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Opinion | The IAEA Report on Iran's Nuclear Program: Alarming or Hyped?

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

09 Nov 2011 08:53Comments

Follow the laptop.

IAEA logo.JPG[ opinion ] The much anticipated report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Iran's nuclear program was finally released by the agency. For at least two weeks, the press has been reporting on various aspects of the report, describing it in terms such as "game changing" and "landmark" with the intention of hyping the subject and the report as much as possible. As noted earlier, there are at least some indications that Israel, and even possibly the United States, might use the report and its revelations to justify a military attack on Iran.

First, a general observation on the IAEA reports on Iran ever since Yukiya Amano began his work as the agency's director-general on December 1, 2009. As I pointed out in an article after the Amano-led IAEA issued its first report on Iran's nuclear program in February 2010, the new director-general has steadily politicized the agency and moved it in a direction in which politics appears to be a main component of the work of an agency whose nominal main task is scientific and technological -- that is, inspecting and monitoring the nuclear programs of the IAEA member states and providing the agency's board of governors with reports on those programs. The New York Times reported on Monday that Amano visited the White House on October 28, 12 days before the agency released its report on Iran, to meet with top officials of the National Security Council concerning the report. In addition to the fact that the visit was treated as so sensitive that the Obama administration declined to even confirm the meeting or Amano's presence in the White House, the questions arise, Is Amano supposed to brief the U.S. administration on his upcoming report, and if so, why? Does the United States have special rights? Was the meeting meant to be an exchange of ideas about what to report and how to articulate it?

The tone of the latest report, as well as its speculations and allegations, are in sharp contrast with those issued under former IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei. Amano has set aside ElBaradei's cautious approach and measured tone and uses blunt language. While the blunt language is not a problem per se -- I am a blunt man myself -- the fact is that, as the latest report indicates, the IAEA has shifted from its mandate as an objective international organization to a politicized position that can be used by the United States and its allies to advance their agenda regarding Iran's uranium enrichment program.

To see the politicized nature of the latest IAEA report on Iran, all one need do is compare it with the last report issued by the agency right before ElBaradei stepped down at the end of November 2009. Whereas the reports issued by the ElBaradei-led IAEA generally did not address the resolutions issued by the United Nations Security Council that ordered Iran to suspend its entire nuclear program, the new report brings the subject in very prominently, as if to remind the world what Iran is supposed to do. Another major difference is that the Amano report speaks of "undeclared nuclear materials" without providing any evidence for their existence -- which, if it were a fact, would be a major violation of Iran's Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA. The report makes the claim, but does not provide even an iota of evidence for it.

The latest report is divided into two major parts. One part deals with what the IAEA refers to as "[nuclear] facilities under Iran's Safeguards Agreement." The most important conclusion of this part is that the IAEA can certify that no diversion from a peaceful to a nonpeaceful nuclear program has taken place in such facilities. But, even here, the report makes an unreasonable demand. On page 6, it states,

Since its visit to the Heavy Water Production Plant (HWPP) on 17 August 2011, the Agency, in a letter to Iran dated 20 October 2011, requested further access to HWPP. The Agency has yet to receive a reply to that letter, and is again relying on satellite imagery to monitor the status of HWPP. Based on recent images, the HWPP appears to be in operation. To date, Iran has not provided the Agency access to the heavy water stored at the Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF) in order to take samples.

But a heavy water production plant is not covered by Iran's Safeguards Agreement. In fact, heavy water is not even considered as nuclear material covered by any IAEA Safeguards Agreement, and its presence in the context of a nuclear program makes sense only if there is a heavy water nuclear reactor in operation. Iran does not have one operating, but one is under construction, and the IAEA report states that it might become operational in late 2013, although most experts doubt that it will, and believe that it will not be before 2014 at the earliest.

Another important aspect of the report is that it indicates that Iran is trying to fabricate fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), a five-megawatt reactor that is used for producing nuclear isotopes for medical and agricultural use, as well as research. Aside from enriching uranium at low level -- around 3.7 percent -- for a light water nuclear reactor of the type that has begun operating at Bushehr, and at 19.75 percent for the TRR, Iran was not known to have the technical expertise for taking further steps to fabricate the enriched uranium into fuel rods or pellets. The report indicates that Iran has made progress in this direction as well.

