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Thursday
Nov102011

Iran Special Analysis (Part 2): The IAEA's Nuclear Report --- Not All Sources Are Equal

See also Iran Special Analysis (Part 1): The Nuclear Report --- "May" Is Not "Definitely"
Iran Analysis: The IAEA Nuclear Report --- Everyone's a Winner!


The Iranian State agency IRNA may seem an unusual place to continue an analysis of the International Atomic Energy Agency's report on the Iranian nuclear programme. After all, IRNA is known more as a megaphone for the regime or a faction within it than as a site critiquing latest news. And some passages in its pre-emptive strike against the IAEA document, either from translation or from wilful evasion, bordered on the desperate:

Even if we accept that those evidences [in the IAEA report] were true, they are all based on some computerized simulations not a “practical activity". That is why the Agency has called the whole project as “studies". There is no evidence in those documents to prove that the studies have been changed into practical projects or activities.

Then again, IRNA had a dancing partner in its exercise in explanation. Step up, The New York Times, as we compare these two passages. First, from the Iranian outlet:

No new evidence was provided in the report published in November, 2011. They are all related to the same so-called laptop issue which was allegedly stolen from an Iranian official in 2004. Therefore, it is clear that unlike what he had said before, Amano had no new information to support his claim and was using the same old data. This indicates that all his claims about continuation of Iran’s nuclear activities after 2004 was a mere lie.

Now, from the paper with "all the news fit to print":

What gives the report particular credibility is its meticulous sourcing. The agency’s director, Yukiya Amano, built a case on more than a thousand pages of documents, the assistance of more than 10 agency member states and interviews with “a number of individuals who were involved in relevant activities in Iran.”

That editorial claim followed Times' coverage of the report which assured that its claims were "buttressed by evidence not previously disclosed".

So who is right, then? If you make the judgement by rushing to a convenient corner --- lying Iranian/American mouthpiece v. Iran/US newspaper of record (choose label according to your bias) ---it's a straightforward call. If you do it, however, by weighing up the support for the claim in each of the outlets, it's far more difficult --- IRNA does not back up its claim that the IAEA report is based solely on a disputed laptop, but the Times offers no evidence beyond its declaration of "meticulous sourcing".

So how about we go to the report itself? This is the essential description, in the Annex to the main document, of how the IAEA compiled its findings:

Among the information available to the Agency is the alleged studies documentation: a large volume of documentation (including correspondence, reports, view graphs from presentations, videos and engineering drawings), amounting to over a thousand pages. The information reflected in that documentation is of a technically complex and interconnected nature, showing research, development and testing activities over time. It also contains working level correspondence consistent with the day to day implementation of a formal programme. Consistent with the Agency’s practice, that information has been carefully and critically examined. The Agency has also had several meetings with the Member State to clarify the information it had provided, to question the Member State about the forensics it had carried out on the documentation and the information reflected in it, and to obtain more information on the underlying sources.

In addition to the alleged studies documentation, the Agency has received information from more than ten Member States. This has included procurement information, information on international travel by individuals said to have been involved in the alleged activities, financial records, documents reflecting health and safety arrangements, and other documents demonstrating manufacturing techniques for certain high explosive components. This information reinforces and tends to corroborate the information reflected in the alleged studies documentation, and relates to activities substantially beyond those identified in that documentation.

In addition...the Agency has acquired information as a result of its own efforts, including publications and articles acquired through open source research, satellite imagery, the results of Agency verification activities and information provided by Iran in the context of those verification activities. Importantly, the Agency has also had direct discussions with a number of individuals who were involved in relevant activities in Iran, including, for example, an interview with a leading figure in the clandestine nuclear supply network (see paragraph 35 below). The information obtained by the Agency from the discussions with these individuals is consistent with the information provided by Member States, and that acquired through its own efforts, in terms of time frames and technical content.

There's a lot of padding, and some far from insignificant blurring in the choice of expression, but here is the core point of the passage: almost all the support for the IAEA's headline findings came from a single source, and that "Member State" was the US Government.

The IAEA tries to bolster the importantce of that single source with the reference to the "more than ten Member States" and the vague claim that they pointed to "activities substantially beyond those identified in that documentation" provided by the Americans. It then tries to extend that cover by adding its own activities.

But this is a pretty weak attempt to cloak that initial admission. Consider, for an example, that the IAEA's vaunted interviews amount to two, at least as elaborated in the Annex, and one of those concerns the already-disputed case of the Russian scientist who may have advised Tehran on nanodiamonds rather than nuclear weapons.

And consider this in general with the IAEA's range of claims.:

A Member State provided the Agency experts with access to a collection of electronic files from seized computers belonging to key members of the network at different locations....A Member State provided information indicating that, during the AMAD Plan, preparatory work, not involving nuclear material, for the fabrication of natural and high enriched uranium metal components for a nuclear explosive device was carried out....The Agency has shared with Iran information provided by a Member State which indicates that Iran has had access to information on the design concept of a multipoint initiation system that can be used to initiate effectively and simultaneously a high explosive charge over its surface....Information provided to the Agency by the same Member State referred to in the previous paragraph describes the multipoint initiation concept referred to above as being used by Iran in at least one large scale experiment in 2003 to initiate a high explosive charge in the form of a hemispherical shell....A member State has informed the Agency [that a foreign expert] worked for much of his career with this technology in the nuclear weapon programme of the country of his origin....

And so it goes throughout the 64 paragraphs of the Annex. Now it could be that the "Member State" is not always the US, but the salient point is that we do not know. And as long as we do not know, the Iranian regime's core allegation --- that the IAEA is effectively serving as the publicist for US intelligence agencies, rather than carrying out an independent evaluation of information from multiple sources --- will be difficult to knock back.

Indeed, IRNA's pre-emptive strike is only assisted by some coyness in the IAEA report, which does not address the challenge that it is relying heavily on the disputed laptop, supposedly obtained by the CIA several years ago. And then there is another prop for Tehran: if the IAEA was indeed relying on that laptop and associated documentation, that would explain why so little of its detailed claims are about the period after 2003, when defenders of Iran claim it suspended any military nuclear programme.

Analyst Karim Sadjadpour tried to wrap up the dispute around the IAEA's report with a we-will-never-know summary, “For those who are cynical about Iranian intentions, any amount of proof is sufficient, and for those who are cynical about U.S. intentions, no amount of proof is enough.”

That is not quite enough of an answer, however. If the burden on Iran, in the eyes of the IAEA, has been to show the level of co-operation to meet questions and assuage doubts, then the burden on the IAEA --- given that "proof", of either the absence or presence of a militarised nuclear programme, is likely to be beyond reach --- was to at least sweep away some of the cynicism by establishing a clear record of its enquiry.

The Agency may have cleared the low bar set by The New York Times, for whom any assertion was going to constitute "meticulous sourcing", but it has not gone much higher.

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