by Gareth Porter
18 November 2010
Image: Lance Page/truthout
Adapted: World's Saddest Man,
Pierre J., ImageAbstraction
Since 2007, the International Atomic Energy
Agency (IAEA) - with the support of the United States, Israel and European
allies UK, France and Germany - has been demanding that Iran explain a set
of purported internal documents portraying a covert Iranian military program
of research and development of nuclear weapons.
The "laptop documents," supposedly obtained from
a stolen Iranian computer by an unknown source and given to US intelligence
in 2004, include a series of drawings of a missile re-entry vehicle that
appears to be an effort to accommodate a nuclear weapon, as well as reports
on high explosives testing for what appeared to be a detonator for a nuclear
In one report after another, the IAEA has suggested that Iran has failed to
cooperate with its inquiry into that alleged research, and that the agency,
therefore, cannot verify that it has not diverted nuclear material to
That issue remains central to US policy toward Iran.
administration says there can be no diplomatic negotiations with
Iran unless Iran satisfies the IAEA fully in regard to the allegations
derived from the documents that it had covert nuclear weapons program.
That position is based on the premise that the intelligence documents that
Iran has been asked to explain are genuine. The evidence now available,
however, indicates that they are fabrications.
The drawings of the Iranian missile warhead that were said by the IAEA to
show an intent to accommodate a nuclear weapon actually depict a missile
design that Iran is now known to have already abandoned in favor of an
improved model by the time the technical drawings were allegedly made.
And one of the major components of the purported
Iranian military research program allegedly included a project labeled with
a number that turns out to have been assigned by Iran's civilian nuclear
authority years before the covert program is said to have been initiated.
The former head of the agency's safeguards department, Olli Heinonen,
who shaped its approach to the issue of the intelligence documents from 2005
and 2010, has offered no real explanation for these anomalies in recent
These telltale indicators of fraud bring into question the central pillar of
the case against Iran and raise more fundamental questions about the
handling of the Iranian nuclear issue by the IAEA, the United States and its
key European allies.
Drawings of the Wrong
In mid-July 2005, in an effort to get the IAEA fully behind the Bush
administration's effort to refer the Iranian nuclear dossier to the United
Nations Security Council, Robert Joseph, US undersecretary of state
for arms control and international security, made a formal presentation on
the purported Iranian nuclear weapons program documents to the agency's
leading officials in Vienna.
Joseph flashed excerpts from the documents on
the screen, giving special attention to the series of technical drawings or
"schematics" showing 18 different ways of fitting an unidentified payload
into the re-entry vehicle or "warhead" of Iran's medium-range ballistic
When IAEA analysts were allowed to study the documents, however, they
discovered that those schematics were based on a re-entry vehicle that the
analysts knew had already been abandoned by the Iranian military in favor of
a new, improved design.
The warhead shown in the schematics had the
familiar "dunce cap" shape of the original North Korean
No Dong missile,
which Iran had acquired in the mid-1990s, as former IAEA Safeguards
Department Chief Olli Heinonen confirmed to this writer in an interview on
November 5. But when Iran had flight tested a new missile in mid-2004, it
did not have that dunce cap warhead, but a new "triconic" or "baby bottle"
shape, which was more aerodynamic than the one on the original Iranian
The laptop documents had depicted the wrong re-entry vehicle being
When I asked Heinonen, now a senior fellow at Harvard University's Belfer
Center, why Iran's purported secret nuclear weapons research program would
redesign the warhead of a missile that the Iranian military had already
decided to replace with an improved model, he suggested that the group that
had done the schematics had no relationship with the Iranian missile
"It looks from that information that this
group was working with this individual," said Heinonen, referring to Dr.
Mohsen Fakrizadeh, the man named in the documents as heading the
"It was not working with the missile
Heinonen's claim that the covert nuclear weapon
program had no link to the regular missile program is not supported by the
intelligence documents themselves.
The IAEA describes what is purported to be a
one-page letter from Fakrizadeh to the Shahid Hemat Industrial Group
dated March 3, 2003, "seeking assistance with the prompt transfer of data"
for the work on redesigning the re-entry vehicle.
Shahid Hemat, which is part of the Iranian military's Defense Industries
Organization, was involved in testing the engine for the Shahab-3 and, in
particular, in working on aerodynamic properties and control systems for
Iranian missiles, all of which were reported in the US news media.