The second part of the report discusses "possible military dimensions" of Iran's nuclear program. In the run-up to the report's publication, there was much speculation that it would contain "irrefutable" evidence that Iran is close -- as close as six months, some claimed -- to making a nuclear weapon. (The Washington Post asked rhetorically but also matter-of-factly, Is Obama going to let Iran get the bomb?) But the report does not come even close to providing evidence that this is the case, although it does contain some new interesting information. It begins with a sort of rhetorical statement:

Previous reports by the Director General have identified outstanding issues related to possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program and actions required of Iran to resolve these. Since2002, the Agency has become increasingly concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear related activities involving military related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile, about which the Agency has regularly received new information.

Since 2002? In August 2002, the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization alleged that Iran had a secret nuclear weapon program. Then, in February 2003, former President Mohammad Khatami formally announced that Iran was constructing the Natanz uranium enrichment facility and a few other facilities, and invited the IAEA to inspect them, in complete compliance with Iran's Safeguards Agreement obligation that it must inform the agency about the existence of any nuclear facility by at least 180 days prior to the introduction of any nuclear materials into that facility. Since then, as the IAEA has acknowledged, Iran has undergone the most intrusive inspection in the agency's history, and yet even the report constantly uses "alleged" when referring to the various "worrying" issues that it raises. The report again emphasizes,

The Agency has serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program. After assessing carefully and critically the extensive information available to it, the Agency finds the information to be, overall, credible. The information indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device. The information also indicates that prior to the end of 2003, these activities took place under a structured program, and that some activities may still be ongoing.

In other words, the entire allegations come down to this: Before 2003, Iran supposedly had an active nuclear weapons program. That was stopped, by the IAEA's own admission:

Owing to growing concerns about the international security situation in Iraq [invasion of Iraq by the U.S.] and neighboring countries at that time, work on the AMAD Plan [an allegedly comprehensive program of research on nuclear weapon] was stopped rather abruptly pursuant to a "halt order" instruction issued in late 2003 by senior Iranian officials. According to that information, however, staff remained in place to record and document the achievements of their respective projects. Subsequently, equipment and work places were either cleaned or disposed of so that there would be little to identify the sensitive nature of the work which had been undertaken.

This is completely consistent with the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of November 2007, which stated that Iran stopped its nuclear weapon program in 2003, although the unclassified version of the report provided no evidence that any such program in fact existed prior to that year. According to a June 2011 article by Seymour Hersh, the updated NIE that was submitted to the administration in February 2011 (but went unpublicized) maintained the position that Iran did not have an active nuclear weapon program. All the IAEA report now says is that some elements of that program may have been restarted.

With the exception of a few new twists, the allegations made by the IAEA in its latest report are not new. They emanate from a laptop that supposedly contained extensive documentation about Iran's nuclear program prior to 2003. It was purportedly stolen in 2004, taken to Turkey, and given to Western intelligence agencies. The laptop's documents supposedly talk about a Project 5 for converting uranium oxide (UO2) to "green salt," or uranium tetrafluoride (UF4), an intermediate compound in the conversion of uranium ore to gaseous UF6; Projects 110 and 111 for the design of a missile re-entry vehicle; and Project 3.12 for testing high-power explosives. They were supposedly led by Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a 43-year-old physicist, not a nuclear engineer as has been reported in the West, who received his Ph.D. from Shiraz University in southern Iran and works openly in physics research institutes in Tehran. All of the "Projects" are discussed prominently in the latest IAEA report, as well (see Attachment 1 of the report, the center table).

