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Dr. Porter is an independent investigative historian and journalist specialized in U.S. national security policy. He is the author of four books and has written regularly for InterPress Service on U.S. policy toward Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2005.
For the past few years, a political consensus has formed in the United States that Iran is covertly pursuing a nuclear-weapons program under the cloak of a civilian nuclear-power program. That conclusion has been based largely on a set of supposedly purloined top-secret Iranian military documents describing just such a covert program during 2002-03. The documents have often been referred to as the "laptop documents," but they include documents in both electronic and paper form and were called the "alleged studies" documents by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)."
The documents in this collection, which the United States obtained from sources that still remain a mystery, portray three main activities: a pair of "flow sheets" showing a process for uranium conversion, a set of experiments on "exploding bridgewire" (EBW) technology similar to that used on early designs for the U.S. atomic bomb, and studies on the redesign of the reentry vehicle, or nose cone, of the Shahab-3 missile to accommodate what appears to be a nuclear weapon.
International news media have portrayed the alleged-studies documents as credible evidence of a covert Iranian nuclear-weapons program. Some senior officials of the IAEA believed from the first, however, that the documents were "fabricated by a Western intelligence organization," according to two Israeli authors, Yossi Melman and Meir Javadanfar, based on their interviews with several IAEA officials during 2005 and 2006.1 David Albright, the executive director of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), worked for the IAEA in the 1990s and was well acquainted with the Safeguards Department director from 2005 until early 2010, Olli Heinonen. Albright confirmed in a 2008 interview that IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei's office "considers the documents as forgeries."2 Moreover, journalist Mark Hibbs has identified the agency's Department of External Relations and Policy Coordination as another source of skepticism within the agency over the authenticity of the documents.3
Heinonen has never asserted publicly that the documents were genuine, and he has confirmed in an interview with me that he does not make that claim.4 However, he implied that the documents, beginning with the May 2008 IAEA report on Iran, are credible: the information contained in them was " provided to the Agency by several Member states,  appears to have been derived from multiple sources over different periods of time,  is detailed in content, and  appears to be generally consistent."5 After ElBaradei left the agency in November 2009, the agency's endorsement of the documents grew even more explicit. In February 2010, the IAEA said the material in the documents "is broadly consistent and credible in terms of the technical detail, the time frame in which the activities were conducted, and the people and organizations involved."6
Furthermore, the IAEA has effectively shifted the normal burden of proof in regard to the intelligence documents. Instead of requiring the IAEA and those who provided the documents to give evidence of their authenticity, Heinonen has demanded that the Iranians prove they are fabrications. For example, the IAEA said in its August 2009 report that, because Iran had admitted "working on the Shahab-3 missile," the agency demanded that Iran discuss with it "the engineering and modeling studies associated with the re-design of the payload chamber referred to in the alleged-studies documentation to exclude the possibility that they were for a nuclear payload."7
Until 2008, virtually no information was available on the public record about the alleged-studies documents. So it was impossible for anyone outside the IAEA or an intelligence agency close to the United States to undertake an analysis of their authenticity. Over the past two-and-a-half years, however, enough evidence has come to light to make an independent analysis of the issue possible. The analysis of that evidence reviewed in this paper reveals eight major indicators that the laptop documents were fabricated. The analysis concludes that the documents cannot possibly be authentic and that Israel, which had both the motivation and the organization to carry out such an operation, was behind the fraud.
Many would argue that the question of the authenticity of the laptop documents is no longer significant in judging Iran's nuclear intentions in light of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of November 2007, which concluded that Iran had conducted a covert nuclear-weapons program in 2002-03, but had halted it in late 2003.
The new evidence acquired by U.S. intelligence in preparation for the 2007 estimate, suggesting that Iran had stopped work on nuclear weapons in 2003, was said to have involved intercepts of "snippets of conversations" in 2007 between Iranian officials, at least one of whom was a senior commander. The military officer was heard to complain that nuclear-weapons work had been halted in 2003, and the officials argued over whether it would ever be restarted.8 No published source for the intercepted conversations or other evidence suggests that the officials revealed that any specific nuclear-weapons-related research was being conducted at the time of the decision in question. We do not know if the reference was to ongoing work on how to design a bomb, to actual experimentation, or merely to contingency plans or preparations for such experiments once a decision was made.
