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Western officials are leaking stories to the Associated Press and Reuters aimed at pressuring the outgoing chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, to include a summary of intelligence alleging that Iran has been actively pursuing work on nuclear weapons in the IAEA report due out this week.
The aim of the pressure for publication of the document appears to be to discredit the November 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the Iranian nuclear programme, which concluded that Iran had ended work on nuclear weapons in 2003.
The story by Reuters United Nations correspondent Louis Charbonneau reported that "several" officials from those states had said the IAEA has "credible information" suggesting that the U.S. intelligence estimate was "incorrect".
The issue of credibility of the NIE is particularly sensitive right now because the United States, Britain, France and Germany are anticipating tough negotiations with Russia and China on Iran’s nuclear program in early September.
The two parallel stories by Charbonneau and Associated Press correspondent George Jahn in Vienna, both published Aug. 20, show how news stories based on leaks from officials with a decided agenda, without any serious effort to provide an objective historical text or investigation of their accuracy, can seriously distort an issue.
Reflecting the hostile attitude of the quartet of Western governments and Israel toward ElBaradei, the stories suggested that ElBaradei has been guilty of a cover-up in refusing to publish information he has had since last September alleging that Iran has continued to pursue research on developing nuclear weapons.
Charbonneau referred without further analysis to U.S. and Israeli accusations that ElBaradei has deliberately underplayed the case against Iran to "undermine the U.S. sanctions drive".
Jahn explained ElBaradei’s refusal to publish the intelligence summary as the result of his eagerness to "avoid moves that could harden already massive Iranian intransigence on cooperating with the agency" and his worry that it would increase the chances of a U.S. or Israeli strike on Tehran’s nuclear sites.
He also suggested ElBaradei had made "barely disguised criticisms of U.S. policy" in the past and that some of his statements on Israel and Gaza were viewed by the West as "overtly political".
In fact, however, the tensions between ElBaradei and the George W. Bush administration were directly related to ElBaradei’s public declaration in March 2003 that the documents on alleged Iraqi efforts to obtain uranium from Niger – later known as the "Niger forgeries" – were not authentic, after he received no response from Washington to an earlier private warning to the White House.
Charbonneau quoted a "senior Western diplomat" as confirming that some of the information the four Western countries want published in the coming IAEA report relate to intelligence documents concerning an alleged Iranian nuclear weapons research program, which the IAEA has referred to as "alleged studies".
What the anti-ElBaradei coalition is now demanding, as Charbonneau’s report confirms, is that ElBaradei attach a report prepared by the IAEA safeguards department which reflects the slant of the quartet and Israel on the issue, as an "annex" to the coming report.
What AP and Reuters failed to report, however, is that there has long been a deep division within the IAEA between those who support the "alleged studies" documents, led by safeguards department chief Olli Heinonen, and those who have remained sceptical about their authenticity.
The doubts of the sceptics were reinforced, moreover, when new evidence came to light last year suggesting that some of the key documents were fabricated or doctored to support the accusation that Iran was working on nuclear weapons.
A Vienna-based diplomatic source close to the IAEA confides that the reason ElBaradei has never endorsed the "alleged studies" documents is that they have not met his rigorous standards of evidence.
The United States and other governments refused to give the documents to the IAEA, because ElBaradei had insisted that all the "alleged studies" documents should be shared with Iran and should be authenticated. U.S. officials, supported by Israel, argued that allowing Iran to study the documents carefully would compromise intelligence "sources and methods", according to a U.S.-based source who has been briefed on the matter.
The most important such document to be denied to the IAEA and Iran is a one-page letter from an Iranian engineering firm to an Iranian private company, Kimia Maadan, which is identified as having participated in the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons project.
The letter reportedly had handwritten notes on it referring to studies on the redesign of a missile reentry vehicle, and is thus a primary piece of evidence for the claim that the missile reentry documents were genuine.
However, Iran turned over to the IAEA a copy of the same May 2003 letter with no handwritten notes on it, as Heinonen confirmed in a February 2008 briefing for member states.
That suggested that the copy of the letter with handwriting on it was a fabrication done by an outside intelligence agency in order to prove that Iran was working on nuclear weapons.
There were other problems with the one-page flowsheets showing a plan for a "green salt" conversion facility, which were attributed to Kima Maadan and said to be part of the military-run nuclear weapons project.
According to a Feb. 22, 2008 IAEA report, Iran submitted documentary evidence to the IAEA showing that Kimia Maadan had been created in 2000 solely to plan and construct a uranium ore processing facility under contract with Iran’s civilian atomic energy agency, and that it was in financial difficulty when it closed its doors in 2003.
The IAEA, which had been investigating whether the company was working for the Iranian military, as charged by the United States and other Western countries, declared in its February 2008 report that it "considers this question no longer outstanding at this stage".
Furthermore, Iran pointed out that the flowsheets for a "green salt" conversion facility portrayed in the documents as done by Kimia Maadan have "technical errors", and IAEA safeguards director Heinonen conceded that point in his February 2008 briefing.
Questions had also been raised about the technical quality of the alleged Iranian designs for a missile reentry vehicle that was apparently aimed at accommodating a nuclear weapon. Experts at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico who ran computer simulations on the studies determined none of them would have worked, according to Washington Post investigative reporter Dafna Linzer in February 2006.
After the new information surfaced, some IAEA officials, including experts involved in the investigation, argued privately that the agency should now state publicly that it could not authenticate the documents, according to a Vienna-based source close to the IAEA.
The AP’s Jahn cited as further evidence of Iran’s intention to manufacture nuclear weapons its alleged refusal to cooperate on IAEA demands for more cameras at the Natanz enrichment facility. "Iran’s stonewalling of the agency on increased monitoring," he wrote, "has raised agency concerns that its experts might not be able to make sure that some of the enriched material produced at Natanz is not diverted for potential weapons use."
Unfortunately for that argument, however, IAEA officials revealed Aug. 20 that Iran had already agreed the previous week to allow increased IAEA monitoring of the Natanz enrichment facility through additional cameras.
GARETH PORTER is an investigative historian and journalist with Inter-Press Service specialising in U.S. 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.