WASHINGTON - The most important intelligence documents used to argue that Iran
had a covert nuclear-weapons research-and-development program in 2003 - a set
of technical drawings of efforts to fit what appears to be a nuclear payload
into the re-entry vehicle of Iran's medium-range ballistic missile, the
Shahab-3 - turn out to have a fatal flaw: the drawings depict a re-entry
vehicle that had already been abandoned by the Iranian missile program in favor
of an improved model.
The re-entry vehicle or warhead shown in the schematics had the familiar "dunce
cap" shape of the original North Korean Nodong missile, an Inter Press Service
(IPS) investigation has confirmed. But when Iran flight-tested a new missile in
mid-2004, it did not have that dunce cap warhead but a new "triconic" or "baby
bottle" shape, which was more aerodynamic than the one on the original
The development of the new missile and warhead had already been under way for
years by that time, according to the author of the most authoritative study of
the Iranian missile program.
The schematics are dated March and April 2003, according to the International
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report of May 2008. But according to Mike Elleman,
lead author of the study published by the London-based International Institute
for Strategic Studies (IISS) last May, Iran had been introducing the new
warhead shape, along with other major innovations in the design of the
medium-range missile, over a period of two to five years.
Elleman confirmed in an interview with IPS that the redesign of the re-entry
vehicle must have begun in 2002 at the latest.
The former head of the Safeguards Department of the IAEA, Olli Heinonen, who
managed the IAEA investigation of the intelligence documents on Iran, confirmed
in an interview with IPS that the schematics depicted in the documents were of
the old Nodong Missile rather than the new missile that was tested in mid-2004.
Heinonen, now a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and
International Affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government,
explained the anomaly of an outdated warhead being shown in the schematics by
suggesting that the group that had done the schematics had no relationship with
the Iranian missile program.
"It looks from that information like this group was working with this
individual," Heinonen said, referring to the Dr Mohsen Fakrizadeh, the man
named in the documents as heading the research program. "It was not working
with the missile program."
That explanation is contradicted, however, by the intelligence documents
themselves. The IAEA describes what is purported to be a one-page letter from
Fakhrizadeh to the Shahid Hemat Industrial Group dated March 3, 2003 "seeking
assistance with the prompt transfer of data" for the work on redesigning the
Shahid Hemat, which is part of the military's Defense Industries Organization,
had been involved in testing the engine for the Shahab-3 and in working in
particular on aerodynamic properties and control systems for Iranian missiles,
as had been reported in the US media.
Heinonen acknowledged in a subsequent interview that the program portrayed in
the intelligence documents in question would have had to rely on the Iranian
missile program to obtain basic data on the dimensions of the Shahab-3/Nodong
Heinonen also argued in an interview that the engineers working for the
purported covert nuclear-weapons program could have been ordered to redesign
the older Shahab-3 model before the decision was made by the missile program to
switch to a newer model, and could not change the work plan once it was
But the IISS study makes it clear that the development of the new missile had
already begun by 2000 - well before the 2002 launching of the purported covert
warhead-redesign project identified in an excerpt of the draft study by the
IAEA Safeguards Department, leaked to the Institute for Science and
International Security (ISIS) in October 2009.
The assumption that the Iranian military would have ordered an engineer to
organize a project to redesign the warhead on its intermediate range ballistic
missile to accommodate a nuclear payload but keep the project workers in the
dark about its plans to replace the Shahab-3 with a completely new and improved
model is implausible.
The shift to the new missile was driven by a very important consideration. The
Shahab-3, purchased from North Korea in the early to mid-1990s, had a range of
only 800 to 1,000 kilometers, depending on the weight of the payload, according
to the IISS study. That meant that it was incapable of reaching Israel.
But the new missile, later named the Ghadr-1, could carry a payload of
conventional high explosives 1,500 to 1,600 km, bringing Israel within the
reach of an Iranian missile for the first time.
The IISS study indicates that a foreign intelligence agency intending to
fabricate technical drawings of a re-entry vehicle could not have known that
Iran had abandoned the Shahab-3 in favor of the more advanced Ghadr-1 until
after mid-August 2004. The August 11, 2004 test launch, according to the study,
was the first indication to the outside world that a new missile with a
triconic warhead had been developed.
Before that test, Elleman confirmed to IPS: "No information was available that
they were modifying the warhead."
Even if the agency that fabricated the documents realized the mistake
immediately, it would have been too late to create an entirely new set of
documents based on the new warhead.
Those who had ordered the schematics for the Shahab-3 warhead drawn to
implicate the Iranian military would have been misled by Iranian statements
about the status of that missile. The IISS study recalls that Iran had said in
early 2001 that the Shahab-3 had entered "serial production" and declared in
July 2003 that it was "operational".
The IISS study observes, however, that the announcement came only after the US
invasion of Iraq, when Iran felt an urgent need to claim an operational missile
capability. The study says it is "very dubious" that the missile was ever
produced in significant numbers.
The missile re-entry schematics in question were part of a collection of
intelligence documents obtained by the US government from an unknown source in
2004. Media stories in 2005 and 2006, based on briefings by US officials,
suggested that the documents had been stored on a laptop computer that had been
purloined from an Iranian engineer who had participated in a covert
But that story about the origin of the documents has now been replaced by a new
account, which was first published by the Washington-based ISIS in October
2009. ISIS suggested that the documents on the purported Iranian program had
not been provided to US intelligence on a laptop at all.
The ISIS account indicated that the documents were collected by an Iranian
spying for German intelligence - a story further elaborated by Der Spiegel in
Heinonen told IPS he had made no effort to ascertain the actual origins of the
documents. "The people providing such documents want to protect their sources,"
the former IAEA official said. "I would not want to get into that type of
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.