What’s NOT in the
IAEA Iran Reports

Peter Zimmerman carries august credentials. He is a nuclear physicist. He has degrees from Stanford in experimental nuclear and particle physics. He was the top scientist for arms control at the State Department for a number of years. He later served as chief scientist for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He has written scores of papers on nuclear arms and arms control. He is currently emeritus professor of science and security at King’s College in London. All in all, he sounds like someone who knows about nuclear technology, including nuclear weapons, and has the time to think carefully about anything he might write on the subject.

Or so you would think. But on July 6, 2008, Zimmerman published an opinion piece in the Boston Globe entitled "Time for Iran to Face More Sanctions," a screed that badly misuses the International Atomic Energy Agency’s May 2008 report on its monitoring of Iran’s nuclear power activities. In his piece, which was later republished in the International Herald Tribune, Zimmerman blatantly tries to terrify Americans about an Iranian nuclear menace that does not exist, may never exist, and poses no realistic threat whatsoever to the United States in any case. His commentary is also solid evidence that the New York Times, which owns both the Globe and the Tribune, is intent on once again disseminating the same sort of nonsense that facilitated a "case" for the Iraq invasion.

Zimmerman asserts that the IAEA has "recently reported that it has questions that Iran refuses to answer":

"Why is Iran using high explosives to implode a hemispherical shell of heavy metal? The only known use for such tests is to perfect a lightweight nuclear bomb.

"Why is Iran developing the kinds of detonators needed in an atomic weapon?

"Why is Iran designing, or redesigning, a ballistic missile warhead so that it can contain a nuclear weapon?"

This appears to be a deliberate attempt to spread multiple deceptions.

First, Zimmerman falsely depicts the IAEA’s "reported questions" as relating to matters of fact. As the report itself makes clear, the questions relate to allegations based on what the IAEA calls the "alleged studies" – documentation found on a laptop computer purportedly obtained by U.S. intelligence agencies in mid-2004. (The bona fides of these laptop documents, whose origin is as murky as the infamous "Niger yellowcake" forgery, remain in substantial doubt, but that is a whole different story.)

Zimmerman also fails to disclose that the IAEA report states that "it should be emphasized … that the Agency has not detected the actual use of nuclear material in connection with the alleged studies" (IAEA Gov/2008/15 at paragraph 28 [.pdf]). The immediately preceding board report was even more explicit: "[I]t should be noted that the Agency has not detected the actual use of nuclear material in connection with the alleged studies, nor does it have credible information in this regard" (emphasis added; IAEA Gov/2008/4 at paragraph 54 [.pdf]).

Unfortunately, in Zimmerman’s editorial, the issue is not whether Iran is doing or has done any such things. It is "why" it is doing them. It would be one thing for Zimmerman to state that he thinks that the uncorroborated "laptop" allegations are fact. What he thinks probably would have little likelihood of terrorizing most newspaper readers. But by misinforming readers that the IAEA itself considers these circumstances established fact, Zimmerman fortifies both the credibility and the impact of the lie.

Second, Zimmerman misleadingly indicates that the IAEA report describes questions about multiple, ongoing activities that can only relate to nuclear weapons. For example, he asserts that Iran is "using high explosives to implode a hemispherical shell of heavy metal" whose "only known use" is for a "nuclear bomb." But the IAEA report actually states, "A second aspect [of the alleged studies] concerns … the testing of at least one full-scale hemispherical, converging, explosively driven shock system that could be applicable to an implosion-type nuclear device" (emphasis added; IAEA Gov/2008/15 at paragraph 17).

An allegation, based on unauthenticated documents, that refers to a test that could have been applicable to a nuclear device is not the same as a fact regarding ongoing tests for nuclear devices. But even if Zimmerman had missed the nuance between that which may have been and that which is, the IAEA report goes on. "It should be noted that the Agency currently has no information … on the actual design or manufacture by Iran of nuclear material components of a nuclear weapon or of certain other key components, such as initiators, or on related nuclear physics studies" (emphasis added; IAEA Gov/2008/15 at paragraph 24). A person of Zimmerman’s background and education surely ought to recognize that treating "no information" about X as proof of X is not very good reasoning.

