Holes and Questions In The IAEA's Iran Report
By Steve Schippert | February 27, 2008
While Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hails the latest IAEA report on the Iranian nuclear weapons program as another “great victory” against the United States and the West, significant holes and questions remain. On several “outstanding questions” the IAEA had on the Iranian program, the UN nuclear watchdog agency's Director ElBaradei was satisfied with the Iranian response. But even some of those seemingly settled issues raise significant questions from within themselves. And a gaping hole remains in the form of indications of the “administrative interconnections” among the Iranian enrichment program, high explosives testing and missile re-entry design programs as well as “their possible link to nuclear material.”
These interconnections are extremely significant, so much so that they individually and cumulatively render any and all previous questions - described in the latest IAEA report as “no longer outstanding at this stage” - moot points. As was clearly stated in the aftermath of the December National Intelligence Estimate which stated that “in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program,” there are three components to a nuclear weapons program: enrichment, warhead design, and delivery systems.
If these three programs are not only in existence but “administratively interconnected,” as the IAEA report indicates, little comfort can be drawn from questions settled to Mohamed ElBaradei's satisfaction on Polonium-210, a uranium mine, procurement activities and equipment contamination. To do so would be an inability or unwillingness to see the forest for the trees.
The following paragraphs will analyze the IAEA report and the issues it addresses as well as the questions that arise or remain unsatisfactorily addressed. The analysis will proceed in the topical order addressed by the IAEA report of February 22, 2008.
Contaminated Equipment and the IRGC's 'West Point'
Five years ago, the IAEA detected highly enriched uranium (HEU) contamination on some of Iran's centrifuges and other enrichment equipment. These items were admitted then to have been procured through the illicit global nuclear proliferation network of Pakistan's A.Q. Khan, widely regarded as the “Father of the Islamic Bomb.” The equipment was used when obtained and almost certainly contaminated on arrival in Iran. Little question can remain regarding this.
However, within this section of the IAEA report, yet another unsettling issue is glossed over by the language of omission. Beginning here and persisting through other parts of the report are references to Iran's Tehran-based Physics Research Center (PHRC) at a “technical university.” For a document so reliant on specificity, this generality is striking and raises questions of why this generality exists in a critical report.
The “technical university” which houses the Physics Research Center (PHRC) is Imam Hussein University. The name may not garner much of a second look – unless one realizes that it is a principle military academy for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, recently designated a terrorist organization, along with Iran's Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL), by the State Department.
One of the first official acts by Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, the newly-appointed commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), was to appoint a new chancellor to the IRGC military academy - which ElBaradei's report obscures as a "technical university." After tapping Brig. Gen. Ali Hosseinitash for the post, Jafari said, "Imam Hossein University plays a major role in the IRGC's future. Considering the upcoming challenges, as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces [Ayatollah Khamenei] has in mind for the IRGC, the school has to live up to its obligations."
To simply call the IRGC's West Point a “technical university” is not simply an oversight, it is misleading and misrepresents of the significance of the IRGC's military authority and control over the Iranian nuclear program, once under the AOEI, Iran's civilian nuclear agency.
This is not an insignificant detail and certainly warrants more description within ElBaradei's report than merely a “technical university.” This, as noted by the State Department's designation, is a terrorist entity – the overlords of Hizballah – running nuclear research facilities.
Unlike the contamination section, the procurement activities section's concluding statement [paragraph 18] stops well short of determining the matter “no longer outstanding,” even if the IRGC academy's role is obscured by the language of omission.
Uranium Hemisphere Warhead Document Fully Unresolved
When first revealed that Iran had in its possession a 15-page warhead design document obtained from the A.Q. Khan nuclear proliferation network, Iran called the accusation baseless and a lie. In November, Iran handed over a copy of the document detailing how to shape highly enriched uranium into hemispheres for the core of a nuclear warhead, saying then that it had not asked for the document. The IAEA has decided to ask Pakistan for clarification. It still waits and reports the matter fully open.
But the IAEA will never hear from Pakistan on the issue. It is not in Pakistan's interests to do so. It was, in fact, in Pakistan's interests to silence A.Q. Khan after his televised 'confession.' The United States asked to question him as well and got equal silence. In fact, no one has heard Khan speak publicly since his televised admission to running the proliferation network. It is believed that Pakistan is so intent that Khan not be questioned that he has been rendered mentally incapable of such since being held under 'house arrest.'
