Jeffrey LewisBum Dope about Iran's Shahab 3?

Carla Anne Robbins at the Wall Street Journal reports Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Bob Joseph briefed the IAEA on US intelligence suggesting Iran’s Shahab 3 (above) missile is designed to be nuclear capable:

The missile intelligence, which U.S. officials acquired covertly last year, documents Iran’s efforts from 2001 to 2003 to adapt its Shahab-3 missile to deliver a “black box” that experts at the U.S. nuclear-weapons laboratories believe almost certainly is a nuclear warhead.

The data, which include tens of thousands of pages of Farsi-language computer files, diagrams and test results, don’t include a warhead design. According to several officials who have been briefed on the intelligence, the specifications for size, shape, weight and detonation height don’t vary throughout more than two years of work and make no sense for conventional explosives.

Robbins helpfully adds that “Intelligence officials in [Britain, France and Germany] have been impressed with the depth and apparent authenticity of the findings …”

This Should All Sound Really Familiar

Robbins claims that the IAEA requested the briefing after “then-Secretary of State Colin Powell inadvertently told reporters [in November 2004] he had seen ‘information that would suggest’ Iran has been ‘actively working on delivery systems’ for a nuclear warhead.”

Powell leaked this story back in November

Yes, I remember that little slip now.

So should Robbins. Her article today is almost a word-for-word reprint of an article she wrote in March 2005. (Busy, Carla?)

In the March 2005 article, Robbins noted that “interest [in the November 2005 allegation] faded after other officials described the source providing the evidence as unvetted and unsolicited.”

In fact, one of those officials—from the German Foreign Ministry—told Robbins and her colleagues in November 2004 the intelligence was “provided by an Iranian dissident group and said the U.S. and Europe ‘shouldn’t let their Iran policy be influenced by single-source headlines.’”

Come to think of it, a few other newspapers tackled this story in November 2004, too.

  • Dafna Linzer at the Washington Post described the intelligence as “based on an unvetted, single source who provided information that two U.S. officials said … has not yet been verified.”

Linzer left open the possibility that the information might be verified, but Sonni Efron (and friends) at the Los Angeles Times found more skeptical officials.

  • One Administration official told
    Efron et al they “were surprised [Powell] went public on something that was weak and, because it was weak, was not supposed to be used.”

  • David Kay, maybe still feeling punked over Iraq, was withering. “I was surprised the administration put him out there or he put himself out there on this,” Kay told Efron et al. “I thought if there was anyone in the administration that had been sufficiently burned by such sources, it would be Powell.”

Aw, C’mon. The Warhead Was the Best Part.

In her March story, Robbins implies reporters in November too quickly dismissed the allegations because “Full details about the extent of the intelligence bonanza weren’t disclosed at the time.”

That’s an odd thing to say. Because, as I read her story today, Joseph is leaving out the juiciest bits.

After Powell’s November indiscretion, Bill Gertz wrote a barn-burner about the intelligence, leading with the revelation that “Iran’s new nuclear warhead program includes what specialists call the basic ‘physics package’ for fitting a nuclear bomb inside the nose cone of a missile. ”

Gertz wasn’t alone. Linzer noticed it, too:

The documents included a specific warhead design based on implosion and adjustments aimed at outfitting the warhead on existing Iranian missile systems.

Yet Robbins, in her most recent article, dilligently notes the “tens of thousands of pages of Farsi-language computer files, diagrams and test results” summarized by Joseph to the IAEA “don’t include a warhead design.”

So what happened to the warhead design?

Did Gertz and Linzer blow it? Were those documents bogus? If they were, would that undermine our confidence in the whole set?

The IAEA has been asking for this information since November, but the Administration had refused that request and all others. Robbins describes this as the “the first time the U.S. has shared intelligence with the IAEA ‘in months or longer,’ according to one diplomat.”

So, why this information and why now?

Maybe because the EU is finalizing its proposal to the new Iranian government?

Someone needs to teach these people how to responsibly share intelligence with allies.

Late Update (November 14, 2005): Looks like Linzer, Gertz and now David Sanger were just plain wrong about existence of a warhead design. The best explanation is by Michael Adler in AFP.


  1. Leslie (History)

    Is this the same Robert Joseph who denied the CIA’s Alan Foley had shared his reservations about including the phony Niger uranium story in Bush’s SOTU?

    The same Robert Joseph who was interviewed by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald in the CIA leak case?

    [Yup, the one and only. ACW]

  2. James (History)

    There may be a more benign and sensible reason for why the weaponization information was withheld.

    While the IAEA tracks all elements of the nuclear fuel cycle with great expertise, it is prohibited from gaining access to weapon design information. This makes sense when you consider that a number of the foreign nationals working at the IAEA come from non-nuclear weapons states as recognized under the NPT. If weaponization information was held by the IAEA, the number of intelligence operatives on Wagrammerstrasse would increase exponentially. Keep in mind that the UN doesn’t conduct background investigations for its professional or general staff positions, and you’re creating a situation ripe for proliferation.

  3. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    I seem to remember something like that, but I am not sure that is true anymore.

    Control over the nuclear warhead blueprint found in Libya was the subject of some bickering between the US and the IAEA.

    I seem to recall the IAEA really grilling Iran over whether it received a similar blueprint.

    Do you know which document(s) express the statutory prohibition on access to design information?

  4. Chuck Thornton (History)