Why Is the IAEA Getting Iran Wrong?

Here is a hint: There are only a couple of IAEA inspectors with nuclear-weapons knowledge—and Iran is not helping by banning these very Western inspectors from looking at its nuclear file.

With the November 24 deadline for a nuclear deal with Iran looming, Secretary of State John Kerry and EU spokesperson Catherine Ashton met their senior Iranian counterparts in Oman earlier this week to try to hammer out a compromise. Unfortunately, the deal may still fall through, in part because of mismanagement and a lack of nuclear weapons expertise at the IAEA, which is sowing confusion and misunderstandings and coloring Iran as an untrustworthy partner. And—according to a contact who is intimately familiar with IAEA protocols—Iran itself is not helping by vetoing those few Western IAEA inspectors who are knowledgeable about nuclear weapons from working on its dossier.

Though the main points of contention in the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1—the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany—are the number of centrifuges Iran will be permitted and the timing of the sanctions relief, the atmospherics of the talks are being poisoned by the long-standing unresolved “Possible Military Dimensions” (PMD) file. Indeed, it now appears that the timing of any sanctions relief may be tied to progress in the resolving of these questions.

The PMD file is a set of allegations—provided to the IAEA years ago by intelligence agencies adversarial to Iran—about possible past activities Iran may have undertaken that may have been relevant to nuclear weaponization. Indeed, the file was originally called the “Alleged Studies” to underline the flimsiness of the evidence. Former IAEA chief ElBaradei and ex-IAEA inspectors had great doubts over the authenticity of some of the PMD concerns and the Agency chose not to press the issue very hard. This changed when Yukia Amano took the helm at the IAEA in 2009 and made the PMD file a centerpiece of his dialog with Iran.

According to Robert Kelley, a thirty-five-year veteran of the U.S. weapons complex at Los Alamos and Livermore—and twice IAEA inspections director in Iraq—at least some of the evidence purporting to show weaponization research work continuing past 2004 may be less than compelling:

“[The] 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…. 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.”

Similarly, Dr. Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress, a physicist at the Monterey Institute, and I analyzed a graph (evidently part of the PMD file) that was leaked to the Associated Press by “a country critical of Iran’s atomic program,” in an effort to implicate Iran’s nuclear program. Within a few minutes of staring at the graph, we found that it contained major errors and amounted to nothing more than a “slipshod analysis or an amateurish hoax.” Mark Hibbs, writing in Foreign Policy, mentioned that "[c]onversations with enough people who might know have persuaded me that the IAEA had likely seen and evaluated the document [AP graph] before it was leaked to the press, and that there was an internal discussion at the IAEA about whether the document was genuine and what it implied."

It isn't always straightforward to obtain access to the actual evidence being used against Iran, but occasionally some is leaked to the press—such as the AP graph—or released in IAEA reports and is amenable to scientific scrutiny. My analysis of the publicly available PMD (and associated) allegations is that generally there is not great technical merit in the allegations. They are—if genuine—simply calculations (some of them openly published), which are allowed under IAEA rules, or relate to dual-use hardware, which also has commercial or conventional military applications.