The timing of the decision in question — late 2003 — indicates that the snippets of conversation refer to the Iranian decision in October 2003 to convince the European Three — Britain, France and Germany — that Iran was not going to have nuclear weapons and intended to cooperate much more closely with the IAEA, including signing the Additional Protocol.9 That decision was accompanied by a new declaration by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that possession of nuclear weapons was forbidden by Islam. Iran's Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) immediately drew attention to Khamenei's statement. It was followed by a tightening of control over all aspects of the nuclear issue — previously a joint responsibility of the Atomic Energy Organization and the foreign ministry — by assigning responsibility for enforcing the new policy to the secretary of the SNSC, Hassan Rowhani.10 The complaints cited, without any specific indication of what was said, appear to be consistent with a decision that ended a period of debate on whether Iran would go ahead with nuclear-weapons development, rather than an earlier decision to proceed with such a program.
The news media reported in 2009 and 2010 that Israeli, German and British intelligence agencies were insisting that Iran had either never stopped or had later resumed nuclear-weapons research, and that the Obama administration was working on an updated NIE that was expected to reverse the conclusion of the 2007 estimate.11 A number of press stories referred to new intelligence that would force the administration to acknowledge that Iran has resumed work on nuclear-weapons design. The source, in part, was Iranian scientist Shahram Amiri, who had defected to the United States in summer 2009.12
The U.S. intelligence community, however, continued to stand by the 2007 conclusion that Iran had not resumed its covert nuclear-weapons program. Defense Intelligence Director Ronald Burgess testified in early 2010, "The bottom line assessments of the NIE still hold true. We have not seen indication that the [Iranian] government has made the decision to move ahead with the [nuclear-weapons] program."13 Moreover, the stories citing the Iranian scientist, Amiri, as a source for intelligence on a covert program later proved to have been completely wrong. In July 2010, Amiri demanded to be returned to Iran, and CIA officials revealed that he had not been directly involved in Iran's nuclear program at all, and that he had told the CIA he had heard from other scientists that there was no Iranian nuclear-weapons program.14
The intelligence documents that had the most impact on media coverage were a set of reports and drawings purporting to show efforts to redesign Iran's Shahab-3 missile, the infamous "Project 111." The documents included a series of technical drawings or schematics — all in Farsi — of as many as 18 different ways of fitting the unidentified payload into the missile-reentry vehicle or warhead. Robert Joseph, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, made a formal presentation on the documents to leading IAEA officials in Vienna in July 2005, giving special attention to the warhead-redesign schematics as evidence that Iran was seeking to fit a nuclear weapon into its Shahab-3 missile.15
But when IAEA analysts were allowed to study the documents, they found that images of the the warhead had the familiar "dunce cap" shape of the original North Korean No Dong missile, which Iran had acquired in the mid-1990s, as former director of the IAEA Safeguards Department Heinonen confirmed to me.16 That was odd; when Iran had flight-tested a new missile in mid-2004, the warhead had not had a dunce-cap shape but a new "triconic" or "baby bottle" shape, which was more aerodynamic than the one on the original Shahab-3 missile.17
The warhead schematics in the alleged-studies documents thus depicted a reentry vehicle design that the analysts knew had already been abandoned by the Iranian military in favor of a new, improved one. When I asked Heinonen, now a senior fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center, how he could consider it plausible that Iran's purported secret nuclear weapons research program would redesign the warhead of a missile that the Iranian military had already decided to replace with an improved model, he suggested that the group that had done the schematics had no relationship with the regular Iranian missile program. "It looks [sic] from that information that this group was working with this individual," said Heinonen, referring to Dr. Mohsen Fakrizadeh, the man named in the documents as heading the research program. "It was not working for the missile program."