The IAEA expresses concern about what Fakhrizadeh is up to now. According to the report,

The Agency has other information from Member States which indicates that some activities previously carried out under the AMAD Plan were resumed later, and that Mr. Fakhrizadeh retained the principal organizational role, first under a new organization known as the Section for Advanced Development Applications and Technologies, which continued to report to MODAFL [Ministry of Defense Armed Forces Logistics], and later, in mid-2008, as the head of the Malek Ashtar University of Technology in Tehran. The Agency has been advised by a Member State that, in February 2011, Mr. Fakhrizadeh moved his seat of operations from MUT to an adjacent location known as the Modjeh Site, and that he now leads the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research. The Agency is concerned because some of the activities undertaken after 2003 would be highly relevant to a nuclear weapon program.

Now it may be news to the IAEA where Fakhrizadeh has moved to, but not to those who follow developments in Iran closely.

The report essentially represents a rehash of what Olli Heinonen, former IAEA deputy director-general for safeguards -- a man who has a reputation inconsistent with impartiality and objectivity -- presented to the IAEA Board of Governors in Vienna in February 2008. On that occasion, he presented a dark view of Iran's nuclear program under the guise of an "Agency Evaluation," even though the agency had declared only two days earlier its satisfaction with the resolution of many issues that, up until then, had been considered "crucial" and "critical." In fact, there were persistent rumors about tension between ElBaradei, then the agency's director-general, and Heinonen.

The new IAEA report avoids mentioning the laptop. It proved to be too controversial, and its essential premise and claims were demolished by Gareth Porter, this author, and others. So what the new IAEA report claims is that it now has corroborating evidence, supplied by up to ten member states, about the same allegations. No country is specifically mentioned, nothing is said about how the member states obtained the intelligence, and no dates are given about when the information reached the agency.

The report talks about procurement activities and Iran's attempt to obtain nuclear materials. The agency acknowledges,

In 2008, the Director General informed the Board that: it had no information at that time -- apart from the uranium metal document -- on the actual design or manufacture by Iran of nuclear material components of a nuclear weapon or of certain other key components, such as initiators, or on related nuclear physics studies, and that it had not detected the actual use of nuclear material in connection with the alleged studies.

But it then claims,

As indicated in paragraph 22 above [the report], information contained in the alleged studies documentation suggests that Iran was working on a project to secure a source of uranium suitable for use in an undisclosed enrichment program, the product of which would be converted into metal for use in the new warhead which was the subject of the missile re-entry vehicle studies. Additional information provided by Member States indicates that, although uranium was not used, kilogram quantities of natural uranium metal were available to the AMAD Plan.

Information made available to the Agency by a Member State, which the Agency has been able to examine directly, indicates that Iran made progress with experimentation aimed at the recovery of uranium from fluoride compounds (using lead oxide as a surrogate material to avoid the possibility of uncontrolled contamination occurring in the workplace).

In addition, although now declared and currently under safeguards, a number of facilities dedicated to uranium enrichment (the Fuel Enrichment Plant and Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz and the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant near Qom) were covertly built by Iran and only declared once the Agency was made aware of their existence by sources other than Iran. This, taken together with the past efforts by Iran to conceal activities involving nuclear material, create more concern about the possible existence of undeclared nuclear facilities and material in Iran.

This is pure innuendo and insinuation. The Natanz facility was declared to the IAEA when it was supposed to be, and it was incomplete at that time. The timing of Iran's declaration of the Fordow facility, from a safeguards viewpoint, is a matter of dispute. I discussed this issue in a previous article, and will not repeat myself here. But the upshot is that, in my opinion, Iran did not violate its safeguards obligations when it declared the existence of the Fordow facility. The rest, again, is simply innuendo and insinuation.

The most important part of the report deals with alleged work on high conventional explosives, not for conventional weapons, but supposedly for use in triggering a nuclear device. The report discusses in detail fast functioning detonators, known as "exploding bridgewire detonators" (EBWs), which are needed in nuclear weapons. By the IAEA's own admission, Iran informed the agency in 2008 that it had developed EBWs for use in conventional and civilian applications. The accusation is that

Iran has not explained to the Agency its own need or application for such detonators.