"Project 11" was the code name given to the
purported re-entry vehicle project.
Heinonen also suggested that the program's engineers could have been ordered
to redesign the older Shahab-3 model before the decision was made by the
missile program to switch to a newer model and that it couldn't change its
work plan once it was decided.
However, according to Mike Elleman, lead author of the most
authoritative study of the Iranian missile
program thus far, published by the London-based International Institute
for Strategic Studies (IISS)
last May, Iran introduced the major innovations in the design of the
medium-range missile, including a longer, lighter airframe and the new
warhead shape, over a period of two to five years. Elleman, told me in an
interview that the redesign of the re-entry vehicle must have begun in 2002
at the latest.
The schematics on the laptop documents' redesigned warhead were dated
March-April 2003, according to the IAEA report of May 2008.
Heinonen's explanation assumes that the Iranian military ordered an engineer
to organize a project to redesign the warhead on its intermediate-range
ballistic missile to accommodate a nuclear payload, but kept the project in
the dark about its plans to replace the Shahab-3 with a completely new and
That assumption appears wholly implausible, because the reason for the shift
to the new missile, according to the IISS study, was that the Shahab-3,
purchased from North Korea in the early to mid-1990s, had a range of only
800 to 1,000 km, depending on the weight of the payload. Thus, it was
incapable of reaching Israel.
The new missile, later named the
carry a payload of conventional high-explosives 1,500 to 1,600 kilometers,
bringing Israel within the reach of an Iranian missile for the first time.
The missile warhead anomaly is a particularly telling sign of fraud, because
someone intending to fabricate such technical drawings of a re-entry vehicle
could not have known that Iran had abandoned the Shahab-3 in favor of the
more advanced Ghadr-1 until after mid-August 2004. As the IISS study points
out, the August 11, 2004, test launch was the first indication to the
outside world that a new missile with a triconic warhead had been developed.
Before that test, Elleman told me,
"No information was available that they were
modifying the warhead."
After that test, however, it would have been too
late to redo the re-entry vehicle studies, which would have the biggest
impact on news media coverage and political opinion.
Iranian statements about the Shahab-3 missile would have been misleading for
anyone attempting to fabricate these schematics.
The IISS study recalls that Iran had said in
early 2001 that the Shahab-3 had entered "serial production" and declared in
July 2003 that it was "operational." The IISS study observes, however, that
the announcement came only after the US invasion of Iraq, when Iran felt an
urgent need to claim an operational missile capability.
The study says it is "very dubious" that the
missile was ever produced in significant numbers.
Resistance at the IAEA
A second inconsistency between the laptop documents and the established
facts emerged only in 2008.
At a briefing for IAEA member states in February
2008, Heinonen displayed an organization chart (below) of the purported
research program, showing a "Project 5" with two sub-projects:
Kimia Maadan, a private Iranian firm, is
shown to be running "Project 5."
One of the key documents in the collection, a one-page flow sheet for a
uranium-conversion process, dated May 2003, with Kimia Maadan's name on it,
is marked "Project 5/13."
Bush administration hardliners
and the IAEA safeguard department had been convinced in the 2004-2005 period
that Kimia Maadan was a front for the Iranian military.
In a 2005 report,
the IAEA questioned how that company, with
such "limited experience in ore processing," could have established an ore
processing plant at Gchine in such a short time from 2000 to mid-2001 on its
But in January 2008, Iran provided
documents to the IAEA showing that Kimia
Maadan had actually been created by the civilian Atomic Energy
Organization of Iran (AEOI) in 2000 solely to carry out a contract to
design, build and put into operation an ore-processing facility. The
documents also established that the firm's core staff consisted entirely of
experts who had previously worked for AEOI's Ore Processing Center and that
the conceptual design and other technical information had been provided to
Kimia Maadan by AEOI.
But the most explosive
new evidence provided by Iran showed that
the code number of "Project 5/15" on ore processing, supposedly assigned by
the Iranian military's secret nuclear weapon research program, had actually
been assigned by the AEOI more than two years before the purported nuclear
weapons program had been started.