Heinonen's suggestion that the purported missile-engineering group was working in isolation from the country's missile program is not consistent, however, with other documents in the intelligence collection. One of those documents is a one-page letter from Fakhrizadeh to the Shahid Hemat Industrial Group dated March 3, 2003, "seeking assistance with the prompt transfer of data" for the work on redesigning the reentry vehicle.18 Shahid Hemat, which is part of the military's Defense Industries Organization, was involved in testing the engine for the Shahab-3 and in working on aerodynamic properties and control systems for Iranian missiles, all of which was reported in the U.S. news media.19
Heinonen also suggested in the interview that the missile engineers working for Fakrizadeh were ordered to redesign the older Shahab-3 model before the decision was made by the missile program to switch to a newer missile and warhead design, and that it couldn't change its work plan once it was decided. But that explanation is belied by the timeline associated with the development of the new missile. The earliest documents associated with the redesign of the Shahab-3 warhead were dated March 2003, according to the IAEA's report.20 But according to Michael Elleman, the lead author of an authoritative study of the Iranian missile program published by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) last May, Iran introduced the major innovations in the design of the medium-range missile, including the new warhead shape, over a period of two to five years prior to the August 2004 test.21 This means that the introduction of the redesigned reentry vehicle occurred in 2002 at the latest.
Heinonen's explanation assumes that the Iranian military ordered an engineer to organize a team to redesign the warhead on its secret intermediate-range ballistic missile to accommodate a nuclear weapon but kept them in the dark about its plans to replace the Shahab-3 in favor of a completely new and improved model. That assumption is particularly implausible; the reason for the shift to the new missile — later called the Ghadr-1, according to the IISS study — was that the Shahab-3, purchased from North Korea in the early to mid-1990s, had a range of only 800 to 1,000 km, depending on the weight of the payload. The Ghadr-1, on the other hand, could carry a payload of conventional high explosives 1,500 to 1,600 kilometers, bringing Israel within the reach of an Iranian missile for the first time.22
The implausibility of the suggestion that a group organized to redesign the IRBM warhead would not have been working with the new warhead underlines the tortuous thinking that must be used to avoid an obvious conclusion: the warhead schematics are fraudulent.
Outsiders seeking to fabricate technical drawings aimed at showing efforts to accommodate a nuclear weapon in the warhead design could not have known that Iran had abandoned the Shahab-3 in favor of the more advanced Ghadr-1 until after mid-August 2004. As the IISS study points out, the August 11, 2004, test launch was the first indication to the outside world that a new missile with a triconic warhead had been developed. 23 Before that test, Elleman told me, "No information was available that they were modifying the warhead."24 After that test, however, it would have been too late to redo the reentry-vehicle studies to reflect the fact that an entirely new warhead had been introduced.
Those seeking to fabricate such schematics would also have been misled by official Iranian statements about the status of the Shahab-3. The IISS study recalls that Iran had said in early 2001 that the Shahab-3 had entered "serial production" and had declared in July 2003 that the missile was "operational." The study observes, however, that the latter announcement came only after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when Iran felt an urgent need to claim an operational missile capability. The authors conclude that it is "very dubious" that the missile ever went into "serial production."25
One of the features of the laptop documents that puzzled IAEA officials and intelligence analysts alike was the odd assortment of projects in the purported Iranian nuclear-weapons program. David Albright, executive director of the Institute for Science and International Security, who has maintained close relationships with officials in the IAEA Safeguards Department with whom he once worked, confessed that the combination of projects found in the documents did not make much sense to them. "I know people who have read the documents," Albright said in a 2008 interview, "and they don't know what to make of them."26 The analysts with whom he had spoken were perplexed by the fact that the alleged nuclear-weapons research project consisted only of designs for a new reentry vehicle, experiments with high explosives and a design for a tunnel for testing them, and sketches of a uranium-conversion process. "Why only these three things?" asked Albright. "Why not other projects? Why are there so many pieces missing?"