In other words, the IAEA demands, "Tell us what you want to do with it," even though it was Iran that supplied the information in the first place, and Iranian scientists had published their work in scientific journals that even the IAEA mentions in its report. Dariush Rezaeinejad, the Iranian scientist who was assassinated last July, was presumably connected with this woek. The agency also states that it has information that Iran has conducted a number of practical tests to see whether its EBW firing equipment would function satisfactorily over long distances between a firing point and a test device located down a deep shaft.

The IAEA acknowledges that

there exist non-nuclear applications, albeit few, for detonators like EBWs, and of equipment suitable for firing multiple detonators with a high level of simultaneity. Notwithstanding, given their possible application in a nuclear explosive device, and the fact that there are limited civilian and conventional military applications for such technology, Iran's development of such detonators and equipment is a matter of concern, particularly in connection with the possible use of the multipoint initiation system referred to below.

Despite detailed discussions, however, the IAEA does not present any assessment of Iran's capability to make a nuclear explosive device based on what it knows. Why? Is the agency not sure of its own knowledge? In 2009, the IAEA presented an assessment. Has all the "new" knowledge done nothing to sharpen that assessment?

One of the most interesting parts of the report is the reference to a "foreign scientist" who apparently contributed to Iran's alleged experiments with high explosives:

The Agency has strong indications that the development by Iran of the high explosives initiation system, and its development of the high speed diagnostic configuration used to monitor related experiments, were assisted by the work of a foreign expert who was not only knowledgeable in these technologies, but who, a Member State has informed the Agency, worked for much of his career with this technology in the nuclear weapon program of the country of his origin. The Agency has reviewed publications by this foreign expert and has met with him. 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, where he also lectured on explosion physics and its applications.

So, once again, something might have been done in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but if we are to believe the NIE, it all ended before 2003. The report says only that the foreign expert -- presumably from the former Soviet Union -- "lectured" on high explosives. That is the entirety of the evidence.

Regarding high explosives, the matter has been contentious for several years. To carry out experiments with high explosives, one must construct a containment vessel. It was supposed to be in Parchin, southeast of Tehran, where since the 1950s Iran has had a plant for the production of conventional ammunitions. The agency visited the site twice in 2005, but could not turn up evidence of anything. Even Heinonen has acknowledged this. Parchin was not mentioned again in any report, until now. The agency does not provide any new evidence, but states that it believes that Iran does have a containment vessel somewhere in Parchin. It also reports that it received information from a member state that Iran has manufactured simulated nuclear explosives components -- materials that act similarly, but do not involve uranium -- presumably to conduct experiments, but without leaving a fingerprint of nuclear materials, although it does not claim that Iran has experimented with the material. If true, it could be significant, but even the agency is cautious about this aspect.

The agency then turns to modeling and simulation studies. It reports,

Information provided to the Agency by two Member States relating to modeling studies alleged to have been conducted in 2008 and 2009 by Iran is of particular concern to the Agency. According to that information, the studies involved the modeling of spherical geometries, consisting of components of the core of an HEU [highly enriched uranium] nuclear device subjected to shock compression, for their neutronic behavior at high density, and a determination of the subsequent nuclear explosive yield. The information also identifies models said to have been used in those studies and the results of these calculations, which the Agency has seen. The application of such studies to anything other than a nuclear explosive is unclear to the Agency. It is therefore essential that Iran engage with the Agency and provide an explanation.

Once again, if true, this could be significant and requires explanation by Iran, although a purely modeling effort is not nearly sufficient to support the argument that Iran has been trying to make a nuclear weapon. The report continues,

Research by the Agency into scientific literature published over the past decade has revealed that Iranian workers, in particular groups of researchers at Shahid Behesti University and Amir Kabir University [Tehran Polytechnic], have published papers relating to the generation, measurement and modeling of neutron transport. The Agency has also found, through open source research, other Iranian publications which relate to the application of detonation shock dynamics to the modeling of detonation in high explosives, and the use of hydrodynamic codes in the modeling of jet formation with shaped (hollow) charges. Such studies are commonly used in reactor physics or conventional ordnance research, but also have applications in the development of nuclear explosives.

But if the intention was to do work related to nuclear weaponization, why would Iranian scientists publish their work in freely accessible scientific journals?

