The obsession with discredited allegations about Iran's past nuclear work

On Feb. 19the New York Times ran a piece by David Sanger and William Broad titled “Inspectors Say Iran Evading Questions as Nuclear Talks Enter a Crucial Stage.” These “questions” refer to 12 allegations – the so-called “Possible Military Dimensions” (PMD) file – that Iran may have conducted nuclear weapons-relevant research in the past. They are based, in part, on information provided to the IAEA by intelligence agencies of Israel and the U.S. It has long been known that some of the information is suspect and likely fabricated and planted. Exaggerating the importance of these unauthenticated allegations – like the New York Times is doing – only hands ammunition to those working to subvert a nuclear deal and precipitate a military confrontation with Iran.

Ex-IAEA Director Hans Blix says he has long believed there is “as much disinformation as information” on the alleged weaponization efforts. And Mohammed El Baradei, who followed Blix's directorship – and held the post for 12 years thereafter – was also skeptical about the purported Iranian documents passed to the IAEA, writing in his 2011 memoir, “No one knew if any of this was real.”

In fact, exactly a day after the Feb. 19 New York Times report, Bloomberg reported that IAEA “inspectors in Vienna will probably review intelligence they received about Iran as a result of the revelations...[that] the CIA passed doctored blueprints for nuclear-weapon components to Iran in February 2000...”

Unfortunately, this did not stop the New York Times from running a news “analysis” piece two weeks later again omitting to mention how several experts and former IAEA directors have serious doubts about the IAEA's PMD dossier.

For example, former IAEA inspector Robert Kelley singled out one of the allegations regarding neutron initiators saying, “Though I cannot say for sure what source the agency is relying on, I can say for certain that this project was earlier at the center of what appeared to be a misinformation campaign....there was no chain of custody for the paper, no clear source, document markings, date of issue or anything else that could establish its authenticity.”

In 2007, the U.S. intelligence community's National Intelligence Estimate – a consensus view of 16 separate U.S. intelligence agencies – found that whatever research Iran may have been carrying out on nuclear arms ended in 2003. According to a 2012 Reuters report, the high-confidence of the intelligence agencies that the research stopped was based – among other things – on “both telephone and email intercepts in which Iranian scientists complained about how the leadership ordered them to shut down the program in 2003.” U.S. Intelligence Director James Clapper has since confirmed he has a “high level of confidence” that Tehran is not currently weaponizing.

Even the November 2011 IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program backs up this assessment, stating that Iran’s fledgling research program into nuclear weapons “was stopped rather abruptly pursuant to a ‘halt order’ instruction issued in late 2003.”

What about the New York Times reports that Iran is evading the PMD questions? Iran has provided a lengthy response saying that many of the allegations are fabricated or errorneous – essentially, that there is nothing substantiated regarding the PMD dossier that Tehran must answer to. In an official communication to the IAEA, Iran states that the “forged documents have no sign to prove that they are of Iranian origin and...the documents are full of mistakes and contain fake names...” In some cases, Iranian officials also complain that they are not allowed to see the original documents they are supposed to answer to, but only electronically re-formatted versions, which they insist “could have been manipulated, and...would have been easy to fabricate.”

In light of comments from two former IAEA directors, such Iranian complaints should not be brushed off lightly.

There are 12 main PMD concerns, as outlined in the Annex to the November 2011 IAEA report. The IAEA narrowed down this list to three issues they are most interested in. But all three of the PMD concerns appear to be rather weak: the “Exploding Bridge Wire” detonators are dual-use; the alleged Marivan explosive testing has not been followed up by the IAEA; and, the alleged neutron transport and nuclear explosion modeling appears to be slipshod or simply fake.

Further, the IAEA's technical ability to properly analyze and investigate nuclear weapons' and ballistic missile re-entry vehicles' allegations is also limited. This is because such analysis lies well outside the IAEA's core function.

Problems at the IAEA seem to arise when the Agency veers from its mandated job of nuclear-materials accountancy to try to take on a bigger role of nuclear-weapons investigator, for which it has no legal responsibility, little in-house skill and insufficient funding. If the Agency wants to continue to pursue Iran on this, it should urgently vet the PMD file using qualified, outside weapons experts. There could be some things worthy of further investigation in the PMD file, but these will be most apparent to appropriately trained personnel. Again, former director Blix: “Something that worries me is that these accusations that come from foreign intelligence agencies can be utilized by states to keep Iran under suspicion.”

Butt, a nuclear physicist, is senior scientific adviser to the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) in London. The views expressed here are his own.

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