In the context of the documents on Kimia
Maadan's relationship with AEOI, the IAEA report of February 2008
"A decision to construct a UOC [uranium ore
concentration] plant at Gchine, known as 'project 5/15,' was made August
An unpublished paper by the IAEA safeguards
department, leaked to the media and the Washington, DC-based Institute for
Science and International Security (ISIS) in 2009,
identified early 2002 as the formal
beginning of what it called the Iranian military's "warhead development
Asked about this contradiction, Heinonen told me he couldn't answer the
question, because he did not recall the specific dates involved.
After the IAEA had acquired that new evidence of fraud in January 2008, an
IAEA official familiar with the internal debate inside the agency told me
that some IAEA officials had demanded that the agency distance itself
publicly from the intelligence documents. But IAEA reports made no
concession to those demands. Instead, beginning with the May 2008 report,
the agency began to use language implying that the documents were considered
Behind the scenes, a conflict was about to boil over between Heinonen and
then IAEA Director General Mohammed ElBaradei, who was skeptical
about the authenticity of the laptop documents and refused to give them any
official IAEA endorsement.
In late 2008, Heinonen began pushing ElBaradei to
approve publication of his department's favorable assessment of the
intelligence documents, which concluded that Iran had done research and
development on nuclear weapons components and speculated that it was
continuing to do so.
But ElBaradei refused to do so and in August 2009, diplomats from the UK,
France and Germany, who were supporting Heinonen's view of the documents,
The Associated Press that, for nearly a
year, ElBaradei had been suppressing "credible" evidence of Iran's covert
work on nuclear weapons.
ElBaradei responded to those political pressures to publish the safeguards
department speculative study in an interview with The Hindu on October 1,
2009, in which
"The IAEA is not making any judgment at all
whether Iran even had weaponisation studies before because there is a
major question of authenticity of the documents."
Evidence of Israel's
The origin of the laptop documents may never be proven conclusively, but the
accumulated evidence points
to Israel as the source.
As early as 1995, the head of the Israel Defense
Forces' military intelligence research and assessment division, Yaakov
unsuccessfully to persuade his American
counterparts that Iran was planning to "go nuclear."
By 2003-2004, Mossad's reporting on the Iranian
nuclear program was viewed by high-ranking CIA officials as an effort to
pressure the Bush administration into considering military action against
Iran's nuclear sites, according to Israeli sources cited by a
pro-Israeli news service.
In the summer of 2003, Israel's international intelligence agency, Mossad,
had established an aggressive program aimed at exerting influence on the
Iran nuclear issue by leaking alleged intelligence to governments and the
news media, as Israeli officials acknowledged to journalists Douglas Frantz
and Catherine Collins.
According to the book, "The
Nuclear Jihadist," as part of the program, Mossad sometimes
passed on purported Iranian documents supposedly obtained by Israeli spies
German sources have suggested that the intelligence documents were conveyed
to the US government, directly or indirectly, by a group that had been
collaborating closely with Mossad.
Soon after Secretary of State Colin
Powell made the existence of the laptop documents public in November
2004, Karsten Voight, the coordinator of German-American cooperation
in the German Foreign Ministry, was quoted in The Wall Street Journal as
saying that they had been transferred by an Iranian "dissident group."
A second German source familiar with the case
was even more explicit.
"I can assure you," the source told me in
2007, "that the documents came from the Iranian resistance
That was a reference to the Mujahideen-E-Khalq (MEK),
also known as the People's Mujahideen of Iran, the armed Iranian exile group
designated as a terrorist organization by the US State Department.
The National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI), the political arm of the
MEK, was generally credited by the news media with having revealed the
existence of the Iranian nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak in an August
2002 press conference in Washington, DC.
Later, however, IAEA, Israeli and
Iranian dissident sources all said that the NCRI had gotten the intelligence
on the sites from Mossad.
An IAEA official told Seymour Hersh (Chain
of Command - The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib) that the Israelis
were behind the revelation of the sites and two journalists from Der Spiegel
reported the same thing. So did an adviser
to an Iranian monarchist group, speaking to a writer for
The New Yorker.
That episode was not isolated, but was part of a
broader pattern of Israeli cooperation with the MEK in providing
intelligence intended to influence the CIA and the IAEA.
Israeli authors Melman and Javadanfar,
who claimed to have good sources in Mossad, wrote in
their 2007 book that Israeli intelligence
had "laundered" intelligence to the IAEA by providing it to Iranian
opposition groups, especially the NCRI.
