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July 9, 2008

Did IAEA Revive Uranium Paper Issue Under Pressure?


by Gareth Porter

A 15-page paper on the process requirements for casting and machining of uranium metal into hemispherical forms – said to useful only for making the core of a nuclear weapon – has been raised by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in recent months as evidence of an alleged Iranian intention to built nuclear weapons.

The agency's May 26, 2008, report said that the IAEA's "overall assessment of the nature of Iran's nuclear program … requires, inter alia, an understanding of the role of the uranium metal document."

Two days later, the deputy director and head of the Safeguards Department of the IAEA, Olli Heinonen, was quoted by an anonymous diplomatic source in an AFP story as telling a closed door briefing of IAEA member states in Vienna that Iran's possession of the document was "alarming."

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) then referred in its draft congressional resolution calling for a blockade of Iran to Tehran's alleged "importation of designs to convert highly enriched uranium gas into metal and shape into the core of a nuclear weapon."

But the IAEA has long had information supporting the Iranian claim it never asked for the document and has never used it since Pakistan's A.Q. Khan network added it to a centrifuge purchase without any prior discussion. In fact, an IAEA report last November appeared to clear Iran from suspicion on the issue.

The revival of that issue in 2008 appears to reflect political pressure on the IAEA from the United States and its allies.

Iran admits having gotten the document from Pakistan's A.Q. Khan network when Iranian scientists obtained centrifuge designs from that group. But Iranian officials have contended from the beginning that its scientists never requested any such instructions, and that the Khan network suppliers threw the document into the deal when the Iranians purchased plans for P-1 centrifuges.

When scientists from the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) first met with the Khan network in Zurich in July 1987, they were given a handwritten one-page offer. The IAEA has described that offer, which was later turned over to it by Iran, as including a sample disassembled centrifuge, along with technical drawings and specifications for production, plans for a complete enrichment plant with 2,000 centrifuges, and auxiliary equipment for uranium re-conversion and casting.

Iran told the IAEA that the intermediaries had offered the re-conversion unit with casting equipment on their own initiative and that AEOI had neither requested nor received it.

The agency demanded that Iran turn over all documents pertaining to the Khan network offer and what was actually purchased. But Iran said it had no other documentary evidence relating to the 1987 offer, blaming the secretive management style of the AEOI at that time.

What the IAEA has not revealed in its reports, however, is that in January 2005, Iran allowed IAEA investigators to look through boxes of old AEOI files, according to a source close to the IAEA. During that search, the investigators came across the infamous 15-page "uranium metal document."

"As they were going through boxes of papers, it literally fell out," says the source.

Iranian officials explained that the document had been provided by the Khan network supplier when Iran purchased centrifuge blueprints at a meeting in Dubai in 1987 but insisted that Iran had not asked for it.

Had the document triggered a secret Iranian nuclear weapons project, it obviously would not have been left in files related to the centrifuge and enrichment plans for the IAEA to find. Far from Iran seeking to hide the document as incriminating, its atomic energy officials had apparently simply filed it away and forgotten it.

Although the Iranian officials refused to give up the actual document to the IAEA, during a January 2006 visit by IAEA officials, Iran allowed agency inspectors to "examine the document again and to place it under IAEA seal." That meant that IAEA inspectors could read it whenever they wanted, as the agency explained in February 2007.

Iran agreed to provide a copy of the document to the IAEA in November 2007.

In its Feb. 22, 2008, report, the IAEA suggested that it needed more information from Pakistan to resolve the issue. "The Agency is still waiting for a response from Pakistan on the circumstances of the delivery of this document," said the report, "in order to understand the full scope and content of the offer made by the network in 1987."

The agency's May 28, 2008, report confirmed that "an identical document exists in Pakistan" but provided no additional information on what had been learned about it. The same report asserted that the issue remains "outstanding."

However, contrary to the IAEA claim of ignorance about the "full scope and content" the 1987 offer, however, the IAEA actually had an extensive interview with the key Khan network figure present at the meeting with the Iranians in Dubai: Khan's chief financial officer, Buhari Sayed Abu Tahir.

Tahir was arrested in Malaysia in May 2004, and Heinonen and other IAEA officials obtained an account of the meeting in Dubai in an interview with Tahir in February 2005 – after the agency had become aware of the uranium metal document, according to the book The Nuclear Jihadist by journalists Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins.

That account was made available to Frantz and Collins, who detailed the history of the A.Q. Khan network. Frantz and Collins also obtained the account of the same meeting given by Iranian officials to the IAEA.

Although they quote Khan's salesmen as telling the Iranians how many atom bombs could be made annually from the uranium enrichment plant for which they were selling the plans, Frantz and Collins indicate that the Iranians did not ask for any plans relating to nuclear weapons manufacture.

Instead, the authors write that after agreeing on the price of the equipment and plans, Khan's men "sweetened the deal" by throwing in the uranium metal document.

The Khan network apparently added the uranium metal document as an afterthought in the hope of selling the Iranians on additional technology. The document only outlined procedural requirements for casting uranium into hemispheres, not the technical specifications that would have been necessary to carry out the operation, as the IAEA report of Nov. 18, 2005, noted.

Contrary to IAEA claims that it needs more information to clarify the significance of the uranium metal document, moreover, the agency's Nov. 15, 2007, report said the issue had been resolved to its satisfaction.

That report concluded, "Based on interviews with available Iranian officials and members of the supply network, limited documentation provided by Iran, and procurement information collected through the Agency's independent investigation, the Agency has concluded that Iran's statements are consistent with other information available to the Agency concerning Iran's acquisition of declared P-1 centrifuge enrichment technology in 1987."

The timing of the IAEA's decision in early 2008 to highlight the uranium metal document, after having previously indicated that it was resolved, suggests that it was the result of new political pressures on the agency. The new IAEA hard line on the issue came after Iran had provided new information that resolved the entire list of issues about the history of its nuclear program on which the IAEA had been raising doubts since 2003.

It also coincided with the introduction into the IAEA process on Iran of "alleged studies" of weaponization – documents whose authenticity has not verified by the agency and which it has not been allowed to share with Iran.

(Inter Press Service)

 

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  • Gareth Porter is a historian. His latest book is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (University of California Press).

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