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October 7, 2008

Iran, the IAEA, and the Laptop


Where is the digital chain of custody?

by Muhammad Sahimi

In August 2002, the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an armed Iranian opposition group listed by the State Department as a terrorist organization but supported by the neoconservatives within and without the Pentagon, provided the first concrete evidence of the existence of Iran's uranium enrichment facility in Natanz. In February 2003, Iran formally declared the existence of the facility to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Since then, Iran's nuclear facilities and program have undergone the most intrusive and time-consuming inspections in the history of the IAEA, including from October 2003-February 2006, when Iran voluntarily implemented the provisions of the Additional Protocol of its Safeguards (SG) Agreement with the IAEA, which it had signed but not ratified.

Despite the intrusive inspections and intense propaganda, which consisted mostly of lies, exaggerations, half-truths, and dire predictions by the neoconservatives, the War Party, and the Israel Lobby, the IAEA could identify only a few breaches of Iran's SG Agreement – none serious – and what ultimately turned out to be non-issues altogether.

According to Iran's SG Agreement, a breach happens when Iran

  1. Receives nuclear materials and/or technology without declaring them to the IAEA, and
  2. Carries out secret experiments with its declared or undeclared nuclear materials.

Iran has acknowledged breaching its SG Agreement by failing to report to the Agency the following activities:

  • In February 2003 Iran acknowledged that in 1991 it imported from China 1800 kg of uranium compounds, and that it used some of them in experiments to test its conversion processes.
  • In October 2003 Iran acknowledged that it had used a small amount of its imported uranium hexafluoride (UF6) in the P1 centrifuges at its centrifuge workshop. Up to 19 centrifuges had been used.Note that the establishment of the centrifuge workshop is not, by itself, a breach of the SG Agreement. In fact, so long as nuclear materials have not been introduced into the centrifuges, even their manufacturing does not concern the IAEA.
  • Iran acknowledged that from 1989-1993 it carried out experiments that produced polonium-210, a highly radioactive but unstable material with a short half-life. While polonium-210 does have civilian applications (such as radioisotope batteries), it can theoretically be used for initiating the fission chain reactions that result in a nuclear explosion. Due to its instability, however, polonium-210 is not used for this purpose.
  • Iran acknowledged importing in 1993 50 kg of natural uranium metal and using 30 kg of it for experimenting with atomic vapor laser isotope separation. Note that, it was the U.S. in the 1970s that suggested to Iran the idea of uranium enrichment by lasers, and sold it four laser instruments in 1978, only a few months before the Iranian Revolution.
  • Between 1988 and 1993 Iran carried out experiments on plutonium separation, using very small amounts of uranium oxide (UO2).

    In addition, there were certain other contentious issues between Iran and the IAEA that turned to be non-issues:

    1. The past and current administration of Iran's Gechin uranium mine and mill (near Bandar Abbas in southern Iran). The IAEA was concerned about secret use of uranium from the mine by Iran's military.
    2. Procurement of certain equipment, with potential nuclear applications, and their use by researchers at Sharif University of Technology, one of Iran's top universities.
    3. The source of nuclear contamination at a physics research laboratory in Lavisan-Shian near Tehran.
    4. The procurement activities of the former head of the same physics research laboratory. The IAEA was concerned that he had been used as a cover for clandestine nuclear activities.
    5. Iran's possession of a 15-page document that described the procedures for converting UF6 into uranium metal and casting and machining enriched uranium metal into hemispheres, suitable for a nuclear weapon.

    So, though it may seem that Iran was in deep trouble with the IAEA, it certainly was not. The Iranians turned out to be more truthful than George Bush, Dick Cheney, and the neocons. In its Feb. 22, 2008, report to the Board of Governors of the IAEA, the Agency declared satisfactory resolution of all the above issues and non-issues.

    For example, Iran had contended that the 15-page document had been provided by A. Q. Khan with the design for the P1 centrifuges in 1987, as a sweetener for future deals, without Iran asking for it. After checking with Pakistan, the IAEA confirmed Iran's contention.

    Regarding the contamination issue, which the neocons and the Israel Lobby had declared as the missing "smoking gun," the IAEA environmental sampling and tests confirmed Iran's explanation that they had been brought into the country by the imported centrifuge parts. The IAEA declared that its analysis "tends, on balance, to support Iran's statement."

