Gareth Porter, Counter punch, December 18 2015:… German intelligence had obtained the documents in 2004 from a sometime source whom they knew to be a member of the Mujahideen E-Khalq (MEK). A cult-like Iranian exile terrorist group, MEK had once carried out terror operations for the Saddam Hussein regime but later developed a patron …
The IAEA’s “Final Assessment”
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) assessment has cleared the way for the board of governors to end the Agency’s extraordinary investigation into accusations of Iran’s past nuclear weapons work. But a closer examination of the document reveals much more about the political role that the Agency has played in managing the Iran file.
Contrary to the supposed neutral and technical role that Director General Yukiya Amano has constantly invoked and the news media has long accepted without question, the Agency has actually been serving as prosecutor for the United States in making a case that Iran has had a nuclear weapons program.
The first signs of such an IAEA role appeared in 2008 after the Bush administration insisted that the Agency make a mysterious collection of intelligence documents on a purported Iranian nuclear weapons research program the centerpiece of its Iran inquiry. The Agency’s partisan role was fully developed, however, only after Amano took charge in late 2009. Amano got U.S. political support for the top position in 2009 because he had enthusiastically supported the Bush administration’s pressure on Mohammed ElBaradei on those documents when Amano was Japan’s permanent representative to the IAEA in 2008.
Amano delivered the Agency’s November 2011 report just when the Obama administration needed additional impetus for its campaign to line up international support for “crippling sanctions” on Iran. He continued to defend that hardline position and accuse Iran of failing to cooperate as the Obama administration sought to maximize the pressure on Iran from 2012 to 2015.
When the Obama administration’s interests shifted from pressuring Iran to ensuring that the nuclear agreement with Iran would be completed and fully implemented, Amano’s role suddenly shifted as well. In late June, according to Iranian officials involved in the Vienna negotiations, Secretary of State John Kerry reached agreement with both the Iranians and Amano that the “possible military dimensions” (PMD) issue would be resolved through a report by Amano before the end of the year.
Based on that agreement, Amano would write a report that would reach no definitive conclusion about the accusations of nuclear weapons work but nevertheless bring the PMD inquiry to an end . The report was still far from even-handed. It could not be, because Amano had embraced the intelligence documents that the United States and Israel had provided to the IAEA, around which the entire investigation had been organized.
Dodgy Intelligence Documents
Iran had insisted from the beginning that the intelligence documents given to the IAEA were fraudulent, and ElBaradei had repeatedly stated publicly from late 2005 through 2009 that the documents had not been authenticated. ElBaradei observes in his 2011 memoirs that he could never get a straight answer from the Bush administration about how the documents had been acquired. Different cover stories had been leaked to the media over the years suggesting that either an Iranian scientist involved in the alleged weapons program or a German spy had managed to get the documents out of Iran. But in 2013, former senior German foreign office official Karsten Voigt revealed to me in an interview that German intelligence had obtained the documents in 2004 from a sometime source whom they knew to be a member of the Mujahideen E-Khalq (MEK). A cult-like Iranian exile terrorist group, MEK had once carried out terror operations for the Saddam Hussein regime but later developed a patron-client relationship with Israeli intelligence.
Quite apart from the unsavory truth about the origins of the documents, the burden of proof in the IAEA inquiry should have been on the United States to make the case for their authenticity. There is a good reason why U.S. judicial rules of evidence require that “the proponent must produce evidence sufficient to support a finding that the item is what the proponent claims it is.”
But instead Amano has required Iran, in effect, to prove the negative. Since it is logically impossible for Iran to do so, that de facto demand has systematically skewed the entire IAEA investigation toward the conclusion that Iran is guilty of the covert activities charged in the intelligence documents. And the Agency has reinforced that distorted frame in its final assessment by constantly making the point that Iran possesses technology that could have been used for the development of a nuclear weapon. Every time Iran produced evidence that a technology that the IAEA had suggested was being used for the development of nuclear weapons was actually for non-nuclear applications, the Agency cast that evidence in a suspicious light by arguing that it bore some characteristics that are “consistent with” or “relevant to” work on nuclear weapons. The “final assessment” uses that same tactic to frame not only Iranian development of various technologies but its organizations, facilities, and research activities as inherently suspicious regardless of evidence provided by Iran that they were for other purposes.
