Oh, boy. Once these guys decide they want a war, nothing stands in the way. The media, typically, lay right down. And the Associated Press is no exception. Here, we look at its coverage of the evidence against Iran from the supposedly reliable IAEA. Supposedly.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the impartial international body in charge of enforcing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and supposedly trustworthy source on Iran’s nuclear program, may have been badly compromised through planted intelligence in an effort to bolster unfounded arguments that Iran is doing work towards a nuclear weapon. The latest evidence to that effect came on November 27, when the Associated Press (AP) published an “exclusive” titled, “Graph Suggests Iran Working On Bomb,” by George Jahn. The article was the latest in a series of highly misleading stories from the Vienna-based reporter concerning Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, and the suspicious information published within is indicative of much of the flimsy intelligence mustered against Iran at the IAEA.
Claiming to have obtained proof that “Iranian scientists have run computer simulations for a nuclear weapon,” Jahn admitted that the diagram “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 before it produces a weapon,” on the “condition that they and their country not be named.”
Devoid of any official markings or even a date, the crude diagram is supposedly one of several used as evidence for a controversial November 2011 IAEA report that raised multiple questions, but fell short of direct accusations, about possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program. The diagram, as well as the bulk of the other intelligence referenced in that report, were not obtained directly by the IAEA itself but admittedly received via other agency “member states.”
According to AP, the graph displays “a bell curve — with variables of time in micro-seconds, and power and energy both in kilotons — the traditional measurement of the energy output, and hence the destructive power of nuclear weapons.” As Nima Shirazi of Columbia University’s Gulf/2000 Project points out however, “[it] shows nothing more than a probability density function, that is, an abstract visual aid depicting the theoretical behavior of a random variable to take on any given value.” Such normal distribution curves can be plotted with nearly any data set and are not specific to nuclear physics at all.
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists—the premier non-technical trade journal of nuclear policy discussion—concurs, adding that “even if authentic, it would not qualify as proof of a nuclear weapons program. Besides the issue of authenticity, the diagram features quite a massive error, which is unlikely to have been made by research scientists working at a national level.” It details the error, remarking upon the graph’s two curves:
[O]ne that plots the energy versus time, and another that plots the power output versus time, presumably from a fission device. But these two curves do not correspond: If the energy curve is correct, then the peak power should be much lower — around 300 million (3×108) kt per second, instead of the currently stated 17 trillion (1.7 x1013) kt per second. As is, the diagram features a nearly million-fold error.
The Bulletin goes on to conclude, “This diagram does nothing more than indicate either slipshod analysis or an amateurish hoax.”
Many in the United States point to the IAEA’s 2011 report—in which this “slipshod” graph is alluded to—as the latest evidence of Iranian duplicity regarding its nuclear program, although the IAEA to this day cannot account for any uranium diversion from civilian facilities, and it confirms that Iran has complied with all of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Safeguards Agreement. A 2011 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) agrees, restating earlier conclusions by America’s intelligence community that Iran had a nascent nuclear weapons program briefly from 2002-2003, which was then shut down.
A History of Reliance
As mentioned above, the November 2011 IAEA report relies on intelligence provided by various “member states.” From George Jahn’s descriptions, this most recent graph published by AP is referred to only in section C.8 of the IAEA report (paragraph 52) as follows [emphasis mine]:
Information provided to the Agency by two Member States relating to modelling studies alleged to have been conducted in 2008 and 2009 by Iran is of particular concern… According to that information, the studies involved the modelling of spherical geometries, consisting of components of the core of an HEU [highly enriched uranium, CS] nuclear device subjected to shock compression, for their neutronic behaviour at high density, and a determination of the subsequent nuclear explosive yield. The information also identifies models said to have been used in those studies and the results of these calculations, which the Agency has seen.
This isn’t the first time George Jahn has regurgitated dubious claims from diplomats critical of Iran. On September 11 of this year a nearly identical “exclusive” was published by AP (save for the scary diagram) under Mr. Jahn’s byline, despite the fact that all the information contained within came from the November 2011 report, issued nearly a year prior. The article asserted that new “intelligence shows that Iran has advanced its work on calculating the destructive power of an atomic warhead through a series of computer models that it ran sometime within the past three years.” Might this most-recent graph, ridiculed by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists as a “hoax,” be a sample of that intelligence?
In yet another “exclusive” on May 13, Jahn cited a drawing (yes, drawing)—provided by “an official” from “an IAEA member country that is severely critical of Iran’s assertions that its nuclear activities are peaceful” as proof of the existence of “an explosives containment chamber of the type needed for nuclear arms-related tests.” The drawing “shows a chamber of the type needed for nuclear arms-related tests,” according to the AP’s caption, and was “provided to [AP] by an official…who said it proves the structure exists.” This accusation was also detailed in the IAEA report released six months earlier.
