What Is the Quality of Scientific Evidence Against Iran?

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This week the P5+1 and Iranian officials meet again to try to narrow differences over a comprehensive nuclear deal, which is to last for an as-yet unknown duration. Reaching an agreement will be a challenging task because Iran and P5+1 seem to disagree – among other things – about the enrichment capacity Iran should be allowed during the (unknown) term of the comprehensive deal.

According to the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) limits on Iran’s enrichment capacity are important because they would lengthen the time needed for Iran to “breakout” and quickly enrich uranium to weapons-grade in any hypothetical race to a uranium-based device.

But Jeffrey Lewis of the Monterey Institute has suggested that such limits are meaningless, saying, “This is completely wrong. Breakout is precisely the wrong measure of whether a deal is successful,” because the Iranians – goes the argument – could use a covert facility to breakout if they wanted to do that.

Instead, intensive verification and intrusive inspections above and beyond what is codified in international law by the so-called “Additional Protocol” have been suggested to try to address this fear.

Amid this debate within the nonproliferation community, Gareth Porter last week poked a hornet’s nest by suggesting that key evidence against Iran was fabricated and distributed by Iran’s adversaries Israel and the MEK group.

This is not the first time someone has claimed that forged evidence was being used by the IAEA in its case against Iran: highly respected experts have warned about this before.

In a separate report last week, Mr. Porter assesses that David Albright, the founder and executive director of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in Washington, DC, a prominent commentator on nonproliferation and Iran’s nuclear program has embraced an alarmist line on the Iran issue – despite his knowledge that there were serious problems with the evidence on which it was based.

My intention here isn’t to evaluate the specific items of evidence presented in Mr. Porter’s reports but to weigh in with my own expert analysis – some of it done in collaboration with Dr. Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress of the Monterey Institute – of the quality of the evidence against Iran.

By way of context, Iran has never been formally accused of manufacturing nuclear weapons. The IAEA did determine that Iran was in “non-compliance” with its safeguards agreement in 2005. But this had to do with technical nuclear material accountancy matters — “non-compliance” does not mean Iran was making nuclear weapons. For example, South Korea and Egypt both violated their safeguards agreements in 2004 and 2005. But these U.S. allies were never even referred to the UN Security Council — let alone targeted for sanctions. Pierre Goldschmidt, a former deputy director of safeguards at the IAEA, has noted the “danger of setting bad precedents based on arbitrary criteria or judgments informed by political considerations” at the IAEA.

It is not always easy to obtain access to the actual evidence being used against Iran, but occasionally some is leaked to the press and is amenable to scientific scrutiny. Below, I list some of this evidence being used against Iran, as well some historical record of the group(s) making the allegations:

1. An indication into the quality – or, rather, lack thereof – of the evidence against Iran comes from my analysis (done with another physicist, Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress of the Monterey Institute) of the graphs published by the Associated Press purporting to show an Iranian interest in modeling a nuclear explosion. Aside from the fact that there is nothing illegal with doing such theoretical modeling, our analysis showed that there was a large numerical error in the graph and that the time-scale of the explosion was wrong.

We concluded that the AP graphs were either shoddy science and/or simply amateurish forgeries.

2. In February 2013, the Washington Post published a story that “purchase orders obtained by nuclear researchers show an attempt by Iranian agents to buy 100,000 … ring-shaped magnets” and that such “highly specialized magnets used in centrifuge machines … [are] a sign that the country may be planning a major expansion of its nuclear program.” As evidence, the Post’s Joby Warrick cited a report authored by David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS).

As I outlined in the The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists at the time, the ring-magnet story was exaggerated and inaccurate.

The Washington Post’s ombudsman eventually got involved and his report is appended below (the cc field has been x’ed out as it mentions the emails of editors & others):

From: Patrick Pexton [pextonp@washpost.com]
Sent: Monday, February 25, 2013 2:25 PM
To: Butt, Yousaf Mahmood
Cc: xxxx,xxxx,xxxx,xxxx

Subject: RE: Response from ombudsman

Hello everyone.

I’ve read everything that Mr. Butt referred me to, and Joby’s story.

A couple of things trouble me. Language like “place the order” doesn’t seem borne out by the nature of those notes that ISIS included copies of in the PDF. It certainly looks like that Iranian company is looking to buy magnets, but I’m not sure I would say “place the order” or “new orders” based on that evidence. And that there is no evidence that a purchase actually went through, as Joby wrote, correct? And there is no date, other than mentioned in the story “about a year ago.” That’s pretty vague, and Iran since then has made some moves, as Joby reported, such as converting some enriched uranium into metal, that suggest it might be listening to international concerns.