Another tactic the IAEA had used in the past to attack Iran’s credibility is the suggestion that the government actually made a partial confession. In May 2008, the IAEA had claimed in a quarterly report that Iran “did not dispute that some of the information contained in the documents was factually accurate but said the events and activities concerned involved civil or conventional military applications.” That statement had clearly conveyed the impression that Iran has admitted to details about activities shown in the documents. But in fact Iran had only confirmed information that was already publicly known, such as certain names, organizations, and official addresses, as the IAEA itself acknowledged in 2011. Furthermore, Iran had also submitted a 117-page paper in which it had pointed out that “some of the organizations and individuals named in those documents were nonexistent.”
The IAEA resorted to the same kind of deceptive tactic in the final assessment’s discussion of “organizational structure.” It stated, “A significant proportion of the information available to the Agency on the existence of organizational structures was confirmed by Iran during implementation of the Road-map.” That sentence implied that Iran had acknowledged facts about the organizations that supported the purported intelligence claims of a nuclear weapons research program. But it actually meant only that Iran confirmed the same kind of publicly available information as it had in 2008.
On the issue of whether an Iranian organization to carry out nuclear-weapons research and development had existed, the final assessment again uses suggestive but ultimately meaningless language: “[B]efore the end of 2003, an organizational structure was in place in Iran suitable for the coordination of a range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.”
Similar language implying accusation without actually stating it directly can be found in most of the assessments in the document. In the section on “procurement activities,” the report refers to “indications of procurements and attempted procurements of items with relevance, inter alia, to the development of a nuclear device.” That language actually means nothing more than that Iranians had sought to purchase dual-use items, but it preserves the illusion that the procurement is inherently suspicious.
EBW and MIP
The use of “relevance” language was, in fact, the IAEA’s favorite tactic for obscuring the fact that it had no real evidence of nuclear weapons work. On the issue of the purported intelligence documents showing that Iran had developed and experimented with Exploding Bridge-Wire (EBW) technology for the detonation of a nuclear weapon, Iran had gone to great lengths to prove that its work on EBW technology was clearly focused on non-nuclear applications. It provided detailed information about its development of the technology, including videos of activities it had carried out, to show that for the objective of the work was to develop safer conventional explosives.
The IAEA responded by saying “ that the EBW detonators developed by Iran have characteristics relevant to a nuclear device.” By that same logic, of course, a prosecutor could name an individual as a suspect in a crime simply because his behavior showed “characteristics relevant” to that crime.
A similar tactic appears in the assessment of the “initiation of high explosives” issue. The 2011 IAEA report had recorded the intelligence passed on by the Israelis that Iran had done an experiment with a high explosives detonation technology called multipoint initiation (MIP) that the Agency said was “consistent with” a publication by a “foreign expert” who had worked in Iran. That was a reference to the Ukrainian scientist Vyacheslav Danilenko, but he was an expert on producing nanodiamonds through explosives, not on nuclear weapons development. And the open-source publication by Danilenko was not about experiments related to nuclear weapons but only about measuring shock waves from explosions using fiber optic cables.
The 2011 report also had referred to “information” from an unnamed member state that Iran had carried out the “large scale high explosives experiments” in question in the “region of Marivan.” In its final assessment, the Agency says it now believes that those experiments were carried out in a “location called ‘Marivan’,” rather than in the “region of Marivan.” But although Iran has offered repeatedly to allow the IAEA to visit Marivan to determine whether such experiments were carried out,the IAEA has refused to carry out such an inspection and has offered no explanation for its refusal.
The Agency relies on its standard evasive language to cover its climb-down from the 2011 assessment. “The Agency assesses that the MPI technology developed by Iran has characteristics relevant to a nuclear device,” it said, “as well as to a small number of alternative applications.” That wording—combined with its refusal to make any effort to check on the one specific claim of Iranian experiments at Marivan—makes it clear that the Agency knows very well that it has no real evidence of the alleged experiments but is unwilling to say so straightforwardly.
