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Opinion | Intervention Proponents Try to Scuttle Nuclear Talks with Iran

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI

22 May 2012 20:05Comments
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Dr. Muhammad Sahimi is a professor of chemical engineering and materials science, and the NIOC Chair in Petroleum Engineering, which was established by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1973 at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
[ opinion ] The second round of negotiations between Iran and P5+1 -- the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany -- is to take place in Baghdad on Wednesday. The relative success of the first round, held in Istanbul on April 14, has inspired hopes that the crisis over Iran's nuclear program can be resolved diplomatically, that a war with Iran can be averted, and that the crippling sanctions that have been hurting ordinary Iranians the most will end or be at least partially lifted.

The prospect of a diplomatic solution has generated deep anxiety among the proponents of military intervention, from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to his ideological allies among American neoconservatives. Through periodicals such as the Weekly Standard and Commentary, the editorial pages of the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, and various other media outlets, U.S. advocates of intervention have pursued a campaign aimed at scuttling the upcoming negotiations. I focus here on what I believe to be three central contributors to this campaign -- two individual journalists and one Washington-based research institute whose headquarters are a 15-minute walk to the U.S. Capitol (and right next door to the Heritage Foundation, the prominent conservative think tank).

In the media

First is Associated Press reporter George Jahn. Almost without exception, every time there is positive news about the possibility of a diplomatic solution to the crisis over Iran's nuclear program, Jahn comes up with an "exclusive" revelation of a dire nature, always provided to him by "an official of a country tracking Iran's nuclear program," or "an official of a country that has been severely critical of Iran's nuclear program." While the country -- like the official -- is never named, we can be almost certain that it is Israel. Sometimes the country is referred to as a "member of the International Atomic Energy Agency" (IAEA), sometimes as a "member state." Presumably, the hope is that since it is widely known that Israel is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, readers will assume that it is not the source; what is not widely known, however, is that Israel is a member of the IAEA, an odd exception. I will limit my discussion to just two examples from the long list of claims put forward by Jahn.

Consider the following dispatch from March, in which Jahn reports,

Satellite images of an Iranian military facility appear to show trucks and earth-moving vehicles at the site, indicating an attempted cleanup of radioactive traces possibly left by tests of a nuclear-weapon trigger, diplomats told the Associated Press.... The assertions from the diplomats, all nuclear experts accredited to the International Atomic Energy Agency, could add to the growing international pressure on Iran over its nuclear program.... Two of the diplomats said the crews at the Parchin military site may be trying to erase evidence of tests of a small experimental neutron device used to set off a nuclear explosion. A third diplomat could not confirm that but said any attempt to trigger a so-called neutron initiator could only be in the context of trying to develop nuclear arms.

Parchin is a non-nuclear site, about 20 miles southeast of Tehran, in which Iran has been producing conventional ammunition and explosives for its military for over five decades. The IAEA has alleged that Iran has built a containment chamber there for experiments that it has, again allegedly, carried out with high explosives that are relevant to triggering a nuclear reaction. Jahn does not mention any name or country. However, as Gareth Porter, who examined Jahn's story, reported for Inter Press Service, "The satellite photographs described to Jahn did not come from U.S. intelligence. Former CIA counterterrorism official Phil Giraldi told IPS that a U.S. intelligence official had confirmed to him that the officials in question were not talking about intelligence provided by U.S. intelligence."

In Jahn's latest May 13 "exclusive," he claims,

A drawing based on information from inside an Iranian military site shows an explosives' containment chamber of the type needed for nuclear arms-related tests that U.N. Inspectors suspect Tehran has conducted there.... The computer-generated drawing was provided to The Associated Press by an official of a country tracking Iran's nuclear program who said it proves the structure exists, despite Tehran's refusal to acknowledge it.

Underneath the drawing, Jahn says that, "The official demanded that he and his country remain anonymous in exchange for sharing secret intelligence information." This is Jahn's modus operandi, quoting faceless, nameless officials from an unnamed country. Jahn continues, "That official said the image is based on information from a person who had seen the chamber at the Parchin military site, adding that going into detail would endanger the life of that informant." This is nonsense. If the chamber does exist, it must be highly classified, in which case only very few people would have seen it and Iranian intelligence must have a list of who has been in the chamber.