    Documents From the Stolen Laptop

    Given the February 2008 report, it would have been reasonable to expect that Iran's case before the Board of Governors, and even the United Nations Security Council, would be closed. Absolutely not! The U.S. and its European allies have no intention of letting Iran off the hook, even when they have nothing to press it with.

    It has been a pattern that each time the IAEA declares its satisfaction with Iran's explanations for any issue, new allegations and questions are raised, and Iran's response to them is declared "urgent" and its timing a "defining moment." This time was no exception.

    After declaring its satisfaction with all the above issues and non-issues, Olli Heinonen, the IAEA's deputy director general of safeguards – a man who has a reputation inconsistent with impartiality and objectivity – presented a briefing to the Board of Governors in Vienna in which he presented a dark view of Iran's nuclear program under the guise of "Agency Evaluation," as if his employer had not just declared its satisfaction with the resolution of many issues that, up until then, had been considered "crucial" and "critical." In fact, there are persistent rumors about tension between Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA's director-general, and his SG experts.

    Heinonen spoke about three supposedly secret projects: Project 5 for converting UO2 to "green salt" (so named due to its color and smell) or uranium tetrafluoride (UF4), an intermediate compound in the conversion of uranium ore to gaseous UF6; Projects 110 and 111 for the design of device and re-entry vehicle for a missile; and Project 3.12 for testing high-power explosives. They were supposedly led by Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a 40-year-old physicist, not a nuclear engineer as has been reported in the West, who received his Ph.D. from Shiraz University in southern Iran and works openly in physics research institutes in Tehran. The same type of accusations was repeated in the IAEA's reports presented to the Board of Governors on May 26, 2008, and Sept. 15, 2008.

    What was the source of the new "information" and "data" that Heinonen was talking about? A laptop that had been purportedly stolen in Iran, taken out of the country, and made available to Western intelligence agencies in Turkey. Iran's MEK has been given credit for the theft.

    But the existence of the laptop has been known since 2004. The first time there was any indirect reference to it was on Nov. 17, 2004, when, in a conversation with reporters, then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell briefly referred to "new, missile-related" intelligence on Iran.

    Shortly thereafter, articles were published in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times about the laptop they claimed contained the "smoking gun" for Iran's (nonexistent) nuclear weapon program. Journalist Gareth Porter cited reports that the laptop had been given to the MEK by Israel.

    My own information indicates that, because the MEK is completely discredited in Iran, Israel's first preference was for the laptop to be publicized by Iran's monarchist opposition groups (which are supported by Iranian Jews in the U.S. and Europe), but that they had refused to go along (some of the most senior statesmen among the Iranian monarchists actually support Iran's nuclear program).

    In July 2005, the Bush administration began exerting pressure on the United Nations to take action against Iran and, as part of its concerted efforts, it briefed Dr. ElBaradei on the contents of the laptop on July 18. But then the U.S. stopped pressing the issue.

    Most experts have cast doubt on the authenticity of the laptop's documents. A senior European diplomat was quoted by the New York Times' William J. Broad and David E. Sanger in a Nov. 13, 2005, article as saying, "I can fabricate that data. It looks beautiful, but is open to doubt." Another European official said, "Yeah, so what? How do you know what you're shown on a slide is true, given past experience?"

    A senior intelligence official was quoted as saying, "It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that beautiful pictures represent reality, but that may not be the case." Another U.S. official was quoted as saying, "Even with the best intelligence, you always ask yourself, 'was this prepared for my eyes?'" Julian Borger of the Guardian quoted an IAEA official as saying "there is some doubt over the provenance of the computer."

    Commenting on the New York Times article, David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington said that "the information [in the laptop's documents] actually describes a reentry vehicle for a missile. This distinction is not minor. The information does not contain any words such as nuclear or nuclear warhead. The 'black box' carried by the reentry vehicle may appear to be a nuclear warhead, but the documents do not state what the warhead is." In other words, even if the documents are authentic, they do not prove anything about the existence of a secret nuclear weapon program in Iran. The New York Times refused to publish Albright's rebuttal of the claims made in the article by Broad and Sanger.

    Aside from the above experts' opinions, there are many reasons to believe that the documents are not authentic.

