Nuclear 'scare' against Iran exposed
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - A 15-page paper on the process requirements for casting and
machining of uranium metal into hemispherical forms - said to useful only for
making the core of a nuclear weapon - has been raised by the United Nations'
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in recent months as evidence of an
alleged Iranian intention to build nuclear weapons.
The agency's May 26, 2008, report said Pakistan had confirmed that "an
identical document exists in Pakistan" but provided no additional information
on what had been learned about it. The same report asserted that the issue
remains "outstanding", and that the IAEA's "overall assessment of the nature of
Iran's nuclear program ... requires, inter alia, an understanding of the role
uranium metal document".
Two days later, the deputy director and head of the Safeguards Department of
the IAEA, Olli Heinonen, was quoted by an anonymous diplomatic source in an
Agence France-Presse report as telling a closed-door briefing of IAEA
member-states in Vienna that Iran's possession of the document was "alarming".
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee then referred in its draft
congressional resolution calling for a blockade of Iran to Tehran's alleged
"importation of designs to convert highly enriched uranium gas into metal and
shape into the core of a nuclear weapon".
But the IAEA has long had information supporting the Iranian claim that it
never asked for the document and has never used it since Pakistan's Abdul
Qadeer Khan network added it to a centrifuge purchase without any prior
discussion. In fact, an IAEA report last November appeared to clear Iran from
suspicion on the issue.
The revival of that issue in 2008 appears to reflect political pressure on the
IAEA from the United States and its allies.
Iran admits having received the document from Khan's network when Iranian
scientists obtained centrifuge designs from that group. But Iranian officials
have contended from the beginning that its scientists never requested any such
instructions and that the Khan network suppliers threw the document into the
deal when the Iranians purchased plans for P-1 centrifuges.
When scientists from the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) first met
with the Khan network in Zurich in July 1987, they were given a handwritten
one-page offer. The IAEA has described that offer, which was later turned over
to it by Iran, as including a sample disassembled centrifuge, along with
technical drawings and specifications for production, plans for a complete
enrichment plant with 2,000 centrifuges, and auxiliary equipment for uranium
re-conversion and casting.
Iran told the IAEA that the intermediaries had offered the re-conversion unit
with casting equipment on their own initiative and that AEOI had neither
requested nor received it.
The agency demanded that Iran turn over all documents pertaining to the Khan
network offer and what was actually purchased. But Iran said it had no other
documentary evidence relating to the 1987 offer, blaming the secretive
management style of the AEOI at that time.
What the IAEA has not revealed in its reports, however, is that in January
2005, Iran allowed IAEA investigators to look through boxes of old AEOI files,
according to a source close to the IAEA. During that search, the investigators
came across the infamous 15-page "uranium metal document".
"As they were going through boxes of papers, it literally fell out," says the
Iranian officials explained that the document had been provided by the Khan
network supplier when Iran purchased centrifuge blueprints at a meeting in
Dubai in 1987 but insisted that Iran had not asked for it.
Had the document triggered a secret Iranian nuclear weapons project, it
obviously would not have been left in files related to the centrifuge and
enrichment plans for the IAEA to find. Far from Iran seeking to hide the
document as incriminating, its atomic energy officials had apparently simply
filed it away and forgotten it.
Although the Iranian officials refused to give up the actual document to the
IAEA, during a January 2006 visit by IAEA officials, Iran allowed agency
inspectors to "examine the document again and to place it under IAEA seal".
That meant that IAEA inspectors could read it whenever they wanted, as the
agency explained in February 2007.
Iran agreed to provide a copy of the document to the IAEA in November 2007.
In its February 22, 2008, report, the IAEA suggested that it needed more
information from Pakistan to resolve the issue. "The agency is still waiting
for a response from Pakistan on the circumstances of the delivery of this
document," said the report, "in order to understand the full scope and content
of the offer made by the network in 1987."
Contrary to the IAEA claim of ignorance about the "full scope and content" the
1987 offer, however, the IAEA actually had an extensive interview with the key
Khan network figure present at the meeting with the Iranians in Dubai: Khan's
chief financial officer, Buhari Sayed Abu Tahir.
Tahir was arrested in Malaysia in May 2004, and Heinonen and other IAEA
officials obtained an account of the meeting in Dubai in an interview with
Tahir in February 2005 - after the agency had become aware of the uranium metal
document, according to the book The Nuclear Jihadist by journalists
Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins.
That account was made available to Frantz and Collins, who detailed the history
of the Khan network. Frantz and Collins also obtained the account of the same
meeting given by Iranian officials to the IAEA.
Although they quote Khan's salesmen as telling the Iranians how many atom bombs
could be made annually from the uranium enrichment plant for which they were
selling the plans, Frantz and Collins indicate that the Iranians did not ask
for any plans relating to nuclear weapons manufacture.
Instead, the authors write that after agreeing on the price of the equipment
and plans, Khan's men "sweetened the deal" by throwing in the uranium metal
The Khan network apparently added the uranium metal document as an afterthought
in the hope of selling the Iranians on additional technology. The document only
outlined procedural requirements for casting uranium into hemispheres, not the
technical specifications that would have been necessary to carry out the
operation, as the IAEA report of November 18, 2005, noted.
Contrary to IAEA claims that it needs more information to clarify the
significance of the uranium metal document, moreover, the agency's November 15,
2007, report said the issue had been resolved to its satisfaction.
That report concluded, "Based on interviews with available Iranian officials
and members of the supply network, limited documentation provided by Iran and
procurement information collected through the agency's independent
investigation, the agency has concluded that Iran's statements are consistent
with other information available to the agency concerning Iran's acquisition of
declared P-1 centrifuge enrichment technology in 1987."
The timing of the IAEA's decision in early 2008 to highlight the uranium metal
document, after having previously indicated that it was resolved, suggests that
it was the result of new political pressures on the agency. The new IAEA hard
line on the issue came after Iran had provided new information that resolved
the entire list of issues about the history of its nuclear program on which the
IAEA had been raising doubts since 2003.
It also coincided with the introduction into the IAEA process on Iran of
"alleged studies" of weaponization - documents whose authenticity has not been
verified by the agency and which it has not been allowed to share with Iran.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.