Iran and IAEA re-enter missile row
By Gareth Porter
VIENNA - Iran stopped meeting with the International Atomic Energy Agency
(IAEA) last year over Western allegations of covert Iranian nuclear weapons
work because the nuclear agency was demanding access to the designs for its
Shahab-3 missile and other secret military data, according to both Iranian and
The United States and other Western states have cited Iran's refusal to
cooperate with the IAEA on resolving issues related to intelligence documents
on a purported covert nuclear weapons program as further evidence of its guilt.
"They've been asking for Shahab-3 drawings for about a year," Iran's ambassador
to the United Nations in Vienna, Ali Asghar
Soltanieh, told Inter Press Service (IPS) in an interview. "We found out a year
ago and that's when we stopped the meetings with IAEA."
A senior official of the IAEA familiar with the Iran investigation, who
insisted on anonymity as a condition for being interviewed, confirmed to IPS
that the agency had requested not only that Iranian officials discuss the
details of the Shahab-3's re-entry system, but access to the actual engineering
designs for the missile.
"We want them to explain to us that the design studies are not for nuclear
weapons," said the official. "We're saying, you say you've done re-entry
vehicle re-engineering [on Shahab-3], so show us some documentation."
The latest IAEA report, dated August 28, notes that the agency "has been unable
to engage Iran in any substantive discussions about these outstanding issues
for over a year", but it does not link the Iranian disengagement to the demand
for military secrets.
The September 15, 2008, report said, however, that in a September 5 letter Iran
had "expressed concern that the resolution of some of these issues would
require agency access to sensitive information related to its conventional
military and missile related activities".
Asked whether this request would not compromise Iran's national security
secrets, the official conceded to IPS, "Yes, there will have to be some
compromise on their part, because the charges are serious. If someone is
accused of nefarious crimes, it is in their interest to share a little of their
security to show they are baseless."
Defending the IAEA's request, the official said, "All verification is a
compromise of national security. Natanz [the Iranian uranium-enrichment
facility] is the most heavily verified enrichment plan in the world. It's a
compromise of national sovereignty."
Soltanieh said he had protested the demand for such conventional military
secrets at meetings of the IAEA governing board in 2008 and 2009. "They denied
they asked for this information," said Soltanieh.
The Iranian ambassador first expressed concern about being asked to give the
IAEA access to national security secrets about its missiles and other
conventional military technology in a letter to IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei on
September 5, 2008.
The September 2008 IAEA report strongly implied without saying so explicitly
that the agency was seeking access to actual plans for the missile. It said the
IAEA had "proposed discussions with Iranian experts on the contents of the
engineering reports examining in detail modeling studies related to the effects
of various physical parameters on the re-entry body from the time of the
missile launch to payload detonation".
The most recent report of the IAEA, dated August 28, 2009, referred to "the
need to hold discussions with Iran on the engineering and modeling studies
associated with the re-design of the payload chamber referred to in the alleged
studies documentation to exclude the possibility that they were for a nuclear
In a letter to ElBaradei on September 4, 2009, Soltanieh complained that the
report which had just been released had "reflected the unjustified previous
requests by your staff in Tehran [for] discussing with Iranian military staff
the issue of missiles and explosives!"
He noted that the director general had on several occasions "emphasized that
the agency is not intending to enter into the domain of the national security
of member states".
The agency also requested "additional information and documentation, and access
to individuals, in support of [Iran's] statement about the civil and
conventional military applications of its work in the area of EBW detonators",
according to the September 2008 IAEA report.
The IAEA further asked to meet individual scientists named in one of the
intelligence documents as being part of the purported Iranian nuclear weapons
research program. The senior IAEA official acknowledged in the interview with
IPS, however, that it would be relatively easy for an outside agency to
identify individuals who belonged to an organization.
"It's not difficult to cook up such a document," the official said.
In his letter to ElBaradei, Soltanieh said these IAEA requests represented
"interference in confidential conventional military activities of a member
state, related to its national security ..."
The IAEA has offered to "discuss modalities that could enable Iran to
demonstrate credibly that the activities referred to in the documentation are
not nuclear related, as Iran asserts, while protecting sensitive information
related to its conventional military activities".
But the senior IAEA official interviewed by IPS made it clear that such
modalities would not preclude access to the documentation on the Shahab design.
Iran's enemies, especially the United States and Israel, are eager for
intelligence on the design of the Shahab-3's re-entry vehicle.
According to a detailed analysis by the Armed Combat Information Group (ACIG),
the upgraded version of the Shahab-3 has an improved guidance system and
warhead, as well as completely new re-entry vehicle with a different guidance
system based on rocket-nozzle steering rather than a spin-stabilized re-entry
The new re-entry vehicle is smaller than the previous version, according to the
former head of Israel's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. That gives the
improved version greater precision.
But the most significant feature of the new variant, according to the ACIG
analysis, is the capability for changing trajectory repeatedly during re-entry
and in the missile's terminal phase. That capability allows the Shahab-3 to
evade the radar systems associated with Israel's Arrow 2 missile.
If Israeli and the United States were able to get more information on the
design of the re-entry vehicle, they would be able to make adjustments in the
Arrow 2 system to increase its effectiveness against the Iranian missile.
The IAEA secretariat is well known to be a major source of intelligence on Iran
for the United States and Israel. In the 1990s, 10 of the 35 members of the US
mission to the United Nations in Vienna were Central Intelligence Agency
personnel, according to the 2007 book The Italian Letter, by journalists
Peter Eisner and Knute Royce.
Ambassador Soltanieh told IPS that the IAEA safeguards department, to which the
Iranians pass much sensitive information, has repeatedly leaked that
information - usually out of context - to journalists for stories portraying
the Iranian nuclear program in a menacing light.
"Leakage of confidential information is a matter of serious concern," said
Soltanieh. "In many cases, we give information to inspectors and soon it is in
A Western diplomatic source in Vienna who insisted on not being identified
said, "I don't think it would help a lot to get the specific plans of
Shahab-3." For one thing, he observed, "They could be working on other studies
and we wouldn't know about it."
The official admitted that it was "always difficult to prove that something is
Nevertheless, it would be "much safer for Iran to compromise on these issues
than to keep its present attitude," the official said.
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.