Jeffrey LewisIAEA Hints At Pre-2003 Bomb Program

Sorry, I’ve been so quiet lately. Strange combination of being really busy and, when I blog, not being able to finish a post.

But ISIS has acquired GOV/2008/4. Although David and Jackie have an excellent write-up and Andy discussed it some, I want to pull out what I think is the most important feature — growing detail about why the US and IAEA are so worked up about Iran’s past behavior.

Generally, speaking the report divides the outstanding questions into 3 categories. Iran’s answers are …

  • “… consistent with” information available to the IAEA. (Po-210, Gchine)
  • “… not inconsistent with” information available to the IAEA (Contamination at, and Procurement for, Lavizan-Shian)
  • “… still not provided.” (i.e. Alleged Studies, aka “The Laptop of Death”)

A colleague asked me, “What’s the difference between ‘consistent with’ and ‘not inconsistent with’?” In this context, I believe the answer is this:

Although Iran’s story on the uranium contamination and suspicious procurement linked to the Physics Research Center at Lavizan-Shian holds together (“not inconsistent with” a benign explanation), the IAEA is hinting that the links between PHRC and the “alleged studies on the green salt project, high explosives testing and the missile re-entry vehicle” are still very, very suspicious.

So maybe the contamination and the procurement don’t prove that PHRC was up to no good, but exculpatory evidence on those allegations doesn’t address PHRC’s link to other sketchy business.

My guess is that this linkage is what Olli Heinonen meant by administrative interconnections and what ElBaradei is getting at in paragraph 36, where in the context of the alleged studies, he states that the IAEA “asked for clarification concerning other issues that had arisen during the implementation of the work plan, including the roles of PHRC, KM, the Education Research Institute (ERI) and the Institute of Applied Physics (IAP).”

PHRC and IAP were located at Lavizan-Shian before it was bulldozed between August 2003 and March 2004 (more). That date just happens to coincide with the NIE judgement that the weaponization program was halted in late 2003. (And nothing says HALT! like a giant bulldozer.)

This is the first reference to ERI in an IAEA report as far as I can tell, but we know ERI was suspected as a procurement firm for PHRC thanks to some quality Mark Hibbs reporting way back in 1994 (“Sharif University Activity Continues Despite IAEA Visit, Bonn Agency Says”):

Since the IAEA visit to Sharif University, the German government, based on information obtained by BND, has issued yet another warning about nuclear activities at that institution. On February 18, a report prepared by the Federal Ministry of Research and Technology (BMFT), concluded that the Physics Research Center (PHRC) at Sharif University is engaged in defense procurement, including procurement of “nuclear-related materials.”

The BMFT report included PHRC on a short list of establishments in Iran, which, “because of harmless-sounding appellations having to do with research, training, or science, belie the fact that they are wholly or in part devoted to military projects, and are engaged in procurement activities for these projects, with the aim of supplying know-how, equipment, or materials.”

In addition to PHRC at Sharif, the list includes the Educational and Research Institute (ERI) and the Iranian Research and Development Organization (IRDO). IRDO, German intelligence says, reports directly to the Iran government’s Defense Industries Organization (DIO) and gives orders to ERI to obtain a wide array of defense-related R&D equipment.

As far as I can tell, this is the same procurement under discussion today. (Hibbs followed up on ERI’s capers on June 25, 2001 with “U.S. Suspicious But Can’t Substantiate Sensitive Aluminum Left Russia For Iran”).

And I suspect it is, as Joe Stalin used to say, no accident that BND is also the source of the purloined laptop of death.

Paragraph 36 implies, to me at least, that PHRC, KM, ERI, and IAP are suspected of being linked in some way to the “Laptop of Death,” which was nabbed from what Michael Adler said was “a semi-government owned industrial group that works on the Shahab missile and which was on a project commissioned by the elite Revolutionary Guards military.”

(Paragraphs 35-42 are a a much better account of the contents of the laptop than most press reporting.)

