Thursday, 10 November 2011

Examining the IAEA's evidence that Iran "may" be pursuing a nuclear weapons programme

The latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran has been receiving a lot of attention in relation to the fact that, for the first time, the agency has explicitly said it believes not only that Iran may have had a nuclear weapons programme but that “some activities may still be on-going.”

Most of the report is based on documents that have long been in the IAEA’s possession as well as widely reported on, and that largely relate to alleged nuclear activities carried out prior to 2003 (when the US intelligence community judges Iran to have suspended an allegedly pre-existing nuclear weapons programme). These are most importantly the “alleged studies”/“laptop of death” documents, as well as some documents from the AQ Khan nuclear network (which are different in that Iran admits these are genuine and that it received them, though it says it was given weapons-related Khan documents that the IAEA is particularly interested in without having requested them). As several other observers have pointed out, former head of the IAEA Mohammed el-Baradei declined to publish the alleged studies documents or to use them as a basis for accusing Iran of having a nuclear weapons programme because of questions about their authenticity but his politicised pro-US successor Yukiya Amano has decided to give them the IAEA’s backing. Gareth Porter provides the most comprehensive critical examination of the alleged studies’ veracity here (subscription/log-in needed).  

It is bizarre that a report overwhelmingly focused on weapons work alleged to have been largely wrapped up nearly a decade ago is attracting so much hype and being so widely used to call for yet more sanctions on Iran and even outright war. However, while the “Possible Military Dimensions to Iran’s Nuclear Program” is overwhelmingly concerned with claims about Iran’s pre-2003 activities, the report does also include the vague but serious charge that “some activities may (my emphasis) still be on-going,” which is rather more relevant to the world today. I thought that it might therefore be interesting to dig out and scrutinise the sections that specifically deal with weapons-related activities that have allegedly taken place since 2003 and/or are allegedly still on-going.

The first such claim is presented in paragraphs 23 and 24 of the annexe. These paragraphs state that the AMAD project, an alleged nuclear weapons programme, was wrapped up in 2003 but that, based on “information the Agency has received from Member states”, “staff remained in place to record and document the achievements of their respective projects.” Furthermore, some IAEA member states have provided it with information that “some activities previously carried out under the AMAD Plan were resumed later” and that the head of AMAD “retained the principal organization role,” first under a new organisation and then as the head of an Iranian university. The section concludes: “The Agency is concerned because some of the activities undertaken after 2003 would be highly relevant to a nuclear weapon programme.”

It is worth noting how vague and poorly sourced this is. Some staff stayed in place to write up the results of a terminated program. Then, “some member states” provided information that “some activities” that “would be highly relevant to a nuclear weapons programme” were resumed, but no details of these activities are given (or whether or not they might have non-nuclear applications”. So the charge is that some unidentified intelligence agencies have said that some sort of unspecified work with (potential?) relevance to nuclear weapons research continued after 2003, based on unspecified and unverifiable evidence.

The next section explicitly referring to post-2003 activities is paragraph 45, which says that two member states provided the IAEA information that “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.” Again, poorly sourced and unverifiable, and this time referring to research “in connection with non-nuclear applications,” which raises the question of why this is included at all.

All of the rest of the allegations relating to post-2003/on-going weapons research appear in paragraphs 52 to 56. Paragraph 52 of the report states that, again, two member states provided the IAEA with information relating to “modelling studies alleged to have been conducted in 2008 and 2009.” These “involved the modelling of spherical geometries, consisting of components of the core of an HEU nuclear device subjected to shock compression, for their neutronic behaviour at high density, and a determination of the subsequent nuclear explosive yield.” So here we do have at least have a specific, nuclear weapons-related accusation with a fairly precise timeframe, though the basis for the accusation and the strength and type of evidence for it is not given; again, all we are told is that “two member states” (at least one of which is presumably Israel - see the last paragraph of the link) say so.
Paragraph 53 states that a member state told the IAEA that in 2005, Iran moved to set up projects in an institution overseen by the alleged head AMAD “to establish a databank for “equation of state” information  and a hydrodynamics calculation centre.” Not being a nuclear expert, I don’t know whether these could have a plausible non-nuclear weapons application and the report doesn’t say so. The paragraph also states that “”a different Member State” told the agency that, also in 2005, a “senior official in SADAT solicited assistance from Shahid Behesti University in connection with complex calculations relating to the state of criticality of a solid sphere of uranium being compressed by high explosives.” This sounds pretty clearly related to nuclear weapons. Again we have (presumably the same) two member states providing the IAEA with unverifiable information, this time relating to alleged weapons related research from six, rather than the usual eight-plus, years ago.

Paragraph 54 notes that the IAEA has discovered that Iranian researchers have, “over the past decade”, openly published a variety of papers on topics that “are commonly used in reactor physics or conventional ordnance research, but also have applications in the development of nuclear explosives.” This is such a pathetic piece of evidence for a clandestine nuclear weapons program that it’s not worth commenting on.

Paragraph 55 and 56 state that the IAEA has information from a “member state” that Iran “may” (my emphasis) have continued work after 2004 on research into the manufacture of “small capsules suitable for use as containers of a component containing nuclear material” that Iran, according to a different member state, “may” (again, my emphasis) have experimented with “in order to assess their performance in generating neutrons.” The agency says that such components could be used to generate a nuclear explosion, though it doesn’t clarify whether or not they could be used for another purpose. So again we have unverifiable intelligence from presumably the same two member states, this time to the effect that Iran “may” have continued after 2004 looking into components that it “may” have experimented with as part of a weapons program, without being clear as to whether such research has any other applications.

That, by my reading of the document, accounts for all the references in the report to alleged weapons-related research that the report specifically says took place after 2003. (There are other vaguely-worded references to research that don’t give a clear time frame and that could presumably also have taken place after 2003, but given that the vast majority of the evidence cited is the alleged studies, which refer to pre-2003 work, and the importance the agency would likely attach to any evidence of an on-going weapons program, it seems unlikely to me that the agency would have failed to make it clear when it was referring to alleged post-2003 activities).

So to summarise, apart from the absurd citation of openly published scientific research with clear non-nuclear weapons-related applications, it is all based on unverifiable intelligence from IAEA member states, in almost all cases from what appear to be the same two member states, one of which is likely Israel. In one case this relates to a claim that some staff hung around to write up some research after it had been terminated as well as entirely vague and unspecified allegations that "some" weapons-relevant research continued afterwards. In another, the alleged activities are acknowledged to have been “in connection with non-nuclear applications.” Another relates to an alleged piece of nuclear weapons-related research that allegedly took place six years ago. And then we have a claim that an intelligence agency told the IAEA that Iran “may” have continued some research beyond 2004 that it “may” previously have used as part of a weapons research programme, with being clear about whether or not such research has non-nuclear applications.

In only one case do we have a claim that Iran relatively recently (two to three years ago) carried out an unambiguously weapons-related piece of research, again based on the unverifiable claims of two intelligence agencies.

It hardly bears repeating that, in the light of the Iraq war, the record of (presumably) western intelligence agencies on accurately and honestly presenting evidence of WMD-programmes in four-letter Middle Eastern countries beginning with “Ira-” is some way from being unimpeachable; and in this case we have just one claim by these intelligence agencies that they have some sort of evidence of Iran fairly recently engaging in what is unambiguously nuclear weapons-related research. This is the “evidence”, combined with long-standing dubious claims about what Iran may have gotten up to eight or more years ago, that is being hyped as part of a push towards another potentially catastrophic war in the Middle East.  

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