The Agency did the same thing in regard to the alleged “integration into a missile delivery system.” A key set of purported intelligence documents had shown a series of efforts to integrate a “new spherical payload” into the existing payload chamber of the Shahab-3 missile. The final assessment avoids mention of the technical errors in those studies, which were so significant that Sandia National Laboratories found through computer simulations that not a single one of the proposed redesign efforts would have worked. And it later became apparent that Iran had begun redesigning the entire missile system—including an entirely different reentry vehicle shape from the one shown in the drawings—well before the start date of the purported nuclear weapons work.
But the IAEA was only interested in whether the workshops portrayed in the purported intelligence were in fact workshops used by the Iranian government. Iran allowed the Agency to visit two of the workshops, and the final assessment declares that it has “verified that the workshops are those described in the alleged studies documentation” and that “the workshop’s features and capabilities are consistent with those described in the alleged studies documentation.”
Flawed Computer Modeling
One of the most egregious cover-ups in the assessment is its treatment of the alleged computer modeling of nuclear explosions. The agency recalled that it had “received information from Member States” that Iran had done modeling of “nuclear explosive configurations based on implosion technology.” Unfortunately for the credibility of that “information,” soon after that 2011 report was published someone leaked a graph of one of the alleged computer modeling efforts attributed to Iran to Associated Press reporter George Jahn. The graph was so similar to one published in a scholarly journal in January 2009 that Scott Kemp, an assistant professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said he suspected the graph had been “adapted from the open literature.”
Furthermore the information in the graph turned out to be inaccurate by four orders of magnitude. In response to that revelation, a senior IAEA official told Jahn that the Agency knew that the graph was “flawed” as soon as it had obtained it but that IAEA officials “believe it remains important as a clue to Iranian intentions.” In fact the official revealed to Jahn that the Agency had come up with a bizarre theory that Iranian scientists deliberately falsified the diagram to sell the idea to government officials of a nuclear explosion far larger than any by the United States or Russia.
That episode surely marks the apogee of the IAEA’s contorted rationalizations of the highly suspect “information” the Agency had been fed by the Israelis. In the final report, the Agency ignores that embarrassing episode and “assesses that Iran conducted computer modeling of a nuclear explosive device prior to 2004 and between 2005 and 2009,” even though it describes the modeling, enigmatically, as “incomplete and fragmentary.
The assessment further “notes some similarity between the Iranian open source publications and the studies featured in the information from Member States, in terms of textual matches, and certain dimensional and other parameters used.” Unless the Agency received the “information” from the unidentified states before the dates of the open-source publications, which one would expect to be noted if true, such similarities could be evidence of fraudulent intelligence rather than of Iranian wrong-doing. But the assessment provides no clarification of the issue.
On the issue it calls “nuclear material acquisition,” however, the Agency makes a startling retreat from its previous position that has far-reaching implications for the entire collection of intelligence documents. In its 2011 report, the IAEA had presented a one-page flow sheet showing a process for converting “yellow cake” into “green salt” (i.e., uranium that can be enriched) as a scheme to “secure a source of uranium suitable for use in an undisclosed enrichment program.”
But the final assessment explicitly rejects that conclusion, pronouncing the process design in question “technically flawed” and “of low quality in comparison with what was available to Iran as part of its declared nuclear fuel cycle.” In other words, Iran would have had no rational reason to try to seek an entirely new conversion process and then turn the project over to incompetent engineers. Those were precisely the arguments that Iran had made in 2008 to buttress its case that the documents were fabricated.
The assessment carefully avoids the obvious implication of these new findings—that the anomalies surrounding the “green salt” documents make it very likely that they have were fabricated. To acknowledge that fact would cast doubt on the entire collection. But the surprising backtracking on the “green salt’ evidence underlines just how far the IAEA has gone in the past to cover up awkward questions about the intelligence at the center of the case.
Now that the Obama administration has settled on a nuclear agreement with Iran, the IAEA will no longer have to find contorted language to discuss Iran’s past and present nuclear program. Nevertheless, the Agency remains a highly political actor, and its role in monitoring and reporting on the implementation of the agreement may bring more occasions for official assessments that reflect the political interest of the U.S.-led dominant coalition in the IAEA board of governors rather than the objective reality of the issue under review.
Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.
The “Possible Military Dimensions” Bomb That Could Blow Up the Iran Deal
By Gareth Porter, Truthout, April 18 2015:… Information now available shows that the documents were created in Israel. According to a senior German office official, those documents were given to Germany’s foreign intelligence service, the BND, in 2004 by the Mujahedin e-Khalq (MEK), the armed exile Iranian opposition group that had been an Israeli client …
The “Possible Military Dimensions” Bomb That Could Blow Up the Iran Deal
The United States and Iran may have agreed on a vague framework for resolving remaining issues between them, including the lifting of sanctions, but the final stage of the negotiations will bring a diplomatic confrontation over the sequence and timing of lifting sanctions.
And the most difficult issue in the coming talks will be how the “Possible Military Dimensions” or “PMD” – the allegations of Iranian nuclear weapons work that have been at the center of the entire Iran nuclear crisis for several years – is to be linked to lifting certain UN Security Council sanctions.
On that linkage Iran will insist that its cooperation in providing access to the International Atomic Energy Agency must be reciprocated with the lifting of certain sanctions on an agreed-upon timetable, regardless of how long the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) takes to make up its mind and what judgment it renders, according to a source in close contact with the Iranian negotiating team.
The US “fact sheet” on the “parameters” of an agreement says, “All past United Nations Security Council resolutions on the Iran nuclear issue will be lifted simultaneously with the completion by Iran of nuclear related activities addressing all key concerns,” and the list that follows includes “PMD.”
However, nothing was officially agreed on in Lausanne on how Iranian cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on the PMD issue would be linked to sanctions relief, according to the source close to the Iranian negotiators. But the source said that an informal understanding was reached that the linkage would involve the lifting of UN Security Council sanctions directly involving Iran’s imports for its nuclear and missile programs.
Iran is prepared to cooperate to complete the IAEA investigation of past allegations, the source said, but will demand concrete limits that provide assurances that the process will not be prolonged indefinitely.
Iran continues to insist that the evidence being used to impugn its intentions was “manufactured.” Nevertheless, Iran “would be ready to give access to the IAEA on PMD even though that goes beyond NPT [Nonproliferation Treaty],” the source told Truthout.
But the source said Iran would not agree to make the lifting of those UN sanctions contingent on any IAEA judgment about the PMD issue. Instead, Iran will demand a list in advance of everything the IAEA wants. “We would give the IAEA access to everything on the list,” said the source.
Once the IAEA completed its visits and its environmental sampling, however, Iran will consider that the process is finished. “We don’t care what the IAEA analysis would be or how long it took,” the source said. “What Iranians cannot accept is that [the PMD issue] becomes an indefinite instrument for theIsraelis, because they want to find out about Iranian capability and ask for this or that military site and a new inspection.”
The negotiations on the PMD-sanctions linkage will be part of a broader set of negotiations in which Iran will insist on a detailed set of arrangements on sanctions relief in return for each of its concessions in the agreement, according to the source. “Each of the elements listed in the US fact sheet must have a step-by-step plan with a timetable and proportionate reciprocation,” said the source.
Obama Under Pressure He Helped Create
The Obama administration has been under heavy pressure from the Israelis and their supporters in Washington to insist that Iran confess to having carried out nuclear weapons research and development as a condition for sanctions relief.
That pressure is the result of several years of news media coverage that has treated allegations that Iran carried out research and development on nuclear weapons, published by the IAEA in 2011, as established fact. The media have constantly repeated the theme that Iran has been “stonewalling” the IAEA to cover up its past nuclear weapons experiments.
Absent from the media narrative is the fact that the allegations that the IAEA is demanding that Iran explain are all based on intelligence that is now known to have come from Israel and which the IAEA itself suspected of being fabricated, from 2005 to 2009.
But the Obama administration itself helped to make PMD a hot button issue in American politics. It made Iran’s alleged refusal to cooperate with the IAEA investigation of the purported intelligence alleging an Iranian nuclear weapons research and development program the rationale for imposing punishing sanctions on Iran.
