
ElBaradei responded to those political pressures to publish the
safeguards department speculative study in an interview with The Hindu
on October 1, 2009, in which he declared (8),
"The IAEA is not making any judgment at all whether Iran even had
weaponisation studies before because there is a major question of
authenticity of the documents."
Evidence of Israel's Role
The origin of the laptop documents may never be proven conclusively,
but the accumulated evidence points to Israel as the source. As early
as 1995, the head of the Israel Defense Forces' military intelligence
research and assessment division, Yaakov Amidror, tried unsuccessfully
(9) to persuade
his American counterparts that Iran was planning to "go
nuclear." By 2003-2004, Mossad's reporting on the Iranian nuclear
program was viewed by high-ranking CIA officials as an effort to
pressure the Bush administration into considering military action
against Iran's nuclear sites, according to Israeli sources cited by a
news service (10).
In the summer of 2003, Israel's international intelligence agency,
Mossad, had established an aggressive program aimed at exerting
influence on the Iran nuclear issue by leaking alleged intelligence to
governments and the news media, as Israeli officials acknowledged to
journalists Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins. According to the
Nuclear Jihadist (11),"
as part of the program, Mossad sometimes passed
on purported Iranian documents supposedly obtained by Israeli spies
German sources have suggested that the intelligence documents were
conveyed to the US government, directly or indirectly, href= by a group
that had been collaborating closely with Mossad. Soon after Secretary
of State Colin Powell made the existence of the laptop documents public
in November 2004, Karsten Voight, the coordinator of German-American
cooperation in the German Foreign Ministry, was quoted
(12) in The Wall
Street Journal as saying that they had been transferred by
an Iranian "dissident group." A second German source familiar with the
case was even more explicit. "I can assure you," the source told me in
2007, "that the documents came from the Iranian resistance
organization." That was a reference to the Mujahideen-E-Khalq (MEK),
also known as the People's Mujahideen of Iran, the armed Iranian exile
group designated as a terrorist organization by the US State Department.
The National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI), the political arm of
the MEK, was generally credited by the news media with having revealed
the existence of the Iranian nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak in
an August 2002 press conference in Washington, DC. Later, however,
IAEA, Israeli and Iranian dissident sources all said that the NCRI had
gotten the intelligence on the sites from Mossad.
An IAEA official told Seymour
Hersh (13) that
the Israelis were behind the revelation of the sites and
two journalists from Der Spiegel reported
(14) the same
thing. So did an adviser to an Iranian monarchist group,
speaking to a writer for The
New Yorker (15).
That episode was not isolated, but was part of a
broader pattern of Israeli cooperation with the MEK in providing
intelligence intended to influence the CIA and the IAEA. Israeli
authors Melman and Javadanfar, who claimed to have good sources in
Mossad, wrote in their 2007 book
Israeli intelligence had "laundered" intelligence to the IAEA by
providing it to Iranian opposition groups, especially the NCRI.
Israeli officials also went to extraordinary lengths to publicize the
story of covert Iranian experiments on a key component of a nuclear
weapon, which was one of messages the intelligence documents conveyed.
As a result of satellite intelligence brought to the attention
of the IAEA (17)
in 2004 by Undersecretary of State John Bolton, the
IAEA requested two separate investigations at the main Iran military
research center at Parchin. The investigations, in January 2005
(3) and November
were aimed at examining the charge that Iran was using facilities at
Parchin to test high explosives used in the detonation of a nuclear
weapon. In each investigation, the IAEA investigators were allowed
complete freedom to search and take environmental samples at any five
buildings in the complex and their surroundings. But they failed to
find any evidence of any Iranian nuclear weapons-related experiments.
At that point, Israeli intelligence came up with a new story. Hersh
earlier in 2006, Mossad had given the CIA an intelligence report
- purportedly from one of its agents inside Iran - claiming that the
Iranian military had been "testing trigger mechanisms" for a nuclear
weapon. The experiment supposedly involved simulating a nuclear
explosion without using any nuclear material, so that it could not be
detected by the IAEA. But there were no specifics on which to base an
IAEA investigation - no test site specified and no diagrams - and CIA
officials told Hersh they could not learn anything more about the
identity of the alleged Israeli agent.
The CIA evidently did not regard the Israeli claim as credible, because
the intelligence community issued a National Intelligence Estimate
(NIE) in late 2007, which said that Iran had ended all work on nuclear
weapons in 2003 and had not restarted it. Israel expressed dismay at
the US intelligence estimate, but Israeli
officials admitted (19)
that the official position that Iran was still
working actively on a nuclear weapon was based on an assumption rather
than any hard evidence.
Israel encountered yet another problem in its effort to promote the
covert Iranian nuclear weapon narrative. The IAEA analysts doubted that
Iran would be able to develop a nuclear weapon small enough to fit into
the missile it had tested in 2004 without foreign assistance, as David
Albright, former IAEA contract officer and director of the Institute
for Science and International Security, wrote in a letter to The
New York Times (20)
in November 2005.
Sometime between February and May, however, yet another purported
Iranian document conveniently materialized that addressed the problem
of the US NIE and the "small bomb" issue noted by Albright. The
document was a long, Farsi-language report purporting to be about the
testing of a system to detonate high explosives in hemispherical
arrangement. Based on the new document, the IAEA safeguard department
(5) that the
"implosion system" on which it assumed Iran was working "could
be contained within a payload container believed to be small enough to
fit into the re-entry body chamber of the Shahab-3 missile."
The document was given to the IAEA by a "Member State," which was not
identified in the leaked
from an unpublished IAEA report describing it. But
Albright, who knows Heinonen well, told me in a September 2008
interview, that the state in question was "probably Israel."
The day before the Reuters and Associated Press stories attacking
ElBaradei over his refusal to publish the report appeared in August
2009, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported
(21) that Israel
"has been striving to pressure the IAEA through friendly
nations and have it release the censored annex." The operation was
being handled by the director general of the Israel Atomic Energy
Commission and the Foreign Ministry, according to the report. The
Israeli objective, Haaretz reported, was to "prove that the Iranian
effort to develop nuclear weapons is continuing, contrary to the claims
that Tehran stopped its nuclear program in 2003."
Rethinking the Case Against Iran
Once the intelligence documents that have been used to indict Iran as
plotting to build nuclear weapons are discounted as fabrications likely
perpetrated by a self-interested party, there is no solid basis for the
US policy of trying to coerce Iran into ending all uranium enrichment.
And there is no reason for insisting that Iran must explain the
allegations in those documents to the IAEA as a condition for any
future US-Iran negotiations.
News coverage of the purported intelligence documents over the past few
years has created yet another false narrative that distorts public
discourse on the subject. Almost entirely ignored is the possibility
that the real aim of Iran's nuclear program is to maintain a bargaining
chip with the United States, and to have a breakout capability to serve
as a deterrent to a US or Israeli attack on Iran.
The evidence that documents at the center of the case for a covert
Iranian nuclear weapons program are fraudulent suggests the need for a
strategic reset on Iran policy. It raises both the possibility and the
need for serious exploration of a diplomatic solution for the full
range of issues dividing the two countries, which is the only sensible
strategy for ensuring that Iran stays a non-nuclear state.
Document by: Gareth Porter @ Truthout
This work by Truthout is
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