Ex-IAEA Official Uses Misleading Claims to Attack Iran Deal

Dr. Olli HeinonenDr. Olli Heinonen, the former deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, speaking at a Center for Strategic and International Studies conference. (Photo: CSIS)

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Foes of the US-Iran nuclear and sanctions agreement are alleging that the agreement’s system of verification is inadequate to detect Iranian cheating. Their arguments rely heavily on the assertions of Olli Heinonen, the former Deputy Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

A New York Times article published on July 22 cited Heinonen as the main authority challenging the Obama administration’s claims that the agreement “provides for airtight verification procedures.” But an investigation of Heinonen’s assertions reveals that they are either misleading or completely false.

Heinonen, now a fellow at the Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, has long had a personal interest in portraying Iran as carrying out covert nuclear weapon work. He began pushing that line as Safeguards Director as early as 2005.

Heinonen’s main argument against the Iran agreement’s verification system is that it would allow Iran too much time to remove evidence of illicit work before proposed inspection visits could be carried out. The agreement’s provision for disputes over IAEA requests for inspections of undeclared sites would allow up to 24 days before a disputed request for inspection that has been approved by a majority of the eight members of the Joint Commission created by the agreement must be carried out.

Heinonen did not claim that Iran could evade the agreement’s system for IAEA inspections to the extent that it could actually produce enriched uranium covertly, which had been the main argument made by many opponents of the agreement. He told The New York Times, “It is clear that a facility of sizable scale cannot simply be erased in three weeks’ time without leaving traces.”

Heinonen suggested, however, that Iran will be able to “pursue smaller-scale but still important nuclear work, such as manufacturing uranium components for a nuclear weapon,” according to The New York Times. “If it is on a small scale, they may be able to clear it out in 24 days,” he said.

In a presentation to the Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. on Friday, Heinonen said the equipment involved would not be heavy and could be removed easily, and if the IAEA requested an inspection of the site, “You would have four weeks to redecorate the room.”

But there are serious problems with Heinonen’s scenario involving the cleanup of a site after the manufacture of uranium components for a nuclear weapon. Such a process involves converting high enriched uranium from the enrichment process into metal, as the IAEA observed in its November 2011 report, and this process necessarily leaves a residue of enriched uranium particles. As Stephan Vogt, who heads the IAEA’s Environmental Sample Laboratory, declared in 2013, it would be extremely difficult to remove every particle of enriched uranium, despite whatever cleanup might be attempted. “You cannot get rid of them by cleaning, you cannot dilute them to the extent that we will not be able to pick them up,” Vogt said. “It is just a matter of time.” And Heinonen acknowledged to Reuters at the same time, “Complete sanitization is very difficult to achieve if nuclear materials were actually used.”

Furthermore, any effort by Iran to manufacture parts for a bomb would suggest that it has already completed all the other steps necessary to have a nuclear weapon. By then it would be too late to do anything about it, as R. Scott Kemp, assistant professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, pointed out in an email. “By the time weapon components are being fabricated,” he said, “only a handful of days are left and any international response would be effectively moot.”

In any case, Heinonen’s premise that Iran is waiting for the opportunity to manufacture nuclear weapons parts is contradicted by Iran’s behavior for the last several years, during which it could have enriched uranium sufficiently for a bomb, but has instead chosen to limit its enrichment and then agreed to reduce it sharply.

In testimony before the House Financial Services Committee last week, Heinonen claimed such a cleanup of an Iranian site to frustrate IAEA inspection had occurred in 2003 and had “left no traces to be detected through environmental sampling.”

But the one documented case of Iranian efforts to defeat environmental sampling through cleanup of a site, which did occur in 2003, contradicts that claim as well. It involved an effort by Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization to remove all traces of the introduction of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) into centrifuges at Kalaye Electric Company by putting in a new floor and painting the walls. And contrary to Heinonen’s claim that the cleanup left nothing that could be detected by environmental sampling, the IAEA did detect the uranium particles. The IAEA’s laboratory was capable of identifying uranium down to one trillionth of a gram.

Another objection Heinonen raised in his congressional testimony is that some of the US negotiating partners might not find the rationale for a particular IAEA request for an inspection persuasive. “What happens when a situation arises when ‘evidence’ provided does not meet the standards of all of the P5+1 members?” he asked. He expressed the fear that “the bar will be set substantially high to begin with, that may not allow for ‘gray’ areas where intelligence may not be foolproof but sufficient suspicion remain nonetheless.”

Heinonen’s concern about rejection of requests based on “suspicion” is undoubtedly related to the fact both Heinonen and his predecessor as Director of Safeguard, Pierre Goldschmidt, applied a standard for requesting inspections that assumed that mere suspicion was sufficient. That much is evident in the IAEA’s first request for an inspection at Parchin military base in 2004, at the insistence of US Undersecretary of State John Bolton.

The Safeguards Department submitted a document to Iran justifying an IAEA request to visit Parchin, dated October 22, 2004, one page of which was provided to this writer in September 2014 by an Iranian official who had been involved in the Parchin request. The document said the IAEA wanted to visit certain buildings with features similar to a building at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, UK that housed high-speed camera and flash X-ray photography. The implication was that the possible presence of such equipment would be indicative of possible work on nuclear weapons at Parchin.

However, those technologies are standard equipment for conventional weapons testing by militaries everywhere in the world. That reasoning would constitute a potential justification for requesting access to any Iranian conventional weapons testing facilities.

Heinonen’s credibility as a source on alleged Iranian efforts to cheat in a nuclear agreement was further undermined by his claim in a paper published by the right-wing U.K.-based Henry Jackson Society last year that the Arak reactor, which is to be used to produce medical isotopes, could be used as the basis for a covert weapons program. It could do so only if Iran had a plant for processing plutonium, which it had pledged not to build. But Heinonen said Iran could covertly build “a small reprocessing plant” that “could be difficult to detect.” He cited as the source for that sweeping conclusion a paper published by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in 2005.

But the paper he cited, “Nuclear Proliferation Trends Analysis Trends Analysis,” which was provided to the author by PNNL, reached no such a conclusion, nor did it provide any evidence to support it. In fact, it noted that a North Korean reprocessing facility under construction had been detected in 1987. It concluded that, “In the current atmosphere of non-proliferation, ten years would be very optimistic” for a country trying to build a reprocessing plant without foreign assistance.

The opponents of the Iran nuclear agreement have sought to exploit Heinonen’s past position to give credibility to their argument that Iran can use the terms of the agreement to cheat. But the pattern of false and misleading statements by Heinonen indicates that it is going to be difficult to make that argument without stumbling over the facts.