It is possible that Zimmerman’s "hemispherical shell of heavy metal" was a reference to the so-called "uranium metal document," which reportedly describes procedures for converting "yellowcake" into uranium metal and casting it into hemispheres. Gareth Porter recently reported that in January 2005, IAEA inspectors stumbled across this document gathering dust in some old files that Iran had let them rummage through. According to the IAEA, Iran claimed that in 1987 it had received the document, unsolicited, from Pakistan when it acquired centrifuge enrichment components and related documentation (IAEA Gov/2007/58 at paragraph 25 [.pdf]). Pakistan confirmed to the IAEA that it possesses an identical document (IAEA Gov/2008/15 at paragraph 24). And the IAEA has seen "no indication of any [uranium metal conversion] and casting activity in Iran" (IAEA Gov/2007/58 at paragraph 25). If Zimmerman had the "uranium metal document" in mind, his exaggerations are even wilder.

Zimmerman’s assertion that the report states that "Iran refuses to answer" IAEA questions is grossly misleading. As documented in every single IAEA board report since the laptop allegations first surfaced, Iran has consistently and adamantly answered many of the allegations by describing them as baseless and fabricated. In addition, it was only in February 2008 that the U.S. gave the IAEA permission to show any of the documents to Iran to enable it to respond (IAEA Gov/2008/4 at paragraph 37). The U.S. further manipulated the IAEA’s efforts by providing "much of this information [to the IAEA] only in electronic form" and "not authorizing the [IAEA] to provide copies to Iran" (IAEA Gov/2008/15 at paragraph 16). The U.S. even refused to give the IAEA itself copies of some material. For example, the U.S. did not let the IAEA have copies of key documents concerning the "ballistic missile warhead" for a "nuclear weapon" Zimmerman refers to. The agency was "therefore unfortunately unable to make them available to Iran."

Iran’s declination to respond to allegations based on documents it has never been shown, or has only been allowed to peek at, may qualify as a "refusal" to answer. But Zimmerman’s failure to mention this circumstance that at least partly explains a "refusal to answer" is incredibly misleading.

Moreover, the IAEA report discloses that Iran has in fact specifically "answered" questions that Zimmerman claims it has "refused to answer," such as "Why is Iran developing the kinds of detonators needed in an atomic weapon?" The "detonators" (exploding bridgewire detonators) were for civilian and conventional military activities, according to Iran (IAEA Gov/2008/15 at paragraph 20). More generally, Iran has told the IAEA that documentation it was permitted to look at was not authentic and had been fabricated. Nevertheless, it "did not dispute that some of the information contained in the documents was factually accurate, but said that the events and activities concerned involved civil or conventional military applicants" (IAEA Gov/2008/15 at paragraph paragraph 18). The report also noted that Iran continued to respond to questions posed by the IAEA.

Zimmerman’s piece is seriously misleading in other important respects. He claims that Iran "has 320 tons of uranium hexafluoride [UF6] gas to feed its centrifuges, enough for almost 100 bombs, but not for even a fraction of one reactor refueling operation." What he does not mention is that "all of [the UF6] remains under [IAEA] containment and surveillance" (IAEA Gov/2008/15 at paragraph 9). He also fails to inform readers that:

  • Without enrichment, 320 "tons" of UF6 is no more dangerous than 320 tons of silly putty.
  • Since it began to enrich uranium, in February 2007, Iran has fed 3,970 kilograms, or less than four metric tons, into enrichment cascades (IAEA Gov/2008/15 at paragraph 2).
  • To get fissile material, uranium must be enriched to consist of 90 percent U-235. Iran’s enrichment levels, however, have never exceeded 4.7 percent U-235, a level that could only be consistent with producing nuclear electricity (IAEA Gov/2008/15 at paragraph 5). Iran is scarcely "well on is way" to "mastery" of U-235 production, despite Zimmerman’s claim.
  • As have all of its prior reports, the IAEA’s May report states: "All nuclear material [at the two Iranian enrichment facilities] remains under Agency containment and surveillance" (IAEA Gov/2008/15 at paragraph 4).