Israeli officials also went to extraordinary lengths to publicize the story
of covert Iranian experiments on a key component of a nuclear weapon, which
was one of messages the intelligence documents conveyed.
As a result of satellite intelligence brought to
attention of the IAEA in 2004 by
Undersecretary of State John Bolton, the IAEA requested two separate
investigations at the main Iran military research center at Parchin.
January 2005 and
November 2005, were aimed at examining the
charge that Iran was using facilities at Parchin to test high explosives
used in the detonation of a nuclear weapon. In each investigation, the IAEA
investigators were allowed complete freedom to search and take environmental
samples at any five buildings in the complex and their surroundings.
But they failed to find any evidence of any
Iranian nuclear weapons-related experiments.
At that point, Israeli intelligence came up with a new story.
Hersh reported that, earlier in 2006,
Mossad had given the CIA an intelligence report - purportedly from one of
its agents inside Iran - claiming that the Iranian military had been
"testing trigger mechanisms" for a nuclear weapon. The experiment supposedly
involved simulating a nuclear explosion without using any nuclear material,
so that it could not be detected by the IAEA.
But there were no specifics on which to base an
IAEA investigation - no test site specified and no diagrams - and CIA
officials told Hersh they could not learn anything more about the identity
of the alleged Israeli agent.
The CIA evidently did not regard the Israeli claim as credible, because the
intelligence community issued a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in late
2007, which said that Iran had ended all work on nuclear weapons in 2003 and
had not restarted it. Israel expressed dismay at the US intelligence
Israeli officials admitted that the
official position that Iran was still working actively on a nuclear weapon
was based on an assumption rather than any hard evidence.
Israel encountered yet another problem in its effort to promote the covert
Iranian nuclear weapon narrative.
The IAEA analysts doubted that Iran would be
able to develop a nuclear weapon small enough to fit into the missile it had
tested in 2004 without foreign assistance, as David Albright, former IAEA
contract officer and director of the Institute for Science and International
Security, wrote in a
letter to The New York Times in November
Sometime between February and May, however, yet another purported Iranian
document conveniently materialized that addressed the problem of the US NIE
and the "small bomb" issue noted by Albright. The document was a long,
Farsi-language report purporting to be about the testing of a system to
detonate high explosives in hemispherical arrangement.
Based on the new
document, the IAEA safeguard department concluded that the,
"implosion system" on which it assumed Iran
was working "could be contained within a payload container believed to
be small enough to fit into the re-entry body chamber of the Shahab-3
The document was given to the IAEA by a "Member
State," which was not identified in the
leaked excerpts from an unpublished IAEA
report describing it. But Albright, who knows Heinonen well, told me in a
September 2008 interview, that the state in question was "probably Israel."
The day before the Reuters and Associated Press stories attacking ElBaradei
over his refusal to publish the report appeared in August 2009, the Israeli
Haaretz reported that Israel,
"has been striving to pressure the IAEA
through friendly nations and have it release the censored annex."
The operation was being handled by the director
general of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission and the Foreign Ministry,
according to the report.
The Israeli objective, Haaretz reported, was to,
"prove that the Iranian effort to develop
nuclear weapons is continuing, contrary to the claims that Tehran
stopped its nuclear program in 2003."
Rethinking the Case Against
Once the intelligence documents that have been used to indict Iran as
plotting to build nuclear weapons are discounted as fabrications likely
perpetrated by a self-interested party, there is no solid basis for the US
policy of trying to coerce Iran into ending all uranium enrichment.
And there is no reason for insisting that Iran
must explain the allegations in those documents to the IAEA as a condition
for any future US-Iran negotiations.
News coverage of the purported intelligence documents over the past few
years has created yet another false narrative that distorts public discourse
on the subject. Almost entirely ignored is the possibility that the real aim
of Iran's nuclear program is to maintain a bargaining chip with the United
States, and to have a breakout capability to serve as a deterrent to a US or
Israeli attack on Iran.
The evidence that documents at the center of the case for a covert Iranian
nuclear weapons program are fraudulent suggests the need for a strategic
reset on Iran policy.
It raises both the possibility and the need for
serious exploration of a diplomatic solution for the full range of issues
dividing the two countries, which is the only sensible strategy for ensuring
that Iran stays a non-nuclear state.