The most important intelligence documents used to argue that Iran had a covert nuclear weapons research and development programme in 2003 – a set of technical drawings of efforts to fit what appears to be a nuclear payload into the reentry vehicle of Iran’s medium-range ballistic missile, the Shahab-3 – turn out to have a fatal flaw: the drawings depict a reentry vehicle that had already been abandoned by the Iranian missile programme in favour of an improved model.
The reentry vehicle or warhead shown in the schematics had the familiar "dunce cap" shape of the original North Korean No Dong missile, an IPS investigation has confirmed. But when Iran had 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 Iranian missile.
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 programme.
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 reentry 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 No Dong 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for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, explained the anomaly of an outdated warhead being shown in the schematics by suggesting that the group which had done the schematics had no relationship with Iranian missile programme.
"It looks from that information that 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 programme. "It was not working with the missile programme."
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 Mar. 3, 2003 "seeking assistance with the prompt transfer of data" for the work on redesigning the reentry vehicle.
Shahid Hemat, which is part of the military’s Defence Industries Organisation, 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 U.S. news media.
Heinonen acknowledged in a subsequent interview that the programme portrayed in the intelligence documents in question would have had to rely on the Iranian missile programme to obtain basic data on the dimensions of the Shahab-3/No Dong missile.
Heinonen also argued in an interview that the engineers working for the purported covert nuclear weapons programme could have been ordered to redesign the older Shahab-3 model before the decision was made by the missile programme to switch to a newer model, and could not change the work plan once it was decided.
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 organise a project to redesign the warhead on its intermediate range ballistic missile to accommodate a nuclear payload but keep the project 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 kilometres, 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 reentry vehicle could not have known that Iran had abandoned the Shahab-3 in favour of the more advanced Ghadr-1 until after mid-August 2004. The Aug. 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 which fabricated the documents realised 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 U.S. 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 reentry schematics in question were part of a collection of intelligence documents obtained by the U.S. government from an unknown source in 2004. Media stories in 2005 and 2006, based on briefings by U.S. 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 nuclear weapons programme.
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 programme had not been provided to U.S. 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 June 2010.
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 information."
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.