Opinion

Flawed graph weakens case against Iran nuclear program (+video)

The Associated Press admits that a graph purporting to show that Iran has run computer simulations for a nuclear weapon is scientifically flawed. This raises serious questions about the quality of other 'evidence' against Iran's nuclear program. Here's a way to proceed.

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Last week, the Associated Press released an image that purported to show that "Iranian scientists have run computer simulations for a nuclear weapon that would produce more than triple the explosive force of the World War II bomb that destroyed Hiroshima." The diagram presented was "leaked by officials from a country critical of Iran's atomic program to bolster their arguments that Iran's nuclear program must be halted."

Presumably these officials were hoping to keep the fear over Iran’s nuclear program alive – but they have achieved just the opposite. A few days after the original story burst forth, the AP admitted making a mistake, saying that diplomats working with the UN nuclear agency conceded that the “leaked diagram suggesting that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon is scientifically flawed.”

The real concern this raises is over the quality and authenticity of other secret evidence Iran is being asked to answer to: Is it just as hollow? Could it have been faked by the “country critical of Iran's atomic program?” Let's recall that much of the case for the Iraq war was also based on false documents and breathless alarmism over technical-sounding things – yellowcake, aluminum tubes, etc. – which much of the media uncritically repeated. 

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Worryingly, the AP story said that this amateurish and technically incorrect graph even made it into official reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency, specifically one from November 2011 citing indications that Iran was trying to calculate the explosive yield of potential nuclear weapons. This raises another interesting issue: What if Iran is right when it says that the IAEA is confronting it with fabrications? And if this graph is a hoax how exactly is Iran supposed to come clean?

The image released by the AP appears to show how energy (and power) vary as time progresses during what is claimed to be the start of a nuclear explosion. But, in fact, there is no firm indication that the diagram is even nuclear-related. The Farsi caption merely reads “changes in output and in energy released as a function of time through power pulse."  And, in any case, there is a monumental mathematical error in that the power and energy plots do not correspond as they should: They are off by a factor of, well, almost 100,000!

Robert Kelley, a veteran weapons-scientist who worked for decades at Los Alamos and Livermore National labs and is an ex-IAEA inspector, put it succinctly: “It’s clear the graph has nothing to do with a nuclear bomb.

Even if we assume the graph is nuclear-weapons related, the plot would simply be showing that the bulk of the nuclear fission yield is produced in a short, roughly 0.1 microsecond pulse. This has been standard knowledge since the 1950s. It is not a secret, nor indicative of a nuclear weapons program.

And it turns out there are other problems with the graph, including the shapes of the curves indicating either a sloppy scientific analysis in Iran, or a shoddy hoax by “a country critical of Iran's atomic program”.  And, seriously, if it is Iranian – and their scientists are this bad – we probably have little to worry about.

The second AP report, which attempted to walk back their original story, states the possibility that the scientist who allegedly made the graph, Majid Shahriari, simplified it on purpose for presentation to government officials, making serious errors in the process. Even if this unlikely version of events is true, it is possible that Shahriari may only have been pitching an idea to the government to possibly start weaponization work in Iran. But the article goes on to say that “Shahriari was assassinated two years ago.” Even if we give the benefit of the doubt to this version of the story, how is Tehran now supposed to explain to the IAEA a flawed presentation made by a dead scientist who may have been pitching his own personal ideas? 

While it is difficult to attest to the authenticity of the graph – it could indeed be of Iranian origin – the important point is that even if authentic, it would not necessarily indicate a nuclear weapons program in Iran. Nor would such theoretical computations contravene any legal agreements between Iran and the IAEA. It may be in bad form if Iranian scientists were doing such computations and it may violate the spirit of the Non Proliferation Treaty but there is nothing per se illegal about it. The IAEA itself has admitted that its legal role is limited to nuclear-material related activity, not theoretical calculations. 

The image also does not imply that computer simulations were necessarily even run: Similar diagrams can be found in nuclear science textbooks and on the Internet, and it could even be a sketch copy for illustrative purposes, for instance for a class project. Odd as it may sound, it is possible that the IAEA is confronting Iran with shoddy homework gleaned from some Iranian college.

There are a number of other problems in the IAEA reports on Iran: For example, the agency keeps saying that it cannot "provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran" or that “all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.” But the agency cannot be expected to do this – that is not its job. Pierre Goldschmidt, the former deputy director of Safeguards at the IAEA summed it up well: "The Department of Safeguards doesn’t have the legal authority it needs to fulfill its mandate and to provide the assurances the international community is expecting.” 

In fact, not only is it legally problematic to fulfill such a verification, it is a logical impossibility: The agency cannot prove the absence of something. There can always be somewhere in Iran where the IAEA has not looked. In fact, no one can reasonably task the IAEA to prove a negative in any country, whether it be in Brazil, Argentina, or the 49 other nations for which it is evaluating the absence of undeclared nuclear activity

The most sensible way to wind down the impasse with Iran now is to recognize that although Iran may have been non-compliant with the IAEA in the past, it is in full compliance with its safeguards agreement now: The nation is not diverting any declared nuclear material to any weapons program. The IAEA has verified this every year since it began monitoring Iran’s program. Hounding Iran about possible activities it may or may not have done years or even decades ago – especially if some of the allegations are possible hoaxes – is not going to solve anything.

A smart move would be to start to roll back sanctions on Iran in exchange for Iran suspending its uranium enrichment to 20 percent, as both Henry Kissinger and I have suggested.

As for the graph, let's be perfectly honest: Much more involved computational research into nuclear weaponry has been going on in other NPT non-nuclear weapon states. For instance, at a military institute in Brazil a doctoral thesis was recently written on “Numerical Simulation of Thermonuclear Detonations in Fission-Fusion Hybrids Imploded by Radiation.” The amateurish and incorrect “Iranian” graph, even if authenticated, pales in comparison to that serious computation research into nuclear weaponry. If the world community wants the non-proliferation regime to survive it will have to insist on greater consistency in the application of international laws.

In another instance, although Iran, Egpyt, South Korea, and Libya were all found non-compliant in the past, only Iran was referred to the UN Security Council. Again, Pierre Goldschmidt captured it well: "The actions taken by the [IAEA] board in each case were inconsistent and, if they go uncorrected, will create unfortunate precedents.” 

The leaked “Iranian” graph doesn’t bolster the IAEA’s case against Iran – it undermines it. The IAEA is rapidly losing credibility. It should stick to its technical mission of nuclear materials accountancy and call off the wild goose chase in Iran.

Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist, is professor and scientist-in-residence at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. The views expressed are his own.

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