Perhaps Jahn cannot be blamed for his lack of knowledge about such chambers. But those who do have the technical expertise immediately raised serious questions about the drawing, including its inconsistencies with the sort of high-explosive test chamber it purports to depict. The flat ends and sharp merge points with the cylindrical hull differ from the prototypical chambers at Los Alamos. Moreover, anyone who has been to Iran can immediately tell you that it looks exactly the same as the standard cylindrical tanks that are used to store gas-oil or other types of fuel in rural areas, such as Parchin.

Even Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, not your run-of-the-mill "softie" on Iran, writing recently about the Ukrainian expert who supposedly provided Iran with the chamber's design, said,

The Agency has been able to verify through three separate routes, including the expert himself, that this person was in Iran from about 1996 to about 2002, ostensibly to assist Iran in the development of a facility and techniques for making ultra-dispersed diamonds [nanodiamonds], where he also lectured on explosion physics and its applications. Furthermore, the Agency has received information from two Member States that, after 2003, Iran engaged in experimental research involving a scaled down version of the hemispherical initiation system and high explosive charge referred to in paragraph 43 above, albeit in connection with non-nuclear applications [emphasis mine].

In the words of a Persian proverb, "The fox was asked who his witness is, and he responded, my tail." Jahn's "witness"? Ollie Heinonen, who served until last year as IAEA deputy director-general for safeguards. He is the man who made the first public presentation about Iran's alleged nuclear weapon program based entirely on a laptop that no one ever saw. The credibility of the laptop -- if it ever existed -- and its essential premise and claims were refuted by Gareth Porter, Michel Chossudovsky, and myself. Consequently, Heinonen and others no longer refer to it when trying to make their case, even though, as I have previously pointed out, almost all the allegations made in the November 2011 IAEA report on Iran are precisely the same as those that Heinonen made in his February 2008 presentation to the IAEA Board of Governors based on the laptop.

In a speech Heinonen delivered last month, he essentially says that he believes that Iran has no right to a nuclear program. He alleges that there was a sort of cover-up by the IAEA -- and, implicitly, by former Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei -- aimed at trying to prevent Iran's nuclear dossier from going to the U.N. Security Council. He also claims that a lot of information that supposedly came from the laptop "was already known to the IAEA before 2004," the year it was supposedly taken out of Iran, but does not bother to explain why he then still repeatedly relied on the laptop to make his allegations. Heinonen, who often says that he is from Finland, perhaps implying that he is genetically neutral, recently joined United Against a Nuclear Iran. I leave it to the reader to look over the roster of its prominent members and let them gauge where they're coming from.

So this is Jahn's prime witness. According to him, Heinonen said that the drawing was "very similar" to a photo he recently saw that he believes to be the pressure chamber the IAEA suspects is at Parchin. Jahn Added, "He said even the colors of the computer-generated drawing matched that of the photo he had but declined to go into the origins of the photo to protect his source [emphasis mine]." What more evidence does one need? Even the colors are the same -- though they can be changed with just a couple of clicks on any computer. Neither Jahn nor Heinonen explains where the latter saw the photo, who provided the photo, and why he was provided with the photo in the first place, now that he is out of the IAEA.

At the end of his dispatch, Jahn quotes Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Program of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, as saying, "In the past, the IAEA has been able to catch out Iran by going to a building that Iran tried to clean and they still found traces of uranium." Well, if this claim is true, how could the Iranians really hope to clean up the site, if they indeed have done something there? Also, as Jim White observes, if experts such as Fitzpatrick

are going to claim that uranium is being used and that bursts of neutrons capable of initiating a nuclear reaction are the goal of the experiments, then the neutrons originating from the uranium and from the neutron bursts would result in neutron activation of the steel container itself. Neutron activation occurs when the nucleus of an atom absorbs a neutron, forming a new, radioactive, form of the original atom.... Neutron activation of steel resulting in cobalt-60 was used in efforts to reconstruct the radiation doses at various locations around the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. Furthermore, neutron activation of steel in nuclear reactor facilities is a major consideration in the decommissioning of these facilities.

In summary, such an event is easily detectable and cannot be hidden.

This is the type of "evidence" that Jahn provides. But here is the crucial point: the goal is not to prove anything. The sort of campaign of which these reports form a part requires no real evidence, but merely the constant reiteration of accusations, so that a layman or casual observer is ultimately led to believe that there must be something to them.