Zimmerman also contends that Iran’s current plans for enrichment are "too small … to provide fuel for a nuclear power program of any consequence," but big enough to enable it to build "twice as many nuclear weapons a year … than they otherwise could have done," providing further evidence that "it is apparent that the real purpose of Iranian enrichment is to provide fuel for weapons, not reactors." This is specious reasoning. Iran’s program is R&D. Laying out plans to construct the Taj Mahal before you know whether you can build a hot-dog stand wouldn’t make much sense. Despite its simplicity, moreover, Zimmerman’s observation somehow has escaped the IAEA’s attention. As recently as May 20 of this year, Mohammed ElBaradei, the head of the IAEA, stated, “We haven’t seen indications or any concrete evidence that Iran is building a nuclear weapon and I’ve been saying that consistently for the last five years.”

Apparently, ElBaradei does not share Zimmerman’s Cheney-esque logic that the possibility that Iran may intend to develop nuclear weapons is evidence that it intends to develop them. And can there be any doubt that, had Iran’s current plans been big enough (or when they become big enough) in Zimmerman’s opinion to embrace a nuclear power program "of consequence," he would be one of the first to claim that those plans evidence Iran’s intent to create even greater multiples of weapon-production capacity?

On Aug. 14, 2003, the Washington Post published an opinion piece in which Zimmerman judiciously observed that "[a]vailable evidence demonstrates that Saddam Hussein … lacked a serious nuclear weapons program in 2003. And if Mr. Bush had not held out the threat of Iraqi nuclear weapons ‘within months,’ it is doubtful that Congress would have given him a blank check. How can one conjure up a benign explanation for the president’s assertions?" The essay concluded that "[t]he next time Bush wants to use armed force to preempt or prevent an attack on this country, he will have to prove his case far more completely than before. [The president] of the United States [has] forfeited the benefit of the doubt."

Zimmerman’s recent Globe commentary concludes that "If Iran begins enriching uranium to weapons grade on an assembly-line basis, it could transfer this material to groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, which might fabricate low-technology nuclear explosives. These would probably have yields nearly as high as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima."

If. Could. Might. Nuclear weapons. Assembly line. Hezbollah. Hamas. Hiroshima. Is it possible that this agitprop could have been written by the same man who wrote in August 2003 that "The president’s principal argument for going to war – to prevent a ‘smoking gun that would appear as a mushroom cloud’ – was based on bad intelligence that was misused while good intelligence was ignored"?

Over the past five years, Peter Zimmerman appears to have taken leave of his good judgment. He now wants to persuade readers to take leave of their own. Don’t. Ask the question the Zimmerman of August 2003 demanded: Is there a reason to use armed forces against Iran "to preempt or prevent an attack on this country?" And don’t give those who say "yes" the benefit of any doubt.

The IAEA’s reports are available on its Web site in the section "IAEA and Iran in Focus." None of them are more than nine or 10 pages. Despite their subject matter, they are written in reasonably plain English. Even if it takes a little extra effort to figure them out, that effort is essential.

There is no sign that Washington and Israel will relent any time soon from their zealous campaign to foment war with Iran. It is no time to accept at face value the media’s distorted descriptions of the IAEA’s work. It is no time to buy into the reckless scaremongering over the Iranian nuclear "threat" from "experts" like Zimmerman.

It is every American’s civic duty to read and understand the IAEA reports themselves. If we do, Washington just might not be able to get away with another fraudulent casus belli.

Author: Peter Casey

Peter Casey lives in New Hampshire.