Iran nuclear report: Why it may not be a game-changer after all

The Iran nuclear report released yesterday by the UN nuclear watchdog agency sought to corroborate details provided by US intelligence in 2005. But some nuclear experts are unconvinced.

Ebrahim Seyyedi/Presidency Office/AP
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, second right, shakes hands with an unidentified army colonel as he arrives at the Shahr-e-Kord, during his provincial tour, in central Iran, Wednesday. Iran won't retreat 'one iota' from its nuclear program but the world is being misled by claims that it seeks atomic weapons, Ahmadinejad said Wednesday in his first reaction since a UN watchdog report that Tehran is on the brink of developing a warhead.

The latest United Nations report on Iran’s nuclear program may not be the “game changer” it was billed to be, as some nuclear experts raise doubts about the quality of evidence – and point to lack of proof of current nuclear weapons work.

In a 14-page annex to its quarterly report on Iran released yesterday, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said new intelligence and other data gave it "serious concern" about the allegedly peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program. But the casus belli for military strikes that anti-Iran hawks in the US and Israel expected to gain from the IAEA report is far from clear-cut.

The report is based on more than 1,000 pages of information shared with the agency by US intelligence in 2005, one year after they were apparently spirited out of Iran on a laptop computer. But deep skepticism about the credibility of the documents remains – Iran has long insisted they are forgeries by hostile intelligence agencies – despite a concerted attempt by the IAEA to verify the data and dispel such doubt.

"It's very thin, I thought there would be a lot more there," says Robert Kelley, an American nuclear engineer and former IAEA inspector who was among the first to review the original data in 2005. "It's certainly old news; it's really quite stunning how little new information is in there."

The IAEA supplemented the laptop information with data from 10 member states, interviews on three continents, and its own investigations in Iran, Libya, Pakistan, and Russia.

The result "reinforces and tends to corroborate" the 2005 laptop data, the IAEA said, and pushes it "substantially beyond." It now judges the information to be "overall, credible." But experts aren't so sure. 

Iran criticizes IAEA as Washington's pawn

Prior to the report's release, speculation mounted in Israel and Washington that new revelations might prompt military strikes to prevent Iran from acquiring a weapon. Instead, experts say, much of the information is years old, inconclusive – and perhaps not entirely real.

Most of the weapons-related work it details was shut down nearly a decade ago – in 2003 – the IAEA says, and less formal efforts that "may" continue do not bolster arguments that Iran is a nation racing to have the bomb.

Iran "doesn't seem to have the same North Korea-like obsession with developing nuclear weapons. That's nowhere to be found in the [IAEA] evidence," says Shannon Kile, head of the Nuclear Weapons Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

"Yes, Iran is making progress, they've covered the waterfront in terms of the main technical areas that you need to develop a nuclear weapon," says Mr. Kile. "But there is no evidence they have a dedicated program under way. It's not like they are driving toward nuclear weapons; it's like they're meandering toward capability."

Iranian officials rejected the report as a product of Iran's enemies in the US, Israel, and the West – purveyed through Yukiya Amano, the Japanese head of the IAEA – even before it was released.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vowed today that Iran would not retreat "one iota" from a nuclear-power program that the Islamic Republic has always claimed to be peaceful, and scolded the IAEA for serving as a puppet of the West.

"Why are you ruining the prestige of the [UN nuclear] agency for absurd US claims?" Mr. Ahmadinejad asked, speaking before a flag-waving crowd in the central Iranian town of Shahr-e Kord. "The Iranian nation is wise. It won't build two bombs against 20,000 [nuclear] bombs you have. But it builds something you can't respond to: Ethics, decency, monotheism and justice."

Three key nuclear areas outlined in 2005 documents

The 2005 laptop documents focus on three areas: a so-called "green salt project" to provide a clandestine source of uranium; high-explosives testing; and reengineering a Shahab-3 missile to fit a nuclear warhead.

News reports at the time indicated deep skepticism, when some of the laptop contents were first shown to diplomats accredited to the IAEA. In many quarters, doubt still persists. Recognizing such skepticism, one portion of the IAEA report was devoted to addressing the credibility of the information. But Mr. Kelly, the former IAEA inspector who also served as a department director at the agency, remains unconvinced.

"The first is the issue of forgeries. There is nothing to tell that those documents are real," says Kelley, whose experience includes inspections from as far afield as Iraq and Libya, to South Africa in 1993.

"My sense when I went through the documents years ago was that there was possibly a lot of stuff in there that was genuine, [though] it was kind of junk," says Kelly. "And there were a few rather high-quality things" like the green salt document: "That was two or three pages that wasn't related to anything else in the package, it was on a different topic, and you just wondered, was this salted in there for someone to find?"

It would not be the first time that data was planted. He recalls 1993 and 1994, when the IAEA received "very complex forgeries" on Iraq that slowed down nuclear investigations there by a couple of years.

"Those documents had markings on them, and were designed to resemble Iraqi documents, but when we dug into them they were clearly forgeries," adds Kelley. "They were designed by a couple of member states in that region, and provided to the Agency maliciously to slow things down."

In 2002, notes Kelley, the IAEA also dealt with "pretty bad" forgeries done by the Italians, on Iraq's supposed nuclear links to Niger, that the CIA picked up and used for the Bush administration's case for war in Iraq.

Politicized science?

Iran's Ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, called the new report a "historic mistake" by the IAEA chief Mr. Amano. Iran had already "removed any ambiguity whatsoever," Mr. Soltanieh claimed, making the issues detailed in the annex "obsolete and repetitive."

Amano has led the IAEA to take a sterner line on Iran, since taking over two years ago from his Egyptian predecessor Mohammad ElBaradei. An American diplomatic cable from October 2009, made public by Wikileaks, paraphrased Amano as telling the US ambassador that he was "solidly in the US court on every key strategic decision," including on Iran.

Analysts say that, since the summer, Amano has come under pressure from the US to produce a more hard-hitting report on Iran, which would detail the IAEA case – and present Iran as being actively committed to acquiring nuclear weapons.

"It still goes back to the so-called 'laptop of death' and the alleged studies," says Kile at SIPRI. The IAEA has "clearly gone out of its way" to show they "tried to track down a lot of this, including to independently verify and confirm the information."

"For me, I've never seen the information about some of the alleged weapons activities, especially administrative linkages for a nuclear weapon program, presented in this level of detail before," says Kile. "I have no way of being able to judge the information this was based upon, but just to see it laid out so clearly was actually quite useful."

For Kelley, formerly with the IAEA, the current Iran report is a "real mish-mash" that includes some "amateurish analysis."

Among several technical points, Kelley notes the report's discussion of Iran's "exploding bridge-wire detonators," or EBWs. The IAEA report said it recognizes that "there exist non-nuclear applications, albeit few," and point to a likely weapons connection for Iran.

"The Agency is wrong. There are lots of applications for EBWs," says Kelley. "To be wrong on this point, and then to try to misdirect opinion shows a bias towards their desired outcome.... That is unprofessional."

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