It is highly unlikely that the world will ever hear from A.Q. Khan again. Regardless, ElBaradei awaits clarification from the same country that silenced the actual human source of the explosive nuclear core designs.
Beryllium and Polonium-210 are used for neutron initiators – triggering mechanisms – for fission nuclear weapons designs. Initiated by high explosives shaped to surround a uranium core and implode upon it, neutrons slamming into uranium atoms and breaking them apart is what triggers the chain reaction of a nuclear fission explosion.
The IAEA accepted Iran's explanation that its Polonium-210 production project was limited in scope and had no ultimate application for the experiments known to have been conducted in the late 1980's, in which Iran irradiated bismuth metal to create the Polonium-210. It has a very short shelf-life. However, Iran has demonstrated the capacity to produce the ingredient domestically.
In 2006, a shipment of equipment from Britain to Iran containing amounts of beryllium was seized at the Bulgarian border. The equipment was 10 soil testing devices that contained americium-beryllium and cesium 137. It may have been a relatively innocuous event. However, the shipping paperwork listed the Iranian Ministry of Transportation as the recipient. The actual boxes, however, were addressed to the Iranian Ministry of Defense, causing considerable concern and another indication of Iranian deception.
The Gchine Uranium Mine and the IRGC
The IAEA had questions regarding “complex arrangements governing the past and current administration” of the Gchine uranium mine and mill. The central issue was the “role and origin” of an Iranian company, Kimia Madaan (KM) Company. KM was contracted at its inception in 2000 by Iran's civilian atomic energy agency (AEOP) to design and build another Iranian uranium mine at Gchine as well as the accompanying mill to perform the initial uranium fuel cycle processing after the ore had been mined. The company's existence lasted for three years before being deregistered by Iran as a corporate entity in June of 2003, months after the US invasion of Iraq.
The origin of the company was stated by Iran as founded by nuclear experts, a “core staff about half a dozen experts who had previously worked for” Iran's existing Ore Processing Center (OPC). It eventually ramped up to a peak staff of over 100 and that “KM made use of experts from universities.” As stated above, the IRGC is believed to have already co-opted the nuclear research facilities and experts of the university system under its command and control in order to conceal and cloak the true military aspect of the Iranian nuclear program. One of the principle sources of experts has been the Imam Hussein University, founded decades ago and wholly operated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Part of the IRGC takeover of the Iranian nuclear program also necessarily included transferring experts from around the country into the IRGC's military academy.
This context adds credence to a February 2006 report from the Washington Post on the Kimia Madaan (KM) Company which stated that the IRGC "appears to have been its only client."
Even with the suspected IRGC constitution of KM, or at minimum that the IRGC was likely KM's only client within the Iranian nuclear program at a time when the civilian AEOI still had at least some control of the program, the February 2006 IAEA report “considers the question no longer outstanding at this stage.” The Washington Post article by Dafna Linzer explored KM within the context of the Iranian Green Salt Project, which is the issue the IAEA report explored next.
Alleged Studies: Enrichment - Re-Entry Vehicle Links and the IRGC
It is within the “Alleged Studies” section (paragraphs 35-42) that the IAEA report abandons any use of the language reading, “The Agency considers this question no longer outstanding at this stage.” While Iran's reaction is that there are “no more excuses to keep Iran nuclear dossier at [the] UN,” this could not be further from the truth. It is at this point, regarding “administrative interconnections” among Iran's enrichment, weaponization and missile programs, that the IEAE begins repeating phrases indicating that clarification from Iran on certain matters “is still awaited” and on others that “Iran has not yet responded to the Agency's proposal.”
Paragraph 36 notes that there are relationships among various university research teams [the previously mentioned PHRC of Imam Hussein University, the Education Research Institute (ERI) and the Institute of Applied Physics (IAP)] and the Kimia Madaan (KM) Company, each working on different aspects of the Iranian nuclear program.
The first research project issue addressed in this section of the IAEA report is the Iranian Green Salt Project [paragraph 37] and the role apparently played by Kimia Madaan (KM) Company. The IAEA presented to Iran intelligence that it “had been given by other Member States” that included a “flowsheet of bench scale conversion” of uranium oxide (U02) into 1 ton of UF4 per year, also known as 'Green Salt.' It represents an early step in an enrichment process, beyond the capacity or scope of the UOC (uranium ore concentration) plant that KM is said to have been contracted to design and build “turnkey.” Yet, the flowsheet “has KM markings on it and refers to 'project 5/13.'” The same document makes reference to “the leadership of the project concerning the missile re-entry vehicle.” A second flowsheet showed designs for producing 50 tons per year.