In all three instances, Jahn’s uncritical parroting is bolstered by the same go-to experts on the Iranian nuclear program—David Albright and Olli Heinonen, two former-IAEA officials who have a history of hyping tenuous claims concerning nuclear development in states antagonistic to the West, like Iraq. In nearly all of his reporting on Iran, Jahn follows a predictably familiar script: relying on officials for leaks, granting them immunity from the scrutiny their claims would reasonably produce, followed by hypothetical confirmation of why those leaks might be credible from Albright and Heinonen. From the May 13 drawing report [my emphasis]:
A former senior IAEA official said he believes the drawing is accurate. Olli Heinonen, until last year the U.N. nuclear agency’s deputy director general in charge of the Iran file, said it was “very similar” to a photo he recently saw that he believes to be the pressure chamber the IAEA suspects is at Parchin.
He said even the colors of the computer-generated drawing matched that of the photo he had but declined to go into the origins of the photo to protect his source
In response to the criticism AP sustained following the most recent November 27 piece about the “amateurish hoax” diagram, George Jahn conceded the graph’s serious errors in a December 1 report, but maintains an alarmist thrust with even more anonymous quotes and notional corroboration [my emphasis]:
But a senior diplomat familiar with the probe of Iran by the IAEA told the AP on Friday that the agency suspects that Iranian scientists calculating a nuclear yield intentionally simplified the diagram to make it comprehensible to Iranian government officials to whom they were presenting it. He said that when the right data are plugged in, the yield is indeed 50 kilotons. The diplomat, who is considered neutral on Iran’s nuclear program, spoke only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to divulge intelligence.
As seen by the AP, the data on the left-hand vertical side of the diagram is listed in kilotons per second. But David Albright…told the AP that when that legend is substituted with another — joules per 10 nanoseconds — the yield comes out to around 50 kilotons.
From Russia With Love
In similar fashion, David Albright’s contributions to this fear mongering were acutely displayed in the lead-up to the November 2011 IAEA report. In addition to the dubious evidence of nuclear weapons test “modelling,” as the most recent diagram purports to show, the only new accusations added to the November report were whispers of an unnamed foreign expert being employed to help Iran construct a detonation system for a nuclear weapon. A November 6 story in the Washington Post by Joby Warrick identified the expert as Vyacheslav Danilenko, a “former Soviet nuclear scientist.”
How did the Post discover his name? Albright gave a “private briefing” for “intelligence professionals” the week prior, in which he outed Danilenko as the scientist contracted by Iran’s Physics Research Center in the 1990’s. The Ukrainian was alleged to be instrumental in the covert weapons program by “giving lectures and sharing research papers on developing and testing an explosives package.” He “openly acknowledged his role” by giving such talks and sharing research, although assumed his work was “limited to assisting civilian engineering projects” with no military dimensions, according to the Post (which means according to Albright).
The November 2011 IAEA report stated that the agency had “strong indications” that Iran had developed a “high-explosions initiation system” with the help “of a foreign expert who was not only knowledgeable on these technologies, but who, a Member State has informed the Agency, worked for much of his career in the nuclear weapon program of the country of his origin.”
The agency report goes on to assert that that “foreign expert”—clearly Danilenko—was in Iran “ostensibly to assist in the development of a facility and techniques for making ultra dispersed diamonds (UDDs) or nanodiamonds” and “also lectured on explosive physics and its applications,” subtly implying that nanodiamonds were merely a cover for his real purpose in Iran [emphasis mine].
The member state responsible for this information evidently learned that Danilenko had worked for one of the Soviet Union’s premier scientific institutions, well known for its work on nuclear weapons development—the All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Technical Physics in Snezhinsk, Russia. Sounds serious enough to merit concern, right?
A closer examination of Danilenko’s career tells a different story. Beginning in the 1960’s, Danilenko worked in a section of the Institute that specialized in the synthesis of diamonds. According to Ultrananocrystalline Diamond: Synthesis, Properties, and Applications, Danilenko pioneered the development of large-scale technology for producing ultradispersed diamonds (UDD’s). Danilenko then became a principal for Nanogroup in 1993, a company dedicated to meeting the global demand for nanodiamonds. In 2011 he was even invited to speak at the Drexel University’s AJ Nanotechnology Institute in Philadelphia on the subject.
As the blogger who first seriously examined these allegations notes, “Some years ago Iran launched a big Nano Technology Initiative which includes Iranian research on detonation nanodiamonds (pdf). Iran is officially planing [sic] to produce them on [an] industrial scale.” Producing nanodiamonds via explosives requires large and insulated steel containers that utilize water for cooling, a structure for which Danilenko apparently retains a patent.
In the May 13 AP piece, the suspicious drawing that supposedly resembles a photo seen by Heinonen is a rendering of the alleged implosions testing chamber, which happens to look and function in a manner similar to the one that produces nanodiamonds. Given Danilenko’s cooperation with the IAEA and his field of expertise, it’s not likely he’s covertly teaching nuclear secrets. But is it possible that this type of nanodiamond technology could have dual-use potential for nuclear implosion tests?
