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Documents linking Iran to nuclear weapons push may have been fabricated
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has obtained evidence suggesting that documents which have been described as technical studies for a secret Iranian nuclear weapons-related research program may have been fabricated.
The documents in question were acquired by U.S. intelligence in 2004 from a still unknown source -- most of them in the form of electronic files allegedly stolen from a laptop computer belonging to an Iranian researcher. The US has based much of its push for sanctions against Iran on these documents.
The new evidence of possible fraud has increased pressure within the IAEA secretariat to distance the agency from the laptop documents, according to a Vienna-based diplomatic source close to the IAEA, who spoke to RAW STORY on condition of anonymity.
The laptop documents include what the IAEA has described in a published report as technical drawings of efforts to redesign the nosecone of the Iranian Shahab-3 ballistic missile “to accommodate a nuclear warhead.” The documents are also said to include studies on the use of a high explosive detonation system, drawings of a shaft apparently to be used for nuclear tests, and studies on a bench-scale uranium conversion facility.
These technical papers, along with some correspondence related to the alleged secret Iranian program -- referred to by the IAEA as “alleged studies” -- have been the primary basis during 2008 for the insistence by the US-led international coalition pushing for sanctions against Iran that the Iranian case must be kept going in the United Nations Security Council.
At the center of the internal IAEA struggle is an Iranian firm named Kimia Maadan, which is portrayed in the documents as responsible for studies on a uranium conversion facility, called the “green salt” project, as part of the alleged nuclear weapons program under the Iranian Ministry of Defense.
According to a February 2006 Washington Post article, the United States and its allies believe that Kimia Maadan is a front for the Iranian military.
One of the communications included in the laptop documents – a letter allegedly sent to Kimia Maadan from an unnamed Iranian engineering firm in May 2003 – is at the center of the authenticity argument.
This letter is described in the May 26, 2008 IAEA report as “a one page annotated letter of May 2003 in Farsi.” According to a US source who has been briefed on the matter, the letter has handwritten notes on it which refer to studies on the redesign of a missile reentry vehicle.
Last January, however, Iran turned over to the IAEA a copy of the same May 2003 letter with no handwritten notes on it. This was confirmed by the director of the IAEA Safeguards Department, Olli Heinonen, during a February briefing for member states. Heinonen referred to “correspondence” related to Kimia Maadan that is “identical to that provided by Iran, with the addition of handwritten notes.”
Notes on the Heinonen briefing, compiled by unnamed diplomats who attended it, were posted on the website of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security.
The copy of the letter without the handwritten notes was part of a larger collection of documentation concerning Kimia Maadan provided to IAEA by Iran in response to a request for an explanation of that firm’s role in the management of the Iranian Gchine uranium mine.
After the IAEA received the copy of the letter without notes from Iran, some officials began pushing for an acknowledgment by the Agency that there were serious questions about the whether the laptop documents were fabricated, according to the Vienna-based source close to the IAEA.
“There was an effort to point out that the Agency isn’t in a position to authenticate the documents,” said the source.
Heinonen and other IAEA Safeguards Department officials have continued, however, to defend the credibility of the document in question.
According to an American source briefed on the dispute, the defenders of the authenticity of the version of the letter with the handwritten notes say that the appearance of the clean copy can be attributed to Kimia Maadan making multiple copies of the original which have been circulated to various staff members.
Only an Ore-processing Plant
Further evidence damaging to the credibility of the letter and the handwritten notes was provided to the atomic energy watchdog last January by the Iranian government. According to Iran, Kimia Maadan was not working for the Defense Ministry but for the civilian Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI).
The new Iranian documentation, described in the February 22, 2008 IAEA report, proved to IAEA’s satisfaction that the Kimia Maadan Company had been created in May 2000 solely to carry out a project to design, procure and install equipment for an ore processing plant.
The documents also showed that the core staff of Kimia Maadan was able to undertake the work on ore processing only because the nuclear agency had provided it with the technical drawings and reports as the basis for the contract.
“Information and explanations provided by Iran were supported by the documentation, the content of which is consistent with the information already available to the agency,” the IAEA concluded.
Marie Harff, a spokesperson for the CIA, declined to comment.
Additional Doubts About the Letter
Other questions surround the letter with the handwritten notes. The subject of the letter was Kimia Maadan's inquiry to the engineering firm about procurement of a programmable logic control (PLC) system, according to the IAEA's May 26 report.