The administration has been wary of demanding an actual admission of guilt, which it knew was unrealistic, but it has been unwilling to completely dismiss the position of the Israelis and their followers either. Last November a “senior Western official” told Reuters that the United States and the other five powers would try to “be creative” in finding a formula to satisfy both those who were insisting that Iran must “come clean” about its nuclear past and those who said it was not realistic to expect a confession.
In an April 8 interview with Secretary of State John Kerry, the host of “PBS NewsHour” Judy Woodruff asserted that the IAEA wanted Iran to “disclose past military-related activities” but that Iran was “increasingly looking like it’s not going to do this.” Woodruff then asked, “Is the US prepared to accept that?”
Without challenging the premise that Iran is expected to “disclose past military activities,” Kerry responded, “No. They have to do it. It will be done.”
Fabricated Intelligence and IAEA Investigation
The George W. Bush administration pressed documents supposedly from the laptop computer of an Iran scientist involved in an Iranian nuclear weapons research program on the IAEA in mid-2005. But Mohamed ElBaradei, then IAEA director general, refused to regard the documents as legitimate evidence because they had never been authenticated, and Bush administration officials refused to answer questions about their origins. In his memoirs published in 2011, ElBaradei writes, “The problem was, no one knew if any of this was real.
Information now available shows that the documents were created in Israel. According to a senior German office official, those documents were given to Germany’s foreign intelligence service, the BND, in 2004 by the Mujahedin e-Khalq (MEK), the armed exile Iranian opposition group that had been an Israeli client organization for several years.
A popular Israeli history of the most successful covert operations by Israel’s Mossad, originally published in Hebrew in Israel, asserts that Mossad provided some of the documents to the MEK that later become the centerpiece of the case against Iran.
ElBaradei also reveals in his memoirs that the IAEA received another series of purported Iranian documents directly from Israel in summer 2009. Among them was a two-page document in Farsi describing a four-year program to produce a neutron initiator for a fission chain reaction. The former IAEA chief inspector in Iraq, Robert Kelley has recalled that ElBaradei found that document to be lacking credibility because it had no chain of custody, no identifiable source, and no official markings or anything else that could establish its authenticity. But ElBaradei’s successor as IAEA director general, Japanese diplomat Yukiya Amano, gave the IAEA’s imprimatur to the entire collection as well as the earlier set of documents in an annex to the November 2011 report. After his election, Amano assured US officials that he was “solidly in the US court” in his handling of the Iran file.
The IAEA has never revealed that Israel was the source of the latter set of documents. The IAEA justified its decision to keep the identity of the member states that provided intelligence secret by citing the alleged necessity to protect “sources and methods.” The decision to maintain silence on the source has served to shield both Israel and the IAEA itself from questions about the obvious political motives behind the purported intelligence.
The other major purported intelligence find published by the IAEA was the claim from Israel that Iran had installed a large steel explosives containment cylinder at its military base in Parchin in 2000 for nuclear weapons-related testing. But no corroborating evidence has ever been produced, and Robert Kelley has challenged the IAEA’s adoption of the Israeli intelligence claim on the grounds it was technically implausible.
Relations between Iran and the IAEA on cooperation over the PMD issue have gone through three major phases. In a series of meetings in early 2012, Iran and the IAEA were close to reaching agreement on a framework for Iranian cooperation. Iran agreed on an IAEA visit to Parchin, where the bomb test cylinder was said to have been located, as part of the process. But the talks broke down over the IAEA’s insistence that the investigation would never have an end point, and that the Agency would have the right to return to any question or site, even after Iran had provided the necessary access and other cooperation.
A second phase of relations began when Iran and the IAEA reached agreement on a “Framework for Cooperation” in February 2014. Iran agreed to provide information and access in regard to a list of PMD issues, starting with the “Exploding Bridgewire” (EBW) issue.
But after Iran provided documentary evidence to show that its research in the field was for its oil and gas industry and not for nuclear weapons, Amano refused to acknowledge publicly that Iran had discredited one of the arguments about the intelligence documents.
The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akhbar Salehi, claimed that the IAEA had promised in the agreement to close issues once Iran had provided required information, and the IAEA did not challenge his claim. Amano insisted, however, that the IAEA would not issue any assessment until it had completed its investigation of all of the issues.