Former IAEA senior weapons inspector Robert Kelley strongly doubts it. “You don’t do hydrodynamic testing of nuclear bombs in containers,” he said to The Guardian. “All of such tests would be done at outdoor firing sites, not in a building next to a major highway.” He added in a separate interview that any nuclear weapon design tests would necessitate “far more explosives” than the 70 kg capacity claimed for the cylinder at Parchin, the suspected location of the nanodiamond chamber.
The rest of the information submitted by member states and cited in the 2011 IAEA report is culled from the same source: a cache of supposedly pilfered top-secret Iranian military documents that detail a number of wide-ranging activities with possible nuclear weapons development applications across two decades. These evidentiary papers, some in print and others digital, are referred to collectively as the “alleged studies documentation” by the IAEA.
Studying the “Alleged Studies”
The “alleged studies documentation” was delivered to the IAEA on a single hard drive after showing up at a U.S. consulate in Turkey in 2003. The cache contained “a large volume of documentation (including correspondence, reports, view graphs from presentations, videos and engineering drawings),” according to the IAEA’s November 2011 report. Despite periodic leaks to the Western press since 2005, the “alleged studies” were not officially cited in an agency report until 2008 because then-Director General Mohamed ElBaradei considered them to be forgeries.
The three main activities highlighted in the documents are as follows:
1) A pair of flow sheets showing a process for uranium conversion.
2) Experiments on “exploding bridgewire” (EBW) technology (similar to the implosion technology utilized in nanodiamond creation).
3) Studies on the redesign of the nose cone of the Shahab-3 missile to ostensibly accommodate a nuclear payload.
As detailed in an exhaustive expose in the Middle East Policy Council Journal (MEPCJ),however, the documents display eight major indications of tampering and/or fraud, vindicating ElBaradei’s initial wariness of them.
Furthermore, how the documents were acquired and then smuggled out of Iran into Turkey has always been a mystery. Multiple stories were floated in the American and German press about high-level Iranian defections, with various contradictions as detailed further in the MEPCJ piece. The more plausible scenario is that they were handed off to the U.S. embassy in Turkey by the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI), the political arm of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), an exiled Iranian terrorist organization known for cooperating with the United States and Israel.
The Western press had deemed NCRI a reliable source of intelligence on the Iranian nuclear program after its announcement in August 2002 of the nuclear sites at Natanz and Arak. It was revealed afterward, however, that NCRI received that information from Israeli intelligence. Israel had a history with the MEK going back to 1995, when the Israeli government helped beam NCRI radio broadcasts from Paris to Iran. In 2006, an Israeli diplomat corroborated to The New Yorker that his government found the MEK “useful.” Israeli authors Yossi Melman and Meir Javadanfar explained the organization’s usefulness in 2005:
A way to ‘launder’ information from Western intelligence to the IAEA was found so that agencies and their sources could be protected. Information is ‘filtered’ to the IAEA via Iranian opposition groups, especially the National Resistance Council of Iran.
The MEK was labeled a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by the U.S. State Department for its killings of U.S. servicemen and contractors in the 1970’s. It was recently removed from the FTO list after an extensive lobbying campaign on its behalf, despite news reports that the group remains militantly active. Citing U.S. officials, NBC News revealed on February 9 that MEK was conducting the assassination campaign of Iranian civilian nuclear scientists while being armed and trained by Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence service.
The West vs. Iran: Amano e Mano
Despite the suggestions of fraud surrounding the “alleged studies documentation” and its mysterious acquisition, as well as the suspicious nature of other information submitted to the agency, current IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano, a former Japanese diplomat, has repeatedly issued papers based on these dubious sources since he began his tenure in 2009.
In March 2011, Amano dissolved the agency’s Office of External Relations and Policy Coordination (EXPO), which was the source of skepticism about many of the assessments received during ElBaradei’s tenure. The Guardian reported this March that “ElBaradei’s advisers from Expo were moved sideways in the organisation, and the department’s functions have been absorbed by the director-general’s office.”
The publication of State Department cables by the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks revealed Amano’s secret courtship of Washington, particularly concerning the IAEA’s stance on Iran. In October 2009, the US mission in Vienna relayed back to Foggy Bottom that Amano “was solidly in the U.S. court on every key strategic decision, from high-level personnel appointments to the handling of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program,” calling him the “DG [Director General] of all states, but in agreement with us.”
Intelligence fabrication, as deceitful as it is, is regrettably commonplace in the power games between antagonistic countries. However, for a major news organization like AP to uncritically pass on such information is tantamount to journalistic malpractice. It was such behavior by the news media, deliberate or otherwise, that led the American public to vigorously support an aggressive war on Iraq that is now seen as an atrocity.
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