A PLC system is one of many types of technology that the United States has long sought to deny to the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. Iran had informed the IAEA even before 2006 that Kimia Maadan had assisted the AEOI in getting around that denial strategy by procuring various technologies for the planned uranium conversion facility at Esfahan.
Given that Kimia Maadan’s role in procurement for the conversion facility was both unrelated to its technical work for the AEOI and part of a covert effort to get around U.S. restrictions, it seems unlikely that they would have made multiple copies of the letter. Even if multiple copies were made, the firm would certainly have taken normal security precautions for a document of that type, marking each copy with a number or name.
A security procedure of that kind would have identified any missing copies. However, this was not the case with the 2003 letter. The United States, as its reason for refusing to provide a copy of the document to Iran, has argued that it would allow Iranian security personnel to identify the person who wrote the notes from their handwriting, according to the US source who has been briefed on the matter.
Another problem with the handwritten letter is the absence of any logical link between the subject of the letter and the alleged work on redesign of the missile. PLC systems, which are used for automation of industrial processes, such as control of machinery on factory assembly lines, would have been irrelevant to the technical studies on redesigning the Shahab-3 missile.
Other Documents Also Under Suspicion
Other documents from the laptop collection, allegedly showing that Kimia Maadan was working closely with the team trying to redesigning the Shahab-3 missile, have also come under suspicion of fraud.
The IAEA’s May 2008 report describes a flowsheet under Kimia Maadan’s name, showing a “process for bench scale conversion of uranium oxide” to UF4 (uranium tetraflouride), also known as “green salt.” The project number shown in the disputed documents for the “green salt” subproject is 5.13.
However, Heinonen stated that the number given to the Gchine subproject was 5.15. According to the documents obtained by the IAEA from Iran last January, this was the number of the uranium ore processing project that was assigned in 1999 by the civilian AEOI, not by the Iranian Defense Ministry. This would mean that the author of the document used the project number 5.13 for the “green salt” subproject based on their knowledge of the AEOI numbering system and not on a military designation.
In his February 25 briefing, Heinonen additionally referred to an alleged letter sent by Kimia Maadan – as manager of three subprojects – to the “missile re-entry vehicle” project, asking for a “technical opinion” on the plans for equipment for a proposed “green salt” conversion facility.
However, it is difficult to understand why the team working on redesigning the missile would be asked for a “technical opinion” on equipment for a uranium conversion facility.
A spokesperson for the State Department’s Office of Arms Control and International Security, which is responsible for IAEA affairs, said in an e-mail that specialists in the office “aren’t able to comment” on the subject of the intelligence documents now being considered by the IAEA.
The IAEA also declined to comment.
Toward a Showdown on the Contradictions
As the contradictions between the new Iranian evidence and the laptop documents relating to Kimia Maadan became apparent, some IAEA officials argued that the Agency should distance itself from what they now suspect are forgeries. Despite that argument, the May 2008 report contained no reference to the issue.
The next IAEA report, due out in mid-November, will include the first response by the Agency to a confidential 117-page Iranian critique of the laptop documents, according to the Vienna-based source.
In the past, IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei has shown an ability to face off with the United States when evidence has been called into doubt. The infamous “Niger forgeries” – documents that purported to show an agreement between Niger and Iraq for the purchase of uranium oxide – were used by the White House as part of its case for war against Iraq.
In response, ElBaradei sent a letter to the White House and the National Security Council in December 2002, over three months before the US launched the Iraq War, warning that he believed the documents were forgeries and should not be cited as evidence of Iraqi intention to obtain nuclear weapons.
When ElBaradei received no response from the Bush administration, he went public to debunk the Niger forgeries. In a speech at the United Nations in March 2003, he declared that the IAEA, after “thorough analysis,” had concluded that the documents alleging the purchase of uranium by Iraqi from Niger “are in fact not authentic.”
The anomalies that have been revealed by the Iranian documents obtained from Iran last January may not be as obvious as the ones that made it clear the Niger documents were fabrications. Nevertheless, they appear to be red flags for IAEA analysts concerned with the issue.
Suspicion has surrounded the “alleged studies” documents from the beginning, because the United States has refused to say who brought the collection to US intelligence four years ago.
Gareth Porter is an investigative journalist and historian who has authored numerous foreign policy analyses and is the author of the book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam. In a 2006 article in the American Prospect, he revealed Iran's spurned diplomatic outreach to the Bush Administration in 2003.