The NIE was assaulted for the odd definition of “nuclear weapons program” in its footnote — “Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work…” I think, however, that was a convoluted, bureaucratic way of saying “The bad shit that DIO was up to at PHRC, Gchine, Parchin, and a couple of other places.”

But then again, the IC can’t really get away with putting an org chart in an unclassified document. Or could it?


The report notes that the Iran has installed, and begun feeding UF6, into a new generation of the centrifuge:

On 29 January 2008, the Agency confirmed that a single IR-2 test machine and a 10-machine IR-2 test cascade had been installed at PFEP. Iran reported that about 0.8 kg of UF6 had been fed to the single machine between 22 and 27 January 2008.

I had an awesome post about this a few months back that I forgot — yes, just forgot — to make live. Anyway, Andreas Persbo has been studying what he calls Iran’s new toy (continued) over at the re-christened Verification, Implementation and Compliance blog.

Check it out.


  1. J.Lo (History)

    Between sketching the org chart (which you can easily do on a cocktail napkin based on the above links) and mapping out the procurement process leading into the flowsheets described in the report, you have a pretty damning little pile of orgporn there. Diplomacy aside, it doesn’t even have to be right the first time; just get a draft and modify as you begin to ask better and better questions.

    Aside from that, though, it seems to my untrained eye that Iran is doing a good job of stonewalling in the face of pretty fishy evidence. Claiming the study docs were fabricated seems to be working. It’s a safe bet that a little more of that and a departmental reorganization would obscure the trail. That’s assuming there is one.

  2. Mark (History)

    In Para. 54 the IAEA says it hasn’t seen any diversion of nuclear material for the “alleged” weaponization studies, and that it has “no credible information in this regard”, and El-Baradei says the IAEA has cleared up everything regarding Iran’s enrichment ptogram except for these “Supposedly-allegedly” studies — and yet you claim that the IAEA has “hinted” at a nuclear weapons program?
    Boy talk about trying to read your own conclusions into a report.
    Would you care for some Yellowcake from Niger?

  3. J.Lo (History)

    Dunno, Mark. The sentence you mention begins with “However, it should be noted that…” Everything else in that paragraph indicates ongoing investigation and new information to be explored. On the face of it, you’re right, but this is exactly the kind of sentence that gets added to subsequent drafts to soften the political blow. Any sort of assessment of the document necessarily requires reading between the lines and exploring beyond face value.

  4. SQ

    Mark is right. The IAEA report doesn’t hint at the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. It raises the idea quite explicitly.

    Of course, if one overlooks the paragraphs where military nuclear applications are mentioned, it becomes possible to have the IAEA report of one’s desires.

  5. Hass (History)

    Oh for goodness sakes!

    Paragraph 54 says that the IAEA is itself still examing the allegations made by the US and was only able to present some of the info to Iran on the 15th – a few days ago.

    To conclude from this that the IAEA has concluded that Iran has a nuclear weapons program — in total disregard of the fact the same IAEA report has said it has cleared up all the other remaining issues — is just ridiculous.

    Suppose I draw you a picture of a three-headed spaghetti monster and insist that you immediately prove that you don’t secretly intend to obtain the capability to making one of those in the future.

  6. Hass (History)

    From AP :

    The newest U.S nuclear information, including some intelligence declassified for sharing with the agency, was handed over to IAEA Deputy Director Oli Heinonen last Friday, just a few weeks after a first batch of material was forwarded by the U.S., said the diplomats.

    But much of it shed little new light on what the U.S. says have been attempts by Iran to develop nuclear weapons. “It’s not the amount but the quality that counts,” said one of the diplomats who was dismissive of the new U.S. file.

    Another diplomat said senior agency officials also had dismissed the information as relatively insignificant and coming too late.

    Several of the diplomats suggested the U.S. was disingenuous in providing such a large amount of what they described as questionable information just days before ElBaradei was to complete his report. But a diplomat familiar with the U.S. position said Washington was acting in good faith and trying to help the agency.