In what Iran said is its final answer on the matter, the flowsheets and allegations were “baseless” and “fabrications,” and that the only project that the KM company worked on was the UOC plant in Gchine. This language from Iran appears often in the IAEA report.
Alleged Studies: High Explosives Testing - Re-Entry Vehicle Links and the IRGC
Paragraph 37 describes information presented to Iran that the IAEA has regarding Iranian testing of multiple high-explosive detonator designs and documents the layout for an underground nuclear blast test facility. In 2006, a “senior US official” told the Washington Post that "the diagram is consistent with a nuclear test-site schematic." Later in 2006, a contingent of senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officers from Iran traveled to North Korea to observe a North Korean underground nuclear bomb test explosion at a similar facility.
Iran was also presented diagrams provided the IAEA “by other Member States” of Iranian Shahab-3 missile designs, specifically re-entry vehicle designs, believed to be engineered for the ability to carry nuclear warheads.
Iran dismissed each of the above as “baseless” and “fabricated” lies.
Iran was presented documentation showing previously undisclosed orders for radiation detection equipment. Iran said that this equipment was ordered for “radiation protection purposes.”
Representatives of the regime were also presented at the same time documents linking other “procurement actions” by various scientific research components of Iran's nuclear program (again, run from universities under the direction of the IRGC), including efforts to obtain training courses and software on “spark gaps, shock wave software, neutron sources, special steel parts, radiation measurement equipment, including borehole spectrometers.” The only question answered by Iran was a “clarification” that it sought “PAM shock” software simply to “study aircraft, collision of cars, airbags and for the design of seatbelts.” At best, the software serves a dual use for Iran and their past track record of denials and recantation only after irrefutable proof is proffered has eroded its credibility. That it seeks high-velocity impact simulation programs – in context with other activities – cannot be easily or readily dismissed as simply an effort to boost Iran's domestic auto safety efforts. (Programs such as the sophisticated simulation software created by the ESI Group. Curiously, the ESI Group's PAM Shock Hyper-Velocity Impact simulation software product Web page is no longer available online.)
Iran's response to the IAEA on all other procurement attempts presented by the IAEA “is still awaited.” So is the Iranian response to a “Project 4” and “laser-related R&D activities.”
Still Waiting: Time Is Iran's Ally, IAEA On Hold
There is much that the IAEA is “still awaiting” from Iran in order to fulfill its agreed obligation to cooperate and resolve “outstanding questions.” And while Iran, to ElBaradei's satisfaction at least, provided enough clarification to clear some of the outstanding questions from the plate, clearly the critical “administrative interconnections” between the warhead design, delivery vehicle and enrichment programs required for a nuclear weapons program exist.
But Iran appears satisfied with its clarifications that nearly all of the remaining questions are simply accusations founded on Western lies. The Iranian envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said that Iran has completed its cooperation, even though serious questions remain. According to Iran, "The work plan is finished," and its existing answers and flat claims that the IAEA's information on unresolved "outstanding questions" consist of "baseless" lies and "fabrications" appear to be Iran's final answer.
Still Enriching: Iran 'Cooperation' Includes Maintaining Defiance
Part of the context from which to view Iran's continued obfuscation must necessarily be its continued defiance of standing United Nation Security Council resolutions demanding that it cease all enrichment activities. This simple fact is often overlooked or understressed, as it has simply become seemingly expected as if to say, “well, that's just Iran for you.”
The existing sanctions in place have clearly not deterred Iran and the prospects for more significant, stringent and effective sanctions are not likely to emerge from that body. Permanent UNSC members Russia and China remain an effective Iranian protectorate, further emboldened by the December National Intelligence Estimate stating that Iran had ceased its nuclear weapons program in 2003. They immediately began calling for either the end of any future UNSC pursuit of the Iranian program or the rollback of existing sanctions or both.
Meanwhile, Iran has begun advanced testing of P-2 centrifuges with aims of replacing its existing cascades of P-1 centrifuges as soon as possible. The February IAEA report states that, under IAEA “containment and surveillance,” Iran had already replaced its 10- and 20- P-1 centrifuge cascades with P-2 cascades in January.