The inclusion of a uranium-conversion subproject was the oddest feature of the purported Iranian nuclear-weapons program. A one-page undated flow sheet bearing the name "Kimia Maadan Group" and "Project 5/13" shows a bench-scale (i.e., small enough to fit in a laboratory) process for converting uranium dioxide (UO2) to uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6), sometimes called "green salt." The bench-scale facility would have an output of one ton per year. A second such flow sheet shows a pilot facility that would produce 50 tons of UF6 a year.27
Why would uranium conversion — a subject far removed from the natural expertise of the Iranian military and its military-technology institutions — be included in a purported nuclear-weapons program run by the Iranian defense ministry? And why would the Iranian military have been doing work — designing a technology for a conversion facility — that had already been done by the civilian Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) many years earlier? The military had no expertise in uranium conversion; that expertise was located entirely in the AEOI, which had been working on it for more than a decade. Furthermore, the AEOI had already spent years thoroughly testing and evaluating a technology for uranium conversion that had been obtained from China.28 It had, in fact, chosen that technology as the basis for the uranium-conversion facility (UCF) it had begun building at Esfahan in 1999.29
The report in the laptop documents that The Washington Post's Dafna Linzer published in early 2006 shows U.S. intelligence analysts trying to explain away that obvious anomaly. Linzer quotes one analyst as suggesting that the uranium-conversion process shown in the documents "was either their fallback in case we take out Isfahan" or "an alternative indigenous plan" that was abandoned when "they realized it wasn't as good as what they already have, and so they shelved it."30 But that attempt to explain the presence of the uranium conversion flow sheets in the documents ignores the simple fact that construction on the UCF at Isfahan had begun four years earlier, based on an entirely different design to which the experts had firmly committed themselves over a period of years. Under those circumstances, it would have made no sense for the military to come up with an entirely different conversion technology.
Then there is the question of why the Iranian military would have hired Kimia Maadan, the Iranian consulting firm whose name appears on at least one of the green-salt flow sheets, to carry out a uranium-conversion project. The IAEA's February 2008 report revealed that the company had no experience or expertise in that field. In fact, its core staff consisted of people who had only worked on an ore-processing project.31
On top of these logical inconsistencies, it turns out that the relatively simple one-page flow sheet representing the uranium-conversion component contained easily identifiable mistakes. When Iranian officials were shown the documents, they immediately spotted technical flaws in the process depicted in the flow sheets, even though they weren't allowed to keep the documents for study. And, in a rare admission that the Iranians were correct, Heinonen himself conceded in his February 25, 2008, briefing that the outline process in the documents did indeed have what he called "technical inconsistencies."32
The authors of the laptop documents had a very good reason, however, for including a "Green Salt Project" and Kimia Maadan in the documents. Other documents in the collection referring to the reentry vehicle offered nothing that could be cited as evidence of authenticity. But the authors of the intelligence documents had something they could use to link Kimia Maadan to the Iranian nuclear program: a letter dated May 2003 from an engineering company to Kimia Maadan requesting instructions for delivery of a programmable logic-control (PLC) system it had previously ordered. Iran confirmed the authenticity of the letter in early 2008 and provided a copy to the IAEA from the files of the defunct company. The copy of the letter provided to the IAEA from the collection of documents obtained by the United States had handwritten notes on it that included a "reference to the leadership of the project concerning the missile reentry vehicle," according to the agency's February 2008 report.33
The letter to Kimia Maadan could be used to suggest a link between the Shahab-3 redesign work and another part of the research program, based on a document that could be confirmed as genuine. But a copy of the letter could have been obtained from the engineering firm that sent it. For that firm, a letter on the delivery of a PLC system — a digital computer used for the automation of a wide range of industrial processes — was a routine matter for which there would be no particular reason for security precautions.34 Moreover, the copy of the original letter provided by Iran to the IAEA had no handwriting on it. The handwritten notes on that copy of the letter could have been written by anyone. The other document used to link Project 111 with Kimia Maadan is a letter purportedly from an entity called "Project 5," shown in Heinonen's February 2008 briefing for member states to be managed by Kimia Maadan, to the management of Project 111. That letter was described by Heinonen himself as forwarding plans to equip a "pilot" uranium-conversion facility, such as the one depicted in the process diagram for a full-scale facility, to the management of Project 111 and requesting a "technical opinion."35
But that letter, for which there is no evidence of authenticity, could not have been written after May 2003, when Kimia Maadan closed its doors, according to the IAEA.36 Dafna Linzer was told by a U.S. intelligence source that the last conversion-facility flow sheet — presumably the one for a pilot facility rather than the bench-scale facility — was dated February 2003.37 That means Kimia Maadan was supposedly drawing up a proposal to equip such a pilot facility only three months, at most, after having done no more than a preliminary sketch of the process. That is a highly implausible scenario. Even if the initial flow sheet had not been botched, the technical approach suggested would have been the subject of a lengthy period of experimentation before any decision on equipping a facility could have been made. This was demonstrated in the case of the actual process used to decide on the construction of the Esfahan conversion facility.