  7. SQ

    Deep breaths, Hass, deep breaths. The idea in question is the possibility of a nuclear weapons program. We’ll all keep phrasing it that way until the government of Iran removes all doubt…

  8. Hass (History)

    Why you shouldn’t believe the BND:


    Nucleonics Week
    Thursday, February 1, 1996
    Vol. 37, No. 5
    Mark Hibbs, Bonn

    German criminal investigators have denied a persistent report that Iran used a private airport near Hamburg to smuggle nuclear contraband to Turkey and destinations in the Middle East.

    At issue is a story published in a German newsmagazine last year which has since been recirculated in major U.S. media. The unsubstantiated report has been cited as evidence that the danger of nuclear smuggling from the former USSR is far greater than thus far believed.

    The report on alleged Iranian nuclear smuggling first appeared in the magazine Focus in mid-1995, was repeated in the New York Times, and was used in the January edition of Scientific American to support a cover story which claimed that the record of illegal nuclear commerce from ex-Soviet inventories justified great and immediate concern.

    The media accounts of the alleged Iranian smuggling activities claimed that Iran’s accomplices obtained USSR-origin uranium or depleted uranium, brought the material to Germany, and then flew the goods to Istanbul from Hartenholm, a private airport which had been purchased by Iranian arms dealers. Scientific American claimed that seizures of nuclear material in Germany and Turkey “make it fairly clear that outlaw states such as Iran may in fact be looking for high-quality nuclear material.”

    But investigators who reported on the matter to the Bundeskriminalamt (BKA), Germany’s federal criminal investigation agency in Wiesbaden, denied that they had uncovered any evidence that the Hartenholm airfield had been the departure point for nuclear contraband, or that Iranian agents were involved.

    Likewise, the author of the original German news report has also rescinded the allegation that Iran had smuggled nuclear goods from Hartenholm. He told Nucleonics Week that the source of the original report had been a Turkish journalist who later “proved to be unreliable.”


    Earlier this month, a commission of inquiry from the German lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, heard testimony from two key officials about what they knew about the August 1994 sting operation which landed the plutonium oxide in the hands of German customs at Munich airport.

    In his opening statement, Konrad Porzner, head of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, painted a grim picture of an active nuclear black market involving agents for “rogue” states taking aim at weapons fissile inventories in the former USSR.

    Porzner stated categorically that BND had obtained “certain proof,” (gesicherte Beweise) that Iran had sought to buy or smuggle black market plutonium or weapons-grade uranium. Asked for a clarification, BND officials on hand during Porzner’s testimony reiterated that Iran had been positively identified as seeking to obtain black market plutonium.

    At the end of a 13-hour day of testimony and questioning by parliamentarians, Porzner refused to discuss the allegation with Nucleonics Week. “I am not going to take (questions) about that,” Porzner said.

    One day later, Schmidbauer, the executive minister to whom Porzner is directly responsible, presented a different version of events. In his opening statement before the Bundestag commission, Schmidbauer said, “thus far, there is no clear substantiation that there is an active demand from third parties” for contraband plutonium or weapons-grade uranium.

    One German official close to Schmidbauer afterward explained the discrepancy by asserting that, while Porzner had spoken in his opening statement on behalf of BND, Schmidbauer “had recourse to other sources of information and spoke only on his own behalf.” Said one opposition member of Parliament (MP) on the panel, that qualification “would appear to indicate that Schmidbauer doesn’t have much confidence” in the quality of BND’s information pointing to Iran as a plutonium black marketeer.

    Last week, Mohammad Sadegh Ayatollahi, Iran’s resident representative at the IAEA, told Nucleonics Week that Porzner’s claim that Iran aims to smuggle foreign fissile material was “irresponsible.” Ayatollahi, and also Bundestag opposition MPs, charged that BND painted an alarming picture of nuclear contraband activities to serve its own political and bureaucratic agenda.