The International Atomic Energy Agency says its present objective regarding Iran is to try to determine whether the intelligence documents purportedly showing a covert Iranian nuclear weapons programme from 2001 to 2003 are authentic or not. The problem, according to its reports, is that Iran refuses to help clarify the issue.
But the IAEA has refused to acknowledge publicly significant evidence brought to its attention by Iran that the documents were fabricated, and has made little, if any, effort to test the authenticity of the intelligence documents or to question officials of the governments holding them, IPS has learned.
The agency has strongly suggested in its published reports that the documentation it is supposed to be investigating is credible, because it “appears to have been derived from multiple sources over different periods of time, is detailed in content and appears to be generally consistent”.
IAEA Safeguard Department chief Olli Heinonen signaled his de facto acceptance of the “alleged studies” documents when he presented an organisational chart of the purported secret nuclear weapons project based on the documents at a February 2008 “technical briefing” for member states.
Meanwhile, the IAEA has portrayed Iran as failing to respond adequately to the “substance” of the documents, asserting that it has focused only on their “style and format of presentation”.
In fact, however, Iran has submitted serious evidence that the documents are fraudulent. Iran’s permanent representative to the United Nations in Vienna, Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told us in an interview he had pointed out to a team of IAEA officials in a meeting on the documents in Tehran in spring 2008 that none of the supposedly top secret military documents had any security markings of any kind, and that purported letters from defence ministry officials lacked Iranian government seals.
Soltanieh recalled that he had made the same point “many times” in meetings of the Board of Governors since then. “No one ever challenged me,” said the ambassador.
The IAEA has never publicly acknowledged the problem of lack of security markings or official seals in the documents, omitting mention of the Iranian complaint on that issue from its reports. Its May 26, 2008 report said only that Iran had “stated, inter alia, that the documents were not complete and that their structure varied”.
But a senior official of the agency familiar with the Iran investigation, who spoke with us on condition that he would not be identified, confirmed that Soltanieh had indeed pointed out the lack of any security classification markings, and that he had been correct in doing so.
The “alleged studies” documents include purported correspondence between the overall “project leader” in Iran’s Defence Ministry and project heads on what would have been among the regime’s most sensitive military secrets.
Even though the official conceded that the lack of security markings could be considered damaging to the credibility of the documents, he defended the agency’s refusal to acknowledge the issue.
“It’s not a killer argument,” said the official.
The official suggested that the states that had provided the documents might claim that they had taken the markings out before passing them on to the IAEA. It is not clear, however, why an intelligence agency would want to remove from the documents markings that would be important in proving their authenticity.
“We don’t know whether the original letters were marked confidential or not,” he said, indicating that the IAEA had not questioned the United States and other states contributing documents on the absence of the confidential markings.
The IAEA’s apparent lack of concern about the absence of security markings and seals on the documents contrasts sharply with the IAEA’s investigation of the Niger uranium documents cited by the George W. Bush administration as justification for invading Iraq in 2002-2003.
In the Niger case, the agency concluded that the documents were fabricated based on a comparison of the “form, format, contents and signature” of the documents with other relevant correspondence, according to IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei’s Mar. 7, 2003 statement to the U.N. Security Council.
Iran has also provided the IAEA with evidence that the handwritten notes on a May 2003 letter, which supposedly link a private Iranian contractor to the “alleged studies”, were forged by an outside agency. The letter was from an engineering firm to the private company Kimia Maadan, which other documents in the collection identify as responsible for part of the alleged covert nuclear weapons programme called the “green salt project”.
The letter itself has nothing to do with any “green salt” project, but handwritten notes on the copy of the letter given to the IAEA by an unidentified government referred to individuals who are named in other intelligence documents as participants in the “alleged studies”, according to the latest IAEA report.
But the original letter, which Iran has provided to the IAEA, has no handwritten notes on it. Amb. Soltanieh recalled that he showed that original letter to an IAEA team led by the deputy director of IAEA’s Safeguards Department, Herman Nackaerts, in Tehran Jan. 22-23, 2008.
He said the IAEA team was able to compare the original document with the copy that they had been given as part of the alleged studies documents and that Nakaerts declared that his team accepted the authenticity of the original they were shown.
The IAEA confirmed in its Aug. 28, 2009 report that it had been given access to the original letter. But the report suggested that the existence of the original letter supports the authenticity of the alleged studies documents, because it “demonstrates a direct link between the relevant documentation and Iran”.
That argument appears to have deliberately conflated the original letter, which the agency admits has nothing to do with the alleged studies, and the copy with the allegedly incriminating handwritten notes on it.
The senior official sought to discredit the original letter by suggesting that the Iranians might have “whited out the handwritten notes”. But the official then offered an alternative theory, asserting that there were two original letters, one of which was kept by the sender, and that the handwritten notes had been found on the second original.
But the IAEA could have checked with the engineering firm that sent the letter to ascertain whether a second original exists and whether the Iranian government had obtained the letter from it.
The senior IAEA official gave no indication that the IAEA had done so.
Iranian officials have also claimed other inaccuracies in the documents, involving technical flaws and names of individuals who they say do not exist.
The IAEA has not referred in its reports to any specific efforts to subject the “alleged studies” documents to forensic tests or to get data about such tests from governments holding the documents.
The senior IAEA official recalled that Washington Post reporter Dafna Linzer had written that the documents had been sent to three different labs, and that two had said they were credible, whereas the third had expressed doubt about their authenticity.
But Linzer’s February 2006 story reported only that the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico had run computer simulations on the studies of a Shahab-3 reentry vehicle – which suggested that they were aimed at accommodating a nuclear weapon – and had concluded that none of the plans would have worked.
Contacted by phone last week, Linzer, now a senior reporter for the public interest journalism organisation Pro Publica, told us she had never reported that two other labs ran tests on the documents.
Linzer expressed doubt that any other national labs would have had the capabilities to do the kind of tests carried out at Sandia labs.
When asked if the IAEA had sought to obtain the Sandia simulation results, the official refused to comment, except to say, “Our people follow up.”
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.