Finally, the report tries to present new evidence regarding Project 111, supposedly for the design of a missile re-entry vehicle. It refers to computer simulations that Iran has supposedly carried out, using standard commercial codes:

Studies of at least 14 progressive design iterations of the payload chamber and its contents to examine how they would stand up to the various stresses that would be encountered on being launched and traveling on a ballistic trajectory to a target.

But this could very well relate to Iran's conventional-warhead missile program that it has never hidden, but has in fact boasted about. Even the IAEA acknowledges such a possibility (see below). The agency itself does not even allege that the enumerated activities are related to a nuclear warhead, but that "they are highly relevant." It is only here that the agency obliquely refers to the alleged laptop documents:

Iran has denied conducting the engineering studies, claiming that the documentation which the Agency has is in electronic format and so could have been manipulated, and that it would have been easy to fabricate. However, the quantity of the documentation, and the scope and contents of the work covered in the documentation, are sufficiently comprehensive and complex that, in the Agency's view, it is not likely to have been the result of forgery or fabrication. While the activities described as those of Project 111 may be relevant to the development of a non-nuclear payload, they are highly relevant to a nuclear weapon program.

So the IAEA lends credence to the documents. Many experts have, however, cast doubt on the authenticity of the laptop's contents. A senior European diplomat was quoted by William J. Broad and David E. Sanger of the New York Times in a November 13, 2005, article as saying, "I can fabricate that data. It looks beautiful, but is open to doubt." Another European official said, "Yeah, so what? How do you know what you're shown on a slide is true, given past experience?" A senior intelligence official was quoted as saying, "It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that beautiful pictures represent reality, but that may not be the case." Another U.S. official was quoted as saying, "Even with the best intelligence, you always ask yourself, 'was this prepared for my eyes?'" Julian Borger of the Guardian quoted an IAEA official as saying, "There is some doubt over the provenance of the computer."

The last part of the report deals with fusing, arming, and firing systems. It states,

The alleged studies documentation indicates that, as part of the studies carried out by the engineering groups under Project 111 to integrate the new payload into the re-entry vehicle of the Shahab 3 missile, additional work was conducted on the development of a prototype firing system that would enable the payload to explode both in the air above a target, or upon impact of the re-entry vehicle with the ground. Iran was shown this information, which, in its 117 page submission (submitted a few months ago to the IAEA), it dismissed as being "an animation game." The Agency, in conjunction with experts from Member States other than those which had provided the information in question, carried out an assessment of the possible nature of the new payload. As a result of that assessment, it was concluded that any payload option other than nuclear which could also be expected to have an airburst option (such as chemical weapons) could be ruled out. Iran was asked to comment on this assessment and agreed in the course of a meeting with the Agency which took place in Tehran in May 2008 that, if the information upon which it was based were true, it would constitute a program for the development of a nuclear weapon.

The IAEA does not, however, state what has happened since the 2008 agreement.

Summarizing, as I see it, the allegations are nothing new and are all based on the aforementioned laptop. New evidence is mentioned, but without any documentation, source, or date. There are only a couple of issues that require serious explanation by Iran. The conclusion: The report was deliberately hyped to make a case for much harsher sanctions, or war.


Update: Inter Press Service's Gareth Porter reports that the "foreign scientist" who supposedly helped Iran's nuclear program has, in fact, never worked with weapons. Porter names the scientist as Vyacheslav Danilenko and reports that he has nothing to do with the nuclear weapons field, but rather is one of the world's leading experts in the production of nanodiamonds by explosives. According to Porter, the Ukrainian Danilenko has never been involved in any weapons research and the "unnamed [IAEA] member state that informed the agency about Danilenko's alleged experience as a Soviet nuclear weapon scientist is almost certainly Israel, which has been the source of virtually all the purported intelligence on Iranian work on nuclear weapons over the past decade."


Update: Vyacheslav Danilenko has denied helping Iran with its nuclear program. Danilenko, 76, told the Russian newspaper Kommersant, "I am not a nuclear physicist and am not the father of the Iranian nuclear program." He confirmed that his field of research is nanodiamond production.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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