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March 8, 2008

Operation Merlin II


by Gordon Prather

Well, here we go again. "Information" about Iran's alleged nuke weaponization program, turned over to the Secretariat of the International Atomic Energy Agency late last year, was presented last week to the IAEA Board of Governors by IAEA's Deputy Director-General Olli Heinonen.

Iran's Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh, who was present, was reportedly enraged that the presentation had been made at all, "forcefully" warning other Board Members "not to go down this path," since most of the allegations involved activities "not directly of a nuclear nature" and, therefore, were "outside the mandate of the IAEA."

In truth, the only "information" that was perhaps directly of a nuclear nature involved "fire sets," devices capable of supplying high-voltage, high-current pulses to multiple detonators, causing them to fire at predetermined times.

Which brings us to the report this week in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, entitled "Who leaked the details of a CIA-Mossad plot against Iran?"

You see, in January a federal grand jury issued a subpoena to James Risen, New York Times reporter for national security and intelligence affairs, and author of State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, which was published in 2006.

The grand jury wants to know Risen's sources for his revelations about a CIA covert program called Operation Merlin, among other things.

According to Risen, back in February 2000, the CIA (reportedly in collusion with Israeli intelligence and with the approval of President Clinton) sent a "Russian defector" to IAEA headquarters in Vienna with what Risen characterized as "blueprints for a nuclear bomb" with instructions to give them to the Iranian delegate to the IAEA.

"Nuclear bomb"?

Well, no.

"He [the Russian] held in his hands the knowledge needed to create a perfect implosion that could trigger a nuclear chain reaction inside a small spherical core. It was one of the greatest engineering secrets in the world, providing the solution to one of a handful of problems that separated nuclear powers such as the United States and Russia from rogue countries such as Iran that were desperate to join the nuclear club but had so far fallen short.

According to Risen, the Russian was actually "carrying technical designs for a TBA 480 high-voltage block " – otherwise known as a "fire set" – for a Russian-designed nuclear weapon.

Risen obviously doesn't know much about nuclear weapons.

A fire-set – although indispensable to the proper and timely operation of a multi-detonator spherical high-explosive implosion system – is hardly "one of the greatest engineering secrets in the world."

In fact, a fire-set is not even unique to nuclear weapons.

Ever seen movies of a deserted building being demolished, imploded by multiple well-timed explosions? How did they get those explosives to detonate at exactly the right time? They used a fire-set.

Now, back to the CIA-Mossad Operation Merlin "intelligence" of 2000. What did they hope to accomplish with it?

Well, Risen says the design – which was authentic – had been slightly altered, so that if "built to print" it wouldn't work. Risen says the CIA was providing the presumably stupid Iranians misinformation.

But what if CIA-Mossad hoped that the Iranians would at least put the Operation Merlin stuff into their files, perhaps even correcting the errors and building working prototypes, to be found by the IAEA at a later date, providing "evidence" that the Russians were helping the Iranians develop nuclear weapons?

Well, in the summer of 2003, Iran began negotiations with the IAEA on an Additional Protocol to Iran's basic Safeguards Agreement and in December not only signed the Additional Protocol, but volunteered to immediately adhere to it in advance of its ratification by the Iranian Parliament.

Now, according to the IAEA Statute even under a basic Safeguards Agreement, the Director-General and his designated inspectors "shall have access at all times to all places" in an IAEA member state as necessary "to account for [Safeguarded] source and special fissionable materials" and "to determine whether there is compliance with the undertaking against use in furtherance of any military purpose."

And, under an Additional Protocol, the authorities of IAEA inspectors are considerably enhanced, to go anywhere – effectively without advance notice – they have good reason to believe they need to go and to interview anyone they have good reason to believe they need to interview.

Now, when IAEA inspectors do determine – or have good reason to believe – that safeguarded materials have been used "in furtherance of any military purpose," they "shall" report such "non-compliance" to the Director-General, who "shall" thereupon transmit the report to the Board of Governors, the UN General Assembly and to the UN Security Council.

So, in the summer of 2005, someone was hurriedly rushed to Vienna to share some of the mind-boggling "intelligence" found on a laptop computer – reportedly obtained by the CIA in 2004 from some foreign intelligence agency, who allegedly obtained it from someone who stole it from a by-then deceased Iranian engineer – with Director-General ElBaradei and his IAEA Secretariat experts.

Last August, ElBaradei came to an "understanding" with Iran on a "work plan" for resolving outstanding "issues", some raised by the "smoking laptop" and only tangentially related to the implementation of Iran's Safeguards Agreement.

Then, last November, the NIC issued an update to its 2005 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities, wherein it was judged "with a high degree of confidence" that Iranian authorities had already halted, way back in 2003, before the CIA came into possession of the "smoking laptop," what the NIC still inexplicably characterized as a covert "nuclear weapons program."

Hence, on the eve of what was expected to be the issuance of the final IAEA report on that resolution of all outstanding issues, the National Council of Resistance on Iran – the "political arm" of a U.S. State Department designated "terrorist organization" – went public with highly inflammatory charges that Iran (a) had recently established a "new command and control center" at a military site at Mojdeh, a suburb of Tehran, for a program code-named Lavizan-2, and (b) was actively pursuing "production of nuclear warheads" at a military site at Khojir, code-named B1-Nori-8500.

So, what was in ElBaradei's report last month on Iran's compliance with its Safeguards Agreement?

"The Agency has been able to continue to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran.

"Iran has provided the Agency with access to declared nuclear material and has provided the required nuclear material accountancy reports in connection with declared nuclear material and activities."

Okay, how about the resolution of issues addressed in the "work plan" of last August?

"Iran has also responded to questions and provided clarifications and amplifications on the issues raised in the context of the work plan, with the exception of the alleged studies.

"The one major remaining issue relevant to the nature of Iran's nuclear program is the alleged studies on the "green salt" project, high explosives testing and the missile re-entry vehicle."

High explosives testing? You mean the Risen-CIA-Mossad "fire-set" stuff? The Operation Merlin stuff? Or is there an Operation Merlin II?

Well, it doesn't really matter, because ElBaradei goes on to remind the Board of their charter, their mandate.

"However, it should be noted that the Agency has not detected the use of nuclear material in connection with the alleged studies, nor does it have credible information in this regard."

So, Iran's Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh was right to "forcefully" warn other Board Members "not to go down this path," since most of the allegations involved activities "not directly of a nuclear nature" and were, therefore "outside the mandate of the IAEA."


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Physicist James Gordon Prather has served as a policy implementing official for national security-related technical matters in the Federal Energy Agency, the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Department of Energy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department of the Army. Dr. Prather also served as legislative assistant for national security affairs to U.S. Sen. Henry Bellmon, R-Okla. -- ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and member of the Senate Energy Committee and Appropriations Committee. Dr. Prather had earlier worked as a nuclear weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.

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