Second, we have Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for the Atlantic. Back in 2002, Goldberg published a long article in the New Yorker in which he exaggerated Iraq's production of weapons of mass destruction and its links to al-Qaeda -- both turned out to be false -- which contributed greatly to the hysteria in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. The article was called a "blockbuster" by former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, who played a leading role in convincing the public that Iraq must be invaded and is now a supporter of the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization, which the State Department lists as a foreign terrorist group.

In his latest article on Iran, titled "Willful Delusion," Goldberg refers to the aforementioned report by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and concludes that the report "should quell the doubts of those who believe that Iran's nuclear pursuits are benign." In another bit of fox-and-tail business, Goldberg quotes an article from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that claims,

The intelligence supplied to the IAEA and verified by different "member countries" is clear on that Iran has been working on a wide range of projects for over a decade, all of which are specifically aimed at acquiring the capabilities necessary not only to enrich uranium to weapons-grade, but to assemble a nuclear device that can be launched by long-range missile.

Presumably, all one needs to be convinced of the "evidence" is this article from the Israeli press. Even the IAEA under the leadership of Yukiya Amano -- who has professed his loyalty to U.S. goals concerning Iran's nuclear program -- has not made such grand claims.

Speculations by the Institute for Science and International Security

Next is the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), headed by David Albright. As I noted some time ago, ISIS plays a useful role in tracking various nuclear programs around the world. Its reports on Iran however have been biased, as many critics have observed. Albright appears to be sensitive to criticism, as seen here in response to questions from journalist Sam Husseini.

Over the past several weeks, ISIS has been releasing an avalanche of information that supposedly indicates the type of purchases that Iran made in the 1990s for its nuclear weapon program -- if one even existed then. In one report, the purchase of a VAX mini-computer that could be used for almost any purpose is blown out of proportion because it involved Dr. Seyyed Abbas Shahmoradi Zavareh, head of the Physics Research Center (PHRC), a focus of the IAEA investigation of Iran's nuclear program in the 1990s.

A second report by Albright and Paul Brannan, says, "In an interview with the authors of this report, the former technical head of the AEOI [Atomic Energy Organization of Iran] centrifuge program in the 1980s said that while he worked on the centrifuge program he knew nothing of this parallel effort [by Iran's military], Shahmoradi, or the PHRC. However, he suspected that such a parallel military effort existed while he worked on centrifuges at the AEOI [emphasis mine]." How did he come to suspect this? It is not explained. Does ISIS know that in the highly polarized Iranian community in the diaspora -- an environment in which many Iranians consider each other as "either with us or with the Islamic Republic" -- this person might have had a political motivation to express a suspicion without providing any evidence? And why did ISIS not press him for evidence?

There are many claims in the same report that suggest Albright and company know very little about Iran. It makes a major issue, for instance, out of the fact that Shahmoradi Zavareh presented himself in the early 1990s to foreign companies as being affiliated with both Sharif and Amir Kabir (Tehran Polytechnic) universities, and concludes that something was odd about this. Why? The man had multiple appointments -- this is not odd, at least not in the Iran of that era. It was recovering from its eight-year war with Iraq and had undergone a huge brain drain, so many experts worked in multiple places. Even in the United States, many academics have two appointments.

In yet another report, Albright and Brannan go into great detail to argue that a company, Kala Naft (Oil Products), is owned by the National Iranian Oil Company and was presumably used by the PHRC to procure equipment from abroad. Firstly, that Kala Naft -- which also has, or at least until recently had, an office in London -- is owned by the NIOC is widely known. Secondly, the NIOC itself has several major research centers in which sophisticated research on oil and gas, both upstream (reservoir-related) and downstream (refinery-related), is carried out. One is on Taleghani Street, across from the old U.S. Embassy. Another, in the town of Rey on Tehran's southern edge, is a large-scale producer of carbon composites and carbon nanotubes, belying ISIS's repeated claims that Iran is unable to produce such materials. Why could the purchases made through Kala Naft not have been intended for the NIOC labs? This is not explained, nor even considered as a possibility.