    1. Anyone with even rudimentary knowledge of how the Iranian political establishment works knows that often even the most harmless documents are classified as "top secret." Yet none of the documents had been designated as such.
    2. As Borger of the Guardian reported, all the documents are in English, without any Persian notes. That is odd for a country where the official language is Persian, and many do not know much English. Why had the documents not been translated?
    3. If the documents include exchanges between various officials, then anyone with even elementary knowledge of the workings of the Iranian bureaucracy knows that, once a document is received by some official, he writes (in Persian) in the margins in his own hand "received," and signs and dates it. Do the documents have such notes?
    4. Why would the documents name the projects' leader, Dr. Fakhrizadeh? Iran has had experience with the murder of prominent people in its missile program. In July 2001, Col. Ali Mahmoudi Mimand, known as the father of Iran's missile program, was found dead in his office. After the laptop was supposedly smuggled out of Iran, Dr. Ardeshir Hassanpour, a prominent and award-winning figure in Iran's nuclear program, was murdered on Jan. 15, 2007. Stratfor.com reported that Israel's Mossad had murdered Dr. Hassanpour. We also know that a large number of Iraqi nuclear scientists have either disappeared or been killed. Why does a man like Dr. Fakhrizadeh, who supposedly knows so much of Iran's secrets, work and appear in public so freely?
    5. Why could Iran not hide such documents? This is a nation that could hide the development of its extensive uranium enrichment program for 18 years. Iran is also a nation with a thousand-year culture of writing in coded language.
    6. Why would such sensitive documents be put on a laptop? Even then, why was the laptop not at a secure place with very tight control, given the degree of secrecy that the Iranian government applies to all of its affairs?
    7. Iran's Ministry of Intelligence (MI) is known in the Middle East as a ruthless and extremely efficient organization. If the laptop with all the sensitive documents had been stolen, its absence should have been noticed almost immediately. In that case, Iran's MI should have been able to at least trace back the events in order to identify the person who stole the laptop. There has never been a report in Iran about the discovery of such a spy.
    8. If the documents were authentic, then, given that some time after the laptop had been stolen, the Iranian officials knew that they would be confronted with the documents, they should have been able to prepare reasonable and plausible explanations for the documents. After all, as noticed above, Iran provided satisfactory answers to all the issues and non-issues listed above. Yet Iran's only response so far has been that the documents are forgeries.
    9. Some of the documents describe and discuss issues that can be found in the open literature. Some others have to do with Iran's conventional arms industry, which Iran has readily admitted and talked about. Therefore, it would be easy to copy such documents, or create some based on the available information.
    10. Why would Iran have a separate project for the green salt when it has openly, and under the IAEA's Safeguards, established the uranium conversion facility in Isfahan that produces the same uranium compounds?
    11. Even if some of the documents are authentic, how do we know that, for example, they are not just indicative of Iran's efforts for its missile program?
    12. If the documents contain such devastating information, why did the U.S. and its allies wait four years to confront Iran? After all, the documents seem to provide the long-missing "smoking gun." In fact, at first the U.S. made much noise about the laptop, and asked for and convened an emergency meeting of the Board of Governors of the IAEA in January 2006. But then it stopped crying "wolf."
    13. The contention is that the laptop was stolen by a member of the MEK. However, it is practically impossible for the MEK to be able to penetrate the Iranian government at such a sensitive level. After the MEK started its armed opposition to the Islamic Republic in June 1981 and assassinated many top government officials, its member were ruthlessly eliminated from all levels of Iran's bureaucracy.

    Digital Chain of Custody

    Although very difficult, if not impossible, one might argue that one can find plausible answers to the above questions. However, one crucial piece of information about the laptop and its contents can shed definitive light on the authenticity of the documents. This is the documents' digital chain of custody, which has not been discussed or mentioned. It is defined as "An account documenting data at a particular place and time." It is a technique by which one can trace back electronically stored documents on a computer to their original source – the electronic source from which they were copied, or when and how the documents were uploaded electronically, etc. If done in a forensically sound manner, it will generate a digital fingerprint. Then, a credible forensic test can reveal when or how different versions of the documents were created.

    Therefore, it should not be difficult to analyze the digital chain of custody of the laptop's documents, in order to better understand their original source. That would settle at once the question of the documents' authenticity. Iran has asked to see the laptop in order to analyze it, but the IAEA has responded that its source does not allow that.

    Dr. ElBaradei has said repeatedly that the IAEA is bound to "follow due process, which means I need to establish the veracity, consistency, and authenticity of any intelligence, and share it with the country of concern." But once again, in Iran's case this established procedure has not been followed. Iran has not even been presented with an analysis of the digital chain of custody of the documents, indicating their authenticity. Yet it is being pressed to respond to charges of doubtful legitimacy.

     

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