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Jan. 12: Nuclear arms programme charge against Iran is no sure thing

Robert E. Kelley

Given the high stakes, it is valuable to take another look at the main source of the tension: Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons programme. That this enterprise is active is widely considered a given in the United States. In fact, the evidence, described in a report issued in November 2011 by the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Yukiya Amano, is sketchy. Furthermore, the way the data has been presented produces a sickly sense of déjà vu.

As a member of the IAEA Iraq Action Team in 2003, I learned first hand how withholding the facts can lead to bloodshed. Having known the details then, although I was not allowed to speak about them, I feel a certain shared responsibility for the war that killed more than 4000 Americans and more than 100 000 Iraqis. As a private citizen today, I hope to help ensure the facts are clear before the USA takes further steps that could lead, intentionally or otherwise, to a new conflagration, this time in Iran.

It is accepted that Iran at one time had a nuclear weapons programme. The country’s enormous investment in a secret underground uranium-enrichment complex in the city of Natanz is essentially proof of clandestine intentions. The military plutonium-production reactor in Arak is yet another indicator.

However, in the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, US agencies concluded ‘with high confidence’ that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons programme in late 2003 under international pressure. It is rare for intelligence officials to determine that they have sufficient evidence to say a programme has ended, so their information presumably was very good. Similarly, until this year, the IAEA had consistently reported that it had no information suggesting Iran had a nuclear weapons programme after 2004.

The question, therefore, is not whether there is evidence that Iran has had such a programme, but whether there is evidence that it was restarted after it was shut down in 2003. Amano’s report is long on the former and very short on the latter. In the 24-page document, intended for a restricted distribution but widely available online, all but three of the items that were offered as proof of a possible nuclear weapons programme are either undated or refer to events before 2004. Almost all of a 14-page annex is spent reprising what was already known: that at one time there were military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme.

The three ‘indications’

What of the three pieces of dated recent evidence that Iran’s nuclear weapons programme may have been reactivated?

Two relate to alleged modelling studies on nuclear warhead design in 2008 and 2009, and alleged ‘experimental research’ on scaling down and optimizing a nuclear weapons-relevant high-explosives package. They are attributed only to ‘two Member States’, so the sourcing is impossible to evaluate. In addition, their validity is called into question by the report’s handling of the third piece of evidence.

That evidence, according to the report, tells us that Iran embarked on a four-year programme, starting around 2006, to validate the design of a device to produce a burst of neutrons that could initiate a fission chain reaction. Though it is not clear what source the report is relying on, it is certain that this project was earlier at the centre of what appeared to be a disinformation campaign.

In 2009 the IAEA received a two-page document, purporting to come from Iran, describing the same alleged work. Mohamed ElBaradei, who was then the agency’s Director General, rejected the information because there was no chain of custody for the paper, no clear source and no document markings, date of issue or anything else that could establish its authenticity. Furthermore, the document contained stylistic errors, suggesting that the author was not a native Farsi speaker. It appeared to have been typed using an Arabic, rather than a Farsi, word-processing programme. After ElBaradei put the document on the trash heap, it was published by the British newspaper The Times.

This episode had suspicious similarities to a previous case that proved definitively to be a hoax. In 1995 the IAEA received several documents from the Sunday Times, a sister paper to The Times, purporting to show that Iraq had resumed its nuclear weapons programme in spite of all evidence to the contrary. The IAEA quickly determined that the documents were elaborate forgeries. There were mistakes in formatting the documents’ markings, classification and dates, and many errors in language and style indicated that the author’s first language was something other than Arabic or Farsi. Inspections in Iraq later in 1995 confirmed incontrovertibly that there had been no resumption of the Iraqi nuclear programme.

The lessons of the past

I regret now that ElBaradei did not speak out more vehemently, before the USA went to war in Iraq, about the falsification of evidence: the 1995 faked documents, additional forgeries provided to the IAEA in 2003, and others. A good man, he had been an international lawyer with years of experience dealing with half-truths and prevarications; but he was trapped between telling the whole story and overtly insulting the USA, which supplied 25 per cent of the IAEA’s funding.

ElBaradei labelled documents provided to the IAEA about Iraq’s attempts to acquire uranium from Africa ‘not authentic’. A better description would have been ‘blatant and amateurish forgeries’. He provided evidence that aluminum tubes the USA said were for nuclear centrifuges were actually for rockets; but he did not make public the supporting engineering details. The truth was lost in US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s scandalous detailing of Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, which was wrong in almost every respect.

ElBaradei’s successor has similarly fallen short by failing to note in his report the earlier doubts that Iran was continuing to develop a neutron-producing device. If Amano has found new reasons to overlook the many questionable aspects of this story, he should present them. Given past doubts about the episode, his reporting on it should be above reproach.

When it comes to accurately accounting for potential diversions of nuclear materials—the main mission of the IAEA—the agency has gone about its work with precision. It needs to be just as exacting when it delves into allegations about Iran’s weapons activities.

I should be clear: Iran deserves tough scrutiny. It claims to have given up its nuclear weapons ambitions, yet repeatedly acts as if it has something to hide. I am sceptical; I suspect the Iranians may have an ongoing weaponization programme. The uncertainty must be resolved.

At the same time, we should not again be held hostage to forgeries and the spinning of data to make the worst case. If Iran is developing nuclear weapons, let it be proved through the analysis of current, solid information—not recycled, discredited data. If there is to be a war with Iran, let us not have a repeat, afterwards, of the anguished articles and books from officials who kept their misgivings to themselves. Let us get all the facts on the table now.

About the author

Robert Kelley, a nuclear engineer, has been a SIPRI Associated Senior Research Fellow since 2010. He was a director at the IAEA, where he worked for nine years. He gained his weapons expertise over 30 years at the University of California’s nuclear weapons laboratories.

This article was originally published by Bloomberg View. The opinions expressed are the author’s own. 


Robert E. Kelley is a Distinguished Associate Fellow at SIPRI.