Iran Special Analysis (Part 1): The Nuclear Report – “May” Is Not “Definitely”

Let's start with the "smoking gun" statement from the IAEA that does not exactly smoke

Scott Lucas writes for EA Worldview:

Let’s start with the “smoking gun” statement from the IAEA that does not exactly smoke:

Prior to the end of 2003….activities [which may be related to a militarised nuclear effort] took place under a structured programme. There are also indications that some activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device continued after 2003, and that some may still be ongoing.

“May” is not definitely. In the analogy of the BBC’s Paul Danahar, drawing from the language of a Reuters report, “If the answer to the question ‘Do you think she likes me?’ was ‘strong indications that she might possibly”, I would not be off to buy a ring.”

But let’s examine “may” in the context of the IAEA’s 15-page annex, which in the spin of unnamed officials to media this week, became “definitely”.

*THE GREEN SALT PROJECT: “Green salt” refers to an effort to develop an alternative source of uranium that would not be subject to inspection and verification “in an undisclosed enrichment programme”, converting the uranium “into metal for use in [a] new warhead” of a missile.

The Agency said it “was shown documents” [by whom?] which established “a link between nuclear material and a new payload development programme”.

The problem is there is no date for the claim to indicate whether this is a recent initiative.

*THE “AMAD PLAN”: AMAD refers to the pre-2003 organisational structure for an  undeclared nuclear programme”.

The IAEA makes the conjecture that “some activities previously carried out under the AMAD Plan were resumed later”, as Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the head of AMAD, took on roles in new organisations.

The problem? The IAEA presents no evidence that any of these new organisations has a connection to a militarised nuclear effort.

*NUCLEAR MATERIAL AND SERVICES: The IAEA makes a powerful assertion that may be a problem with…

…materials and services which, although having other civilian applications, would be useful in the development of a nuclear explosive device, have either been uncovered by the Agency itself or been made known to it. Among such equipment, materials and services are: high speed electronic switches and spark gaps (useful for triggering and firing detonators); high speed cameras (useful in experimental diagnostics); neutron sources (useful for calibrating neutron measuring equipment); radiation detection and measuring equipment (useful in a nuclear material production environment); and training courses on topics relevant to nuclear explosives development (such as neutron cross section calculations and shock wave interactions/hydrodynamics).

That’s quite a claim, if you assuming that an item such as a high-speed camera would be used for a military rather than a civilian programme. The problem? The IAEA does not offer a single example, with date and details, of acquisition.

*NUCLEAR COMPONENTS FOR AN EXPLOSIVE DEVICE: In a provocative but vague section, the only substantial post-2003 claim by the IAEA is this:

In an interview in 2007 with a member of the clandestine nuclear supply network, the Agency was told that Iran had been provided with nuclear explosive design information. From information provided to the Agency during that interview, the Agency is concerned that Iran may have obtained more advanced design information than the information identified  in 2004 as having been provided to Libya by the nuclear supply network.

A 2007 interview does not necessarily refer to activity in 2007 — the unanswered question here is when the information was provided to Tehran. And there’s a further niggle: if this interview was so significant, why has it only surfaced in an IAEA report four years later?

*EXPLODING BRIDGE-WIRE DETONATORS: The IAEA puts great stock in EBWs  and “their possible application in a nuclear explosive device”. But it has a hurdle to get from concern to evidence of military use: it says that Tehran told the Agency in 2008 that it had the technology by 2004 and was pursuing EBWs ”for civil and conventional military applications”, providing “a copy of a paper relating to EBW development work”.

So the IAEA’s fallback, given that Tehran has declared the programme and that it has no evidence of diversion to military nuclear programme, is that “Iran has not explained to the Agency its own need or application for such detonators”.

*MULTIPOINT INITIATION SYSTEM: The IAEA explains that “a multipoint initiation system, can be used to reshape the detonation wave” to ensure “supercritical density” of a nuclear device. It says that it “has shared with Iran information provided by a Member State which indicates that Iran has had access to information on the design concept”.

Sounds ominous. Problem is that this is the re-packaging of an old claim. The only substance offered by the IAEA of experiments with a system is a 2003 episode, and the Agency notes that Iran already responded to the allegation in May 2008.

So what could now elevate this charge to supercritical? The IAEA tries this approach:

The Agency has strong indications that the development by Iran of the high explosives initiation system, and its development of the high speed diagnostic configuration used to monitor related experiments, were assisted by the work of a foreign expert who was not only knowledgeable in these technologies, but who, a Member State has informed the Agency, worked for much of his career with this technology in the nuclear weapon programme of the country of his origin. The Agency has reviewed publications by this foreign expert and has met with him. The Agency has been able to verify through three separate routes, including the expert himself, that this person was in Iran from about 1996 to about 2002, ostensibly to assist Iran in the development of a facility and techniques for making ultra-dispersed diamonds (“UDDs” or “nanodiamonds”), where he also lectured on explosion physics and its applications.

Leave aside that this is again a pre-2003 incident. Fortunately, we know that the unnamed “foreign expert” is Vyacheslav Danilenko and, even more fortunately, we offered his story yesterday. He is indeed a specialist in techniques for using explosion physics to make nanodiamonds. Now maybe he offered advice on explosion physics for a nuclear device, but there is no evidence in this dramatic paragraph — not from the Member State [who?], not from Danilenko’s publications, not from his interview — that this was in fact his mission in Tehran.

*COMPUTER MODELLING: The IAEA puts great emphasis on “a hydrodynamics calculation centre” and a request by a “senior official” in 2005 for “complex calculations relating to the state of criticality of a solid sphere of uranium being compressed by high explosives”.

Beyond that, however, the IAEA falls back on published scientific literature by Iranian researchers on the “generation, measurement and modelling of neutron transport”, “the application of detonation shock dynamics to the modelling of detonation in high explosives”, and “the use of hydrodynamic codes in the modelling of jet formation with shaped (hollow) charges”.

Only problem? As the IAEA admits, “Such studies are commonly used in reactor physics or conventional ordnance research” even if they “also have applications in the development of nuclear explosives”.

*NEUTRON INITIATOR: “The Agency also has information from a Member State that work in this technical area may have continued in Iran after 2004.” Note the word “may”.

Unless I have missed something, this is the total of the IAEA’s claimed evidence of a possible post-2003 Iranian militarised nuclear programme.

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Scott Lucas is Professor of American Studies at the University of Birmingham, where he has worked since 1989. A specialist in US and British foreign policy, he has written and edited seven books, more than 30 major articles, and a radio documentary and co-directed the 2007 film Laban!. Formerly a journalist in the United States, Scott has written for newspapers including The Guardian and The Independent and was an essayist for The New Statesman. He appears regularly on British, American, and international radio and television as a specialist on current affairs, politics, and history. His blog began life as Watching America at Libertas: The Centre For US Foreign Policy. A native of Alabama in the United States, Scott is assisted by his wife and two children, one of whom has his own political blog, and is plagued by his loyalty to Leeds United Football Club. He is also a proud member of Red Sox Nation.

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