Is Joby persuaded that these magnets could only be used for centrifuges? Could Mr. Butt be correct that they could be used for other things and Iran would have the industrial and economic demand for them as speaker magnets or what have you? And how would these magnets, if they were intended for use in centrifuges, play in to the damaged caused by stuxnet, in which many of the first generation Iranian centrifuges were damaged?

Just before nuclear talks get underway I am always suspicious of stories that suddenly surface that seem to reinforce the narrative that Iran is building nuclear weapons.

Last July, Joby had the story on the potential increasing threat of the Iranian Navy against the U.S. Navy. Nowhere in that story was there anything about the economic sanctions that many defense experts say are hurting the Iranian military deeply.

I’ve been on some 60 U.S. Navy ships, iincluding five or six carrier battle groups underway. The planes and helicopters that circle in the air above battle groups have considerable surveillance- and fire power. So do U.s. attack submarines who patrol with the battle groups. The new littoral combat ships have plenty of ability to attack shoreline installations in minutes. That is a formidable array of offensive capability

Of course we should always be vigilant and pay attention to information that comes to us, and report it out. But neither do we want to overstate any threat from any enemy, real or potential.

Thanks for your time.


Patrick B. Pexton
The Washington Post
cell 202 738-3672

Lastly, LobeLog requested a Q&A on the subject which was published and stands as the final word on the matter of the alleged ring magnet web-inquiry.

3. A lot has been written about the Parchin military base in Iran by David Albright’s and his group at ISIS. However, SIPRI published an expert report by Robert Kelley contesting almost everything asserted by ISIS regarding the Parchin base.

Kelley is a true authority on such matters, being a nuclear engineer and a veteran of over 35 years in the US nuclear weapons complex, most recently at Los Alamos. He managed the centrifuge and plutonium metallurgy programs at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and was seconded by the US DOE to the IAEA where he served twice as a Director in the nuclear inspections in Iraq, in 1992-1993 and 2002-2003. He is currently an Associate Senior Research Fellow at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Most importantly, the SIPRI report says that the paving work at Parchin would not completely hide any alleged contamination because there is an area west of the building of interest that remains untouched. And, in any case, the important samples in such a test would come from within buildings not outside on the ground.

Let’s also recall that the IAEA has already visited Parchin twice in 2005 and found nothing – although they did not go to the specific area they are now interested in. However, the IAEA could have gone to that area even in 2005 – they simply chose to go to other sites on the military base. As the IAEA report at the time summarized:

“The Agency was given free access to those buildings and their surroundings and was allowed to take environmental samples, the results of which did not indicate the presence of nuclear material, nor did the Agency see any relevant dual use equipment or materials in the locations visited.”

When the IAEA last went to Parchin, Olli Heinonen was head of IAEA safeguards and led the inspections – the methodology for choosing which buildings to inspect is described in an excellent Christian Science Monitor article which is worth reading in its entirety, but I quote the relevant bits:

“At the time, it[Parchin] was divided into four geographical sectors by the Iranians. Using satellite and other data, inspectors were allowed by the Iranians to choose any sector, and then to visit any building inside that sector. Those 2005 inspections included more than five buildings each, and soil and environmental sampling. They yielded nothing suspicious, but did not include the building now of interest to the IAEA.

“The selection [of target buildings] did not take place in advance, it took place just when we arrived, so all of Parchin was available,” recalls Heinonen, who led those past inspections. “When we drove there and arrived, we told them which building.”

In the same article Heinonen also explains why the current IAEA approach is deeply, logically flawed:

“Also unusual is how open and specific the IAEA has been about what exactly it wants to see, which could yield doubts about the credibility of any eventual inspection.

“I’m puzzled that the IAEA wants to in this case specify the building in advance, because you end up with this awkward situation,” says Olli Heinonen, the IAEA’s head of safeguards until mid-2010.

“First of all, if it gets delayed it can be sanitized. And it’s not very good for Iran. Let’s assume [inspectors] finally get there and they find nothing. People will say, ‘Oh, it’s because Iran has sanitized it,’” says Mr. Heinonen, who is now at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. “But in reality it may have not been sanitized. Iran is also a loser in that case. I don’t know why [the IAEA] approach it this way, which was not a standard practice…”

Hans Blix, former chief of the IAEA and later of UN weapons inspectors in Iraq, has also expressed surprise at the focus on Parchin, as a military base that inspectors had been to before.