Equally implausible is the premise of the letter that those working on engineering a missile warhead, who would have no knowledge of uranium conversion, would have been asked for a "technical opinion" on the equipment of a uranium-conversion facility. The only reason for such a communication to appear in the laptop documents is to create another apparent link between the missile-warhead documents and an actual Iranian company.
In crafting the documents pertaining to Project 5 in 2002-04, the authors of the laptop documents were seeking to take advantage of the U.S., European and IAEA safeguards. Officials shared a deep suspicion that Kimia Maadan was an integral part of an Iranian scheme for covert military control of the uranium mine at Gchine. The U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, Jackie Sanders, said in a June 2005 speech that Iran had gone to "great lengths to conceal the Gchine mine before finally acknowledging it under IAEA questioning in 2004." She insisted that access to all past records relating to Gchine "might reveal to IAEA that the AEOI was not the entity in charge of the Gchine mine during that time period."38
Obviously referring to Kimia Maadan, the IAEA declared in its September 2005 report that it wanted to "investigate further" how a company with "limited experience in ore processing" could have established a uranium-ore processing plant in "such a relatively short period of time." Its investigation focused on the period from 2000 to mid-2001, during which time, it said, "according to Iran, the company had been able to design, procure, build and test the grinding-process line for the mill."39 The implication was that the company could only have accomplished all that because the Iranian military was running the operation. Furthermore, it was known that Kimia Maadan had gone out of business immediately after the date of the last green-salt flow sheet. That fact was further evidence, for some, that it was, in fact, a front for the Iranian military.40
Given these dark suspicions, the May 2003 letter to Kimia Maadan from the unnamed engineering firm showing that it had ordered a dual-use technology that could be used for uranium conversion offered what must have seemed a perfect opportunity to close the case by linking Kimia Maadan with other nuclear-weapons-related work. Adding handwritten notes to an authentic document related to a company already suspected of being a military front could bolster the claim of authenticity for the diagrams showing a redesign of the Shahab-3 warhead.
But in April 2005, Iran began to provide documentation to the IAEA about the civilian atomic-energy agency's contract with Kimia Maadan to construct and run an ore-processing facility at Gchine.41 That information appeared to contradict the alleged-studies documents. Nevertheless, the IAEA Safeguards Department continued for nearly three more years to consider the possibility of military management of the Gchine mine through Kimia Maadan one of the unresolved issues associated with Iran's nuclear program, as reflected in the series of reports from mid-2005 to early 2008.
Then, in early 2008, Iran submitted a large volume of more detailed documentation on the history of Kimia Maadan to the IAEA. The new documentation showed that Kimia Maadan had been formed by AEOI in May 2000 to design, equip and put into operation an ore-processing plant at Gchine. The new documents further revealed that the core staff of Kimia Maadan consisted of about half a dozen experts who had previously worked for the AEOI's Ore Processing Center. The budget, five-year plan, contracts with foreign entities, and studies and reports of the project proved that the planning for and work on the Gchine mine and the ore processing plant on which Kimia Maadan worked had always been under the control of AEOI, not the Iranian military. The documents portrayed a company operating under severe time constraints imposed by the contract and making mistakes that required changes in the detailed design it had submitted. That, in turn, led to financial problems for the firm and forced it to close down in May 2003.42
But the most explosive new evidence provided by Iran showed that the numerical code name of one the projects supposedly assigned by the Iranian military's secret nuclear-weapons research program had actually been assigned more than two years earlier by the civilian atomic energy agency. The same IAEA report acknowledged, in a paragraph on the AEOI documents on Gchine, "A decision to construct a UOC [uranium ore concentration] plant at Gchine, known as ‘project 5/15,' was made August 25, 1999."43
The date of that decision was two-anda-half years before the purported covert nuclear weapons program was established. An unpublished paper by the IAEA Safeguards Department, leaked to the media and the ISIS in 2009, identified early 2002 as the formal beginning of what it called the Iranian military's "warhead development program."44
Heinonen and the Safeguards Department did not challenge the authenticity of that documentation. Instead, the IAEA concluded that "the information and explanations provided by Iran were supported by the documentation, the content of which is consistent with the information already available to the Agency." And it declared that it "considers this question no longer outstanding at this stage."45
So Kimia Maadan was not a creation of the Iranian military, as had been suspected for years, but of the civilian atomic-energy authority, and its expertise was narrowly focused on ore processing — not on uranium conversion, as depicted in the intelligence documents.