Iran apparently concluded from that experience that the IAEA would keep Iran on the hook as long as the United States and its allies wanted to maintain leverage over Iran. The Obama administration has now confirmed that conclusion by holding the lifting of sanctions hostage to Iran’s “cooperation” on PMD.
US officials have never explained how they would expect Iran to satisfy the IAEA if the intelligence at issue was indeed fabricated.
That Secret Iranian ‘Nuclear Facility’ You Just Found? Not So Much.
Jeffrey Lewis, Foreign Policy, March 04 2015:… Iran’s most notorious dissident group loves luring gullible U.S. officials and journalists into seeing a bomb factory beneath every building in Tehran. Dig a little deeper, sheeple. On Tuesday, Feb. 24, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the political front for the “cult-like dissident group” known …
That Secret Iranian ‘Nuclear Facility’ You Just Found? Not So Much.
Iran’s most notorious dissident group loves luring gullible U.S. officials and journalists into seeing a bomb factory beneath every building in Tehran. Dig a little deeper, sheeple.
On Tuesday, Feb. 24, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the political front for the “cult-like dissident group” known as the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), revealed the location of what it claimed was an underground centrifuge facility in the suburbs of Tehran. The announcement was, evidently, intended to derail ongoing negotiations toward a diplomatic settlement over Tehran’s nuclear programs. The State Department spokeswoman stated, “Well, we don’t have any information at this time to support the conclusion of the report.”
That’s not quite the same thing as saying it’s a load of bullfeathers, but we’ll get there in due course. The story may be false, but it demonstrates both the culture of leaks in Washington and the way open-source information can challenge that culture.
This is not the first time that NCRI has organized a press conference with startling revelations about Iran’s nuclear program. The one everyone remembers was in 2002, when the group made the first public reference to the underground enrichment facility at Natanz. Reporting by folks like Mark Hibbs, however, suggests the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) already knew about the existence of the site. An intelligence agency simply may have laundered the information through NCRI. The group has more often gotten the story all wrong. For example, NCRI calls the new site Lavizan-3. For some reason, they don’t talk about Lavizan-2, which was a site they “revealed” in 2008, shortly after the United States released a National Intelligence Estimate stating that Iran had “halted” or paused its covert nuclear weapons program, in what was totally-not-a-coincidence.
But when I read NCRI’s latest dossier, I thought of a totally different case — one involving North Korea. During the late 1990s, there was growing opposition to the U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework, under which Pyongyang agreed to freeze plutonium production in exchange for heavy fuel oil and a new light-water reactor to be constructed in North Korea. In August 1998, a U.S. “official” told the New York Times’s David Sanger that satellite images showed North Korea constructing an underground nuclear reactor and reprocessing plant near Kumchang-ri. The Old Gray Lady ran the story under this restrained headline: NORTH KOREA SITE AN A-BOMB PLANT, U.S. AGENCIES SAY.
That wasn’t, strictly speaking, true. The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) thought Kumchang-ri might house a secret nuclear reactor. The rest were more skeptical. Jack Pritchard was an intelligence analyst at time. “Everybody threw up their hands and said we don’t know what it is, but we don’t have a better explanation,’’ he would later tell Dan Sneider of the San Jose Mercury News. The DIA couldn’t win consensus for its view within the government, so someone decided to appeal though the press. The U.S. intelligence community might not have collectively agreed that Kumchang-ri was an underground nuclear reactor, but that no longer mattered after the New York Times said otherwise. The Clinton administration was forced to negotiate access for a team of inspectors to the site, at considerable expense to U.S. taxpayers.
When the inspectors arrived, they could not determine the purpose of the site, but concluded that Kumchang-ri, laid out as a grid of tunnels, was “unsuitable” for a nuclear reactor and “not well designed” for a reprocessing facility. It was just a big, enigmatic hole in the ground. Still, the damage was done: The Clinton administration asked former Secretary of Defense William Perry to undertake a review of U.S. policy toward North Korea, motivated in part by Kumchang-ri and other allegations of North Korean cheating. Although there was a last-minute effort to re-engage with North Korea under something called the “Perry Process,” the Clinton administration ran out of time. George W. Bush’s administration undertook its own policy review once in office, but then shelved its “bold approach” after the U.S. intelligence community concluded that North Korea was pursuing a sizeable covert uranium enrichment program.