“Any country, I think, would be rather reluctant to let international inspectors to go anywhere in a military site,” Mr. Blix told Al Jazeera English… “In a way, the Iranians have been more open than most other countries would be.”

One of the reasons that Mr. Blix says that is because normally the IAEA does not have the legal authority to inspect undeclared non-nuclear-materials related facilities, in a nation – like Iran — that has not ratified the Additional Protocol.

The IAEA can call for “special inspections” but they have not done so. They can also choose arbitration, as specified in the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, but again they have not done that.

So Iran has been more cooperative than they have needed to be in already allowing inspections of Parchin.

Regarding reports (e.g. from the ISIS group ) that Iran may be sanitizing the site, perhaps to prevent the IAEA from detecting uranium contamination, Kelley explicitly states in the SIPRI report mentioned above:

“Iran has engaged in large-scale bulldozing operations on about 25 hectares near the Parchin building. This includes the bulldozing of old dirt piles to level a field 500 metres north of the building of interest. However, there has been no such activity in the area west of the building, except for removing some parking pads within about 10 m of it. The fact that the building’s immediate vicinity has been largely untouched on the west side strongly suggests that the purpose of the earth-moving operations was for construction and renovation work and not for ‘sanitizing’ the site by covering up contamination.”

In another article Kelley has stated: “Some of the experiments described by the IAEA do not and cannot use uranium. The results would be inconclusive if they did. So the basis for the IAEA’s requests continues to be opaque. The timeline for the alleged experiments is also highly suspect, with claims that massive experimental facilities had been fabricated even before they had been designed, according to the available information. The IAEA work to date, including the mischaracterization of satellite images of Parchin, is more consistent with an IAEA agenda to target Iran than of technical analysis.” [Emphasis added]

4. The biased analysis of Parchin is, unfortunately, part of a longstanding pattern at ISIS. David Albright co-authored a Sept. 10, 2002, article – entitled “Is the Activity at Al Qaim Related to Nuclear Efforts?” – which declared:

“High-resolution commercial satellite imagery shows an apparently operational facility at the site of Iraq’s al Qaim phosphate plant and uranium extraction facility (Unit-340), located in northwest Iraq near the Syrian border. This site was where Iraq extracted uranium for its nuclear weapons program in the 1980s. …

“This image raises questions about whether Iraq has rebuilt a uranium extraction facility at the site, possibly even underground. … Unless inspectors go to the site and investigate all activities, the international community cannot exclude the possibility that Iraq is secretly producing a stockpile of uranium in violation of its commitments under Security Council resolutions. The uranium could be used in a clandestine nuclear weapons effort.”

Of course the passage is evasive and does not make any definitive claim. But its suggestive and misleading rhetoric implying a possible nuclear weapon program in Iraq turned out to be wrong.

However, ISIS has written almost identical slippery rhetorical statements about various facilities in Iran. There is no end to such “possible facilities” in any country. The point to take home from the erroneous (suggestive) interpretation of the satellite images of facilities in Iraq is that it is very difficult to be sure of what one is seeing in satellite imagery.

5. The Exploding Bridgewire Detonators (EBWs) issue is among other pieces of circumstantial evidence publicized by Albright’s ISIS group as possibly implicating Iran. But there are many non-nuclear weapons uses for EBWs, especially for an oil-rich nation like Iran. One manufacturer of EBWs explains that these have “…applications in explosive welding of piping and tubing, seismic studies, oil well perforating & hard rock mining.”

The manufacturer is explicit that EBWs “…have found a wide range of applications within the mining, explosive metal welding and energy exploration field. Many of these uses could not be accomplished using conventional blasting equipment without a compromise of safety.”

Furthermore, Iran was not secretive about its work on EBWs. As the November 2011 IAEA report states: Iran “provided the Agency with a copy of a paper relating to EBW development work presented by two Iranian researchers at a conference held in Iran in 2005. A similar paper was published by the two researchers at an international conference later in 2005.”

The Agency, however, noted, “Iran’s development of such detonators and equipment is a matter of concern…” It really is not given its other civilian (and conventional military) uses, and Iran’s relative openness in pursuing the technology.

The expert Atomic Reporters have weighed in: “While the IAEA reported in 2011 that there are ‘limited civilian and conventional military applications’ for exploding bridge wire detonators, the open source literature shows the technology is widely used in the mining, aerospace and defense industries.”

Again, as long ago as 2011 Robert Kelley, a former IAEA inspector, stated: “The Agency is wrong. There are lots of applications for EBWs….To be wrong on this point, and then to try to misdirect opinion shows a bias towards their desired outcome…. That is unprofessional.”

