Jeffrey LewisMerlin Redux?

Elaine Sciolino in the New York Times cites “European and American officials” as stating the IAEA has in its possession an Iranian document that describes assistance by a Russian scientist in developing a detonation system for a nuclear weapon design:

It was described as a “five-page document in English” dealing with experimentation with a complex initiation system to detonate a substantial amount of high explosives and to monitor the detonation with probes. There was no indication that the document was a translation of a much longer and more comprehensive document in Farsi.

The original document is described by officials familiar with it as a detailed narrative of experiments aimed at creating a perfectly-timed implosion of nuclear material.

According to experts, the two most difficult challenges in developing nuclear weapons is creating the bomb fuel and figuring out how to compress and detonate it.

An agency report last month revealed that Iran may have received “foreign expertise” in its detonator experiments.


European and American officials now say that the “foreign expertise” was a reference to the Russian scientist, but offered only scant details. They said the scientist is believed to have helped guide Iranians in the experiments, but that he was not the author of the document.

Am I the only person who thought this sounds awfully similar to Operation Merlin — the alleged covert action to supply Iran with a Russian firing set? Here is the description of Operation Merlin, from James Risen in State of War (via an excerpt in The Grauniad):

The story dates back to the Clinton administration and February 2000, when one frightened Russian scientist walked Vienna’s winter streets. The Russian had good reason to be afraid. He was walking around Vienna with blueprints for a nuclear bomb.

To be precise, he was carrying technical designs for a TBA 480 high-voltage block, otherwise known as a “firing set”, for a Russian-designed nuclear weapon. He held in his hands the knowledge needed to create a perfect implosion that could trigger a nuclear chain reaction inside a small spherical core. It was one of the greatest engineering secrets in the world, providing the solution to one of a handful of problems that separated nuclear powers such as the United States and Russia from rogue countries such as Iran that were desperate to join the nuclear club but had so far fallen short.

The Russian, who had defected to the US years earlier, still couldn’t believe the orders he had received from CIA headquarters. The CIA had given him the nuclear blueprints and then sent him to Vienna to sell them – or simply give them – to the Iranian representatives to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

I am not saying that there can’t be two Russians who provided this assistance or that we know Risen’s sources were telling the truth. But I am saying that the two cases are close enough for the leakers to offer a clarification.

Risen claims the Russian in Operation Merlin told the Iranians that there “was a flaw somewhere in the nuclear blueprints, and he could help them find it.” So, maybe he followed up on the offer of help. Or the Iranians called one of his colleagues back home. Or it is a totally independent Russian route to a firing set.


  1. blowback (History)

    The US has been recycling the “stolen laptop” story for the last four years so why shouldn’t they recycle the “Russian scientist” story and then they can move on to the “bomb design document” story again. Finally, they can give us Frank Gaffney’s “EMP threat” story again.

    At least, with the US and other economies tanking, only an idiot and/or a madman would contemplate bombing Iran’s enrichment facilities.

  2. Deja vu? (History)

    Frankly, I expect better accuracy from this blog. James, please ensure that Jeffrey understands that the correct mis-spelling is Grauniad!

    Sorry to be so insubstantive, but I doubt you get too many posts from Yongbyon. All quiet here since yesterday’s news.

  3. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    The Grauniad is now properly mispelled. Thx.

  4. D v. (History)

    Having re-read the piece, I obviously need to offer my apologies, sorry – Jeffrey (unless that is there’s been a bit of editing, but I guess I just didn’t read ‘Grauniad’ properly first time!)

    [No, I corrected it and noted that in the comments! But I didn’t approve my comment. It is clearly noted, now.]

  5. Yossi

    The Guardian offers two possible aims for “Operation Merlin”: leading the Iranians astray or learning about their nuclear progress.

    There is another possible interpretation, framing of Iran and maybe the Russians. If the Iranian IAEA rep or the high-ranking Iranian official from Tehran were caught with the blueprints it would have caused tremendous political damage to their country and Russia could be blamed for not protecting its nuclear secrets.

    A nuclear engineer unemployed for years spotting a blueprint flaw in a few minutes? Either the flaws were very gross or he was very good, probably knowing the TBA 480 high-voltage block by heart.

    The CIA not caring about the Russian scientist being able to spot the blueprints’ flaws may be an indication the CIA thought they wouldn’t really reach Iran. The Russian scientist probably bungled the operation by not giving the blueprints personally to the Iranian rep, allowing him to deliver them to Iran via a route the CIA didn’t intercept.

    When the Russian opened the envelope he wasn’t supposed to open, he probably saw this second set of blueprints was flawed as well otherwise he wouldn’t offer to fix them. Running back to the US how did he expect to Iranians to contact and pay him? I guess some detail is missing here.

    Assuming this was a framing operation, it’s a failure of the Russian’s operator who didn’t understand his personality at all and didn’t win his trust. Maybe the big brass thought the Russian’s part is so minor there is no place for failure. Those who planned the operation should have considered possible failure modes and appropriate counter-measures or maybe they did.

    We know so little about what really goes on inside Iran that yet another heresy could be true. It may be possible that before the re-organization of their nuclear research the Iranian scientists did play with implosion but stopped after the state tightened control. It’s not clear when Khamenay issued his anti-nuclear Fatwa but it could be the official turning point. A Fatwa of the Supreme Leader is a serious business and the Iranians may be following it. Maybe they are laughing now about the silly Saudi Arabians being so frightened of the Persian Bomb that is not being developed.

  6. ataune (History)

    The only piece of news in this article was an information already reported 3 weeks ago by the Iranian media and never picked-up here in the US, I am quoting NYT article:

    The Western officials said that the conditions under which the inspectors obtained the document prohibited them from revealing it in full to the Iranians, out of fear that doing so could expose the source of the document.

    These restrictions present a problem for Mohamed ElBaradei, the agency’s director general, who is pressing Iran to reveal its past nuclear activity. “I cannot accuse a person without providing him or her with the evidence,” he said last year.

    End of quote.

  7. Siddharth

    Jeffrey – You are not the only one, and I praise the good lord that you’ve brought this up since I choked over my coffee when I read the NYT story…

    One thing which has always puzzled me about Merlin and Risen’s book is the virtual lack of coverage of the story in the American press.

    I can see why USG may not want this written up but how do these things work? How can it not be a story? And how can Elain Sciolino not see the connection?

    And how can Elaine not see she is being fed a lemon precisely when USG wants the P5+1 to ramp up sanctions and needs another smoking gun?

  8. revere (History)

    yeah…. cause english would be the perfect way for a russian to send documents to a farsi speaking iranian or vice versa… what? all the farsi speaking translators and troops that had served for years in afganistan were ill with pollonium poisoning that day? how terribly inconvenient. theres something rotten in denmark methinks.

  9. Kilo (History)

    Did the Operation Merlin description offer any details as to the supposed source of the material provided ?

    I — as an Iranian intelligence officer — would be questioning why there’s a Russian scientist turning up with English documents.

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