Much like the case of Kumchang-ri, there is every reason to think the latest allegations by NCRI represent a politically motivated effort to derail the engagement of Iran over its nuclear program.
Almost immediately, there were reasons to doubt NCRI’s claim. A review of commercial satellite images reveals no evidence of large-scale excavation or tunneling during the 2004-2008 period identified by NCRI. The site seems to lack a suitable transformer substation for electricity to power centrifuges or evidence of ventilation systems so workers underneath can breathe. (It turns out workers tend to insist on breathing.) And if Iran had excavated a massive 2,000-square-meter underground facility, where’d all the dirt go? It just doesn’t add up.
Moreover, the press release contained a number of details that were obviously fabricated. NCRI claimed that the facility had “3 by 3 m radiation proof doors that are 40 centimeters thick and weigh about 8 tons … to prevent radiation leak.” There is no reason for such doors at a uranium-enrichment facility, which is not subject to massive radiation leaks. Almost immediately, others were able to determine that the picture of the door released by NCRI was actually lifted from an Iranian commercial website. That detail is just balderdash, despite NCRI’s lame defense that the firm supplies doors to the Iranian nuclear industry.
The site that NCRI identified is, in fact, a facility operated by a firm called Matiran. NCRI described Matiran as a firm that produces identification documents, like passports, for the Iranian government. Helpfully, that’s how Matiran describes itself, as well. You may not have heard of it before — I had not — but its representatives attend international conferences and its employees post their CVs on social networking sites. The construction of the new facility roughly corresponds with Matiran’s successful bid to produce the new Iranian national identification card.
Hey, what do I know, but it seems unlikely that Iran has decided to double-up producing ID cards and enriching uranium at the same site.
But guess what? I found someone who’s been there. This illustration shows a “GPS trace” created by a European who visited the site in February 2013. (There is a cool project called “Open Street Map” which is like Google Maps meets Wikipedia.) The user traveled from a hotel in Tehran to the Matiran facility in question and uploaded the GPS trace of his route to Open Street Map. (He has since taken it down.) Despite claims by NCRI that the site is located within a “restricted military zone,” he took a car right into the site. Since the journey is time-stamped, we can tell he didn’t spend a bunch of time at checkpoints.
My colleague Paul-Anton Krüger, who writes for the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, and I contacted this person. His story checks out. Iran makes identification cards at the site. It also has a steady stream of foreign visitors. None of his colleagues saw anything out of the ordinary.
In addition to foreign firms working with Matiran, at least two international delegations have also visited the facility. Iran organized an October 2011 site visit by a delegation of National Civil Registration Organizations as part of a conference held in Tehran. Iran organized a second site visit, in April 2013, as part of a similar meeting. So there you have it: NCRI “found” a secret site producing identification cards that has been visited repeatedly by foreigners.
Somehow, not a single newspaper tried to contact any of these people. Carol Morello at the Washington Post wrote that NCRI’s claims “could not be independently verified.” Yeah, not unless you have a computer and an Internet connection.
This is not to suggest that the problem of covert enrichment sites in Iran is not a real concern. It is by far the biggest challenge facing any deal. Iran still maintains the remnants of its pre-2003 nuclear weapons program. (The enigmatic Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh has to have an office somewhere.) Moreover, Iran has been repeatedly caught attempting to build covert enrichment facilities. The details suggest Iran had no intention of declaring enrichment plants at Natanz or Fordow. And Iran still denies that a nearby site, referred to as Lavizan-Shian, housed a covert weapons program, despite the fact that Tehran bulldozed the site after the IAEA expressed interest, turning it into a park. At one point, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad openly discussed constructing as many as 10 new enrichment facilities at various locations.
So, yeah: Any new agreement with Iran is going to depend on some measure of confidence in the West’s ability to detect covert sites.
But this ain’t one of ‘em.
The Iranian government could, of course, invite one more delegation to a site visit, perhaps to serve them a working lunch of crow.