Albright and Brannan also speculate on the role that Iran's current foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, might have played in Iran's nuclear program. The evidence? The PHRC used Sharif University as its front, and Salehi was the school's chancellor in the early 1990s. Thus, he supposedly must have known what was happening. I do not know whether Salehi was aware of such activities. But what I do know is that it would not be surprising at all if Salehi were ignorant about a lot of activities, because in Iran of that era -- and even now to some extent -- this was completely normal. Two examples: Mohsen Rafighdoost, minister of Sepah (the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), said in a 2010 interview that during the Iran-Iraq War his ministry engaged in many activities, including importing certain items, without informing his boss, then Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi. Thousands of political prisoners were executed in 1988 unbeknownst to a number of high officials, at least at the beginning. And even if Salehi did know about everything, what is the significance of this after 20 years?

In a report published by ISIS on May 8, Albright and Brannan write,

ISIS has acquired commercial satellite imagery of the Parchin site in Iran showing new activity that substantiates the IAEA's stated concern regarding recent "activity" at the site. The new activity seen in the satellite image occurred outside a building suspected to contain an explosive chamber used to carry out nuclear weapons related experiments. The April 9, 2012 satellite image shows items lined up outside the building. It is not clear what these items are. The image also shows what appears to be a stream of water that emanates from or near the building.... The items visible outside the building could be associated with the removal of equipment from the building or with cleansing it. The stream of water that appears to emanate from the building raises concerns that Iran may have been washing inside the building, or perhaps washing the items outside the building. Satellite images of the building from recent months do not show any similar activity at the site -- indicating that such activity is not a regular occurrence at this building.

So let us see. It is not clear what the items outside the building are. They could be associated with removal of equipment from the building. Iran may have been washing inside the building, or perhaps outside. Satellite images do not show any similar activity at the site. (How often are such images taken?) Yet, all of these sheer speculations supposedly substantiate the IAEA's stated concern regarding recent "activity" at the site. In addition, ultra-sensitive sensors that the IAEA inspectors have can detect one part in one million particles in a sample, and so no amount of washing would be even nearly enough to hide such particles. And even if this were possible, would the water not contaminate the soil outside the building, so that the IAEA inspectors could, again, easily detect the contaminants?

Albright later conceded that a

clean up could involve grinding down the surfaces inside the building, collecting the dust and then washing the area thoroughly. This could be followed with new building materials and paint [emphasis mine].

Note his speculations. Jim White offers an entirely plausible alternative explanation for what has been observed:

The April 9, 2012 date for the [satellite] photo with the water is important. At this site, historical weather data for Parchin can be found. On April 9 and for several days leading up to it, there is no appreciable rainfall reported. However, if the date on the photo is off by [just] a few days, then rain can enter as a possible explanation. We see that rain began late in the evening of April 11, with 1.9 mm falling from late evening through the end of the day. On the 12th, it rained all day, with an additional 4.3 mm falling. Another 3.8 mm came on top of that through mid-morning on the 13th, but there was an opening in the 9:30 to 12:30 time frame when cloud cover decreased to 9 percent. A photo taken during that period very well could have shown runoff going through the area. Alternatively, more rain fell on the 13th, for a total of 5.8 mm that day and 12.0 mm for the 60 hours or so from late on the 11th through the 13th. Although this is only about a half inch, it can well lead to significant runoff in a high desert environment.... April is the highest rainfall month for Parchin, averaging 34 mm of rain for the month spread over an average of ten rainy days in the month.

And the website Moon of Alabama suggested another plausible alternative: nanodiamond production -- the intended use for the Ukrainian scientist's original chamber design -- requires significant amounts of water. So could the stream of water be due to nanodiamond production? As long as the only "evidence" is a satellite photo, these possibilities are as plausible as the ISIS claim.

The ISIS report also says,

Based on new information that the IAEA received, the Agency asked Iran to visit this building at the Parchin site, but Iran has not allowed a visit.... Iran should immediately allow IAEA inspectors into the Parchin site and allow access to this specific building. It should also explain the purpose of the activities seen at the building in this recent satellite image.

What ISIS does not mention is that Iran has no obligation to allow the IAEA to visit Parchin, because it is a non-nuclear site and according to its 1974 Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA the agency cannot demand to visit such a site. Iran has not ratified the Additional Protocol that would give the agency the authority for the visit. ISIS, which responded with an insulting statement when it was mentioned by Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, in a statement to the agency's Board of Governors, nonetheless demands that Iran should immediately allow a visit and explain everything.

All opinions are the author's own.

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