In a June 2004 IAEA report, the IAEA said that "after almost two years from when Iran’s undeclared program came to the Agency’s knowledge a number of questions remain outstanding, and in particular two questions that are key to understanding the extent and nature of Iran’s enrichment program: the sources of all HEU contamination in Iran and the extent and nature of work undertaken on the basis of the P-2 advanced centrifuge design."
Now, nearly four years after the IAEA stated the above and six since Iran's undeclared nuclear program was publicly revealed, those two basic “outstanding questions” of contamination and the nature of Iran's P-2 advanced centrifuge design program are answered to the satisfaction of the IAEA and Mohamed ElBaradei. No comfort should be derived, regardless.
Iran's explanation that the highly enriched uranium contamination was because its centrifuges were previously used by its illicit Pakistani suppliers may identify the contamination source as outside Iran, but it openly reminds us that Iran, a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, gained much of its rapid technological advancement through the A.Q. Khan global nuclear proliferation network. That a member and signatory state to a non-proliferation agreement can be permitted without penalty to employ illicit black market nuclear proliferation networks – acting completely against the letter and spirit of the treaty – seems unconscionable. Yet, that is the reality for Iran within a world that fears confrontation with its belligerence.
Making matters worse, the IAEA is now fully aware of the nature (and rolling results) of Iran's P-2 centrifuge design it inquired about four years ago. Its inspectors are watching Iran install them into cascades in order to speed up Iran's enrichment capability four-fold. And they are watching the Iranians do this without any pause or concern that they are and have been under sanction and in violation of UNSC resolutions ordering them to halt their enrichment activities.
The very essential question of "interconnections" among the three major components of Iran's nuclear program - enrichment, weaponization and missile delivery systems - is roundly dismissed as lies, fabrications and "forged" intelligence.
That choice of words - "forged" - by Iran is important here. It is widely known that the newly revealed (to Iran) intelligence "provided by Member States" is in fact from the United States. Iran is cleverly playing to the meme that America - the Bush Administration in particular - supposedly trots out false intelligence in order to further military exploits. Iran, at one point or another, has routinely dismissed seemingly nearly every aspect of its nuclear program - including much that is now acknowledged. This is not a minor pattern of behavior.
At the end of the day, the IAEA is an ineffective body in uncovering, understanding or persuading belligerent regimes determined to master the nuclear fuel cycle and, as is increasingly clear in the case of Iran, nuclear weapons. The IAEA proved itself ineffective against global nuclear proliferation networks that feed technology, knowledge and equipment to belligerent state – or even potentially non-state – actors.
The IAEA has not prevented a single determined state from developing nuclear capabilities. Under the watchful eye of the IAEA, we have witnessed the emergence of multiple new nuclear powers and the rise of the A.Q. Khan proliferation network. Nor did the IAEA have anything to do with halting and rolling up the A.Q. Khan network to the extent that it has been. To expect that it can suddenly rise in short order to prevent a nuclear armed Iran is then wholly unrealistic.
The IAEA has no enforcement arm. That which it does possess is found solely in the body of the United Nations Security Council, which is seated with two permanent members who are both strategic competitors to the United States and also serve as an Iranian protectorate within that body. For Russia and China, Iran's aggressive and threatening demeanor towards the United States and the West serves as a useful proxy antagonist against their common enemy. That Iran is the world's premiere state sponsor of international terrorism is of additional quiet utility, so long as the fruits of its efforts remain directed towards the United States and the West, leaving Russia and China largely out of the intended mix.
Yet, we continue to look to these two International bodies - the IAEA and the UN Security Council - as the primary source of leverage to thwart Iranian designs on nuclear weapons as well as, at least in the past, to punish it to the extent that we have attempted regarding its central role in seeding international terrorism and terrorist actors such as Hamas, Hizballah, and al-Qaeda.
If it cannot change this dynamic among Russia, China and Iran, the United States must continue to build upon and follow a divergent path of unilateral sanctions and, potentially, military action. Similar to the exponentially more effective Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), with respect to its focus and intent, the United States can effectively pursue much more effective efforts with the support of a 'coalition of the willing' independent of United Nations bodies mired in an impossible quest for consensus among strategically competitive powers.
International support is important. However, such support need not necessarily emerge from the United Nations and furthermore cannot be sought at the expense of perpetual inaction. Relative inaction through reliance on UN and IAEA consensus is particularly damaging against an Iranian regime which continues to feed terrorist groups – Sunni and Shi'a alike – with the resources of a state which remains the world's fourth largest oil producer with market prices at all-time highs.