This was like old times for Krüger and me. He helped me debunk another suspected centrifuge plant back in 2011, when “officials” leaked information to the Associated Press suggesting that the IAEA suspected that Syria had an enrichment facility on the outskirts of Hasakah — one that was identical to plans for a centrifuge facility found in Libya, right down to the toilets.
Within a few days, however, I was able to determine that the site was actually a textile factory constructed by East Germany in the early 1980s. Both old satellite images and the Syrian company’s website helped establish its purpose. Krüger then actually tracked down the chief East German engineer and scored an interview. The facility was not a copy of a Libyan centrifuge facility. The Libyan facility, on the other hand, might have been disguised as an East German-built textile factory, many examples of which can be found in the Middle East. One wonders if it was designed by German business partners of Pakistan’s Dr. A. Q. Khan. My colleague Tamara Patton built a pretty cool 3-D model of the site, if you are interested.
The important thing is that open-source tools, plus a little investigative shoe leather, allowed us to quickly determine that the allegation was false. I was able to go through historical satellite photographs to determine the date of construction and find the firm’s website. I have never met Krüger in person, but we were able to collaborate over email. We killed off this particular rumor — and without Washington having to pay the local authorities millions of dollars’ worth of “aid” to get a look inside. You’re welcome, taxpayers!
Any agreement with Iran is destined to contend with a series of leaks like this. But let’s remember: The MEK and the United States have fundamentally different interests. The MEK highlights Iran’s nuclear programs — real, imagined, and downright fabricated — as a way to build support for regime change in Tehran. Hemming in the Iranian nuclear program through diplomacy removes one of the MEK’s most effective talking points in favor of bombing Iran. They won’t go down without a fight.
We can expect to hear more about Iran’s misdeeds ahead of any agreement, and as long as there is an agreement in place. It is probably too much to ask many journalists to fact-check their stories in advance. Even with the best of intentions, journalists operate under tight deadlines and the fear of being scooped by less cautious colleagues. (Ed. note: The author is not referring to the fine journalists at Foreign Policy.) But those of us in civil society can hold the MEK, comically bellicose pundits, and credulous journalists accountable in way that would have been impossible in 1998 when Kumchang-ri broke. (We can, however, ask them to run corrections with the same prominence as error-ridden alarmist stories.)
It really is a different world than in August 1998, when Google didn’t even exist. (Well, at least for another few weeks.) There are many reasons to hope that a nuclear deal with Tehran will prove more durable than the one with Pyongyang, one of which is the flood of open-source information. There is, today, an enormous amount of information that can help the public sort fact from fiction. It is really is just a matter of having skilled nongovernmental groups working in the public interest. There isn’t, at the moment, much funding available for this sort of work and only a few institutions really do it for nuclear issues, including the Institute for Science and International Security as well as my home institution, the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. But the important point, the one illustrated by the Hasakah Spinning Factory and now Matiran, is that, given a chance, we can sort fact from fiction, and at a modest cost.
John Glaser, Anti War, February 01 2014: … As recently as 2007, a State Department report warned that the MEK, retains “the capacity and will” to attack “Europe, the Middle East, the United States, Canada, and beyond.” Many experts, including current senior U.S. officials, believe that the MEK, backed by Israel, is the group responsible for assassinating Iran’s civilian nuclear scientists …
Hossein Mousavian, Tasnim News, February 01 2014: … He underlined that there are others, including certain Arab countries, the Zionist lobby and Israel as well as the terrorist Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO), that make all-out efforts to make sure that the agreement and negotiations will fail. Elsewhere, Mousavian commented on the foreign policy of Iranian President …
Jason Ditz, Anti War, January 29 2014: … bill that the Israel Lobby is so staunchly behind. The bill would violate the Iran deal by imposing new sanctions, and would effectively kill negotiations. While the depth of the MeK’s funding of this is, like much of their lobbying, strictly off-the-record (Gov. Dean openly refused to answer questions about how much he was paid for his statement), the group …
Economist (Print edition), January 18 2014: … the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), has been lobbying members of Congress to keep the pressure on Iran. So have members of the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran (often known by the Persian acronym MEK), a group with a violent past whose opposition to the Iranian regime has nonetheless earned it allies in Congress …