6. Other technical experts have also weighed in on Albright’s and ISIS’ track-record. For instance, in a long-running argument with the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) over the capability of Iran’s centrifuges at the Fordow facility, ISIS consistently exaggerated their capability. Ivanka Barzashka and Dr. Ivan Oelrich explained how ISIS generated the wrong numbers:

When given the choice between a higher value attributed to unnamed sources and values he calculates himself, Albright consistently chooses the higher values. This is especially misleading when dealing with weapon production scenarios, which evaluate what Iran can currently achieve.”[emphasis added]

7. In a separate long-running argument with a scientist, Dr. Thomas Cochran, at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) over the plutonium production capability of the Khushab II reactor in Pakistan it took David Albright years to admit that he and Paul Brannan over-estimated the capability of the reactor by a factor of 10 to 25. This is not a minor error.

Thus, the pattern that emerges of the “evidence” against Iran (and other nations) is of consistent bias, exaggeration and unprofessionalism by some independent nonproliferation security analysts, as well as by the IAEA itself.

The IAEA under Director General Amano has been particularly unprofessional. Robert Kelley has outlined how:

“What about the three indications that the arms project may have been reactivated?

Two of the three are attributed only to two member states, so the sourcing is impossible to evaluate. In addition, their validity is called into question by the agency’s handling of the third piece of evidence.

That evidence, according to the IAEA, tells us Iran embarked on a four-year program, starting around 2006, to validate the design of a device to produce a burst of neutrons that could initiate a fission chain reaction. Though I cannot say for sure what source the agency is relying on, I can say for certain that this project was earlier at the center of what appeared to be a misinformation campaign.

In 2009, the IAEA received a two-page document, purporting to come from Iran, describing this same alleged work. Mohamed ElBaradei, who was then the agency’s director general, rejected the information because there was no chain of custody for the paper, no clear source, document markings, date of issue or anything else that could establish its authenticity. What’s more, the document contained style errors, suggesting the author was not a native Farsi speaker. It appeared to have been typed using an Arabic, rather than a Farsi, word-processing program. When ElBaradei put the document in the trash heap, the U.K.’s Times newspaper published it.

This episode had suspicious similarities to a previous case that proved definitively to be a hoax. In 1995, the IAEA received several documents from the Sunday Times, a sister paper to the Times, purporting to show that Iraq had resumed its nuclear-weapons program in spite of all evidence to the contrary. The IAEA quickly determined that the documents were elaborate forgeries. There were mistakes in formatting the documents’ markings, classification and dates, and many errors in language and style indicated the author’s first language was something other than Arabic or Farsi. Inspections in Iraq later in 1995 confirmed incontrovertibly that there had been no reconstitution of the Iraqi nuclear program.”

The words of well-connected and informed senior ex-IAEA officials are worth heeding: Dr. Hans Blix, former head of the IAEA, has stated: “So far, Iran has not violated the NPT,” adding, “and there is no evidence right now that suggests that Iran is producing nuclear weapons.” And Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent more than a decade as the director of the IAEA, said that he had not “seen a shred of evidence” that Iran was pursuing the bomb. “All I see is the hype about the threat posed by Iran,” he concluded.

The maximalist approach to non-proliferation advocated by ISIS and other groups may be seen as useful but it is inconsistent with existing international law, as codified in the safeguards agreements. In fact, IAEA records show that all substantial safeguards issues raised in 2005 had been resolved in Iran’s favor by 2008. So Iran was again in compliance with its safeguards agreement at that date. All UN Security Council sanctions ought to have been dropped at that point. Yet Iran’s nuclear file still remains tied up at the Security Council due mainly to the IAEA and Security Council’s flawed handling of the case.

Out of all the countries it inspects, the IAEA spends the second-highest amount on Iran’s nuclear inspections— only Japan, with a vastly greater nuclear infrastructure, accounts for a bigger chunk. About 12 percent of the IAEA’s $164 million inspections budget is spent just on Iran. This is now increased to about 17% during the period of the interim deal because of the even more intrusive—and thus expensive—inspections being carried out now.

On a “per nuclear facility” basis the IAEA spends – by far – the largest amount of its inspections budget on Iran. Comprehensive deal or not, the IAEA will continue to conduct in Iran one of the most thorough and intrusive inspections it carries out anywhere.

However, achieving a deal is in everyone’s favor. It will be made easier by rejecting any flawed (or exaggerated) evidence or analysis being used against Iran – especially by individuals or groups who have a track-record of bias, exaggeration or erroneous scientific analysis.