When I asked Heinonen about this contradiction, he responded that the IAEA had information about other contracts on which Kimia Maadan had worked but had not included that information in its reports. He did not deny, however, that the ore-processing project portrayed in the intelligence documents as part of the covert nuclear-weapons program had been created more than two years before the program began.46
The clear implication of this contradiction is that "Project 5" was a fictional creation, given a project-numbering scheme to conform to a code name the authors knew existed — without their realizing that its creation by the civilian atomic authority could be so firmly established.
After the IAEA had acknowledged in its February 2008 report that Kimia Maadan had never been a front for the military, as was asserted in the laptop document, there was renewed pressure from IAEA officials, who had been skeptical from the beginning, to distance the agency from the documents. "There was an effort to point out that the agency isn't in a position to authenticate the documents," an IAEA source told me a few months later.47 But subsequent IAEA reports gave no indication that the new information affected the issue of the authenticity of the alleged-studies documents.
Iranian officials who were shown the reentry-vehicle studies in May 2008 immediately noticed another anomaly: none of them had any security markings or official stamps showing the date of receipt or the seals of the sending office. Iran's Permanent Representative to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told me in a September 2009 interview that he pointed out these anomalies to an IAEA delegation in Tehran in spring 2008 and had brought it up repeatedly in meetings of the Board of Governors. According to Soltanieh, that complaint had never been challenged.48
A senior IAEA official whom I interviewed in September 2009 said the lack of such markings is not a "killer argument," because the governments that had provided the documents might claim that they had taken the markings out before passing them on to the IAEA. The official was referring to the removal of security markings from any purported internal document that has been secured from within another country before sharing it outside the intelligence community. This is done ostensibly to deny the country of origin of the document the knowledge of which copy was acquired, as this could reveal the intelligence agency's source. The practice developed, according to one expert, because both governments and businesses had begun devising schemes by which small variations in such markings and other features of the text from one copy to another could be used to detect where a security breach had taken place.49
Variations in copies that are used to tip off security officials sometimes involve the text of the documents, using punctuation, typographical errors and other textual differences to identify the copy, according to the expert. Any document acquired through espionage that is shared outside friendly intelligence circles is retyped and reformatted and may even be substantially rewritten.
This practice came to light in late 2009, when an unnamed intelligence agency gave The Times of London two purported Iranian documents related to work on a "trigger" for a nuclear weapon. The Times published both an English translation and a photocopy of a two-page Persian-language document that discussed plans for tests on what could be interpreted as a "neutron initiator," a triggering device for a nuclear weapon.50 For all but the most specialized reader, it appeared that The Times was displaying a photocopy of the original document.
However, after I wrote a story reporting that the document had been considered a fabrication by the CIA and pointed out that it lacked any identification from an issuing organization or recipient, as well as any security markings, a columnist for The Times, Oliver Kamm, volunteered that the Persian-language photocopy was in fact "a retyped version of the relevant parts of the original document." The original document had not been published, Kamm said, "because of the danger that it would alert Iranian authorities to the source of the leak."51 That admission underlined the fact that the intelligence service in question had tampered with the document. There was no assurance that the excerpt provided to The Times had not been fabricated by that service to make the desired political point about the Iranian nuclear program.
But the IAEA could have insisted that the U.S. government provide it with visual evidence that the intelligence documents did have such markings and official stamps on them when they were first obtained. That demand would have been consistent with the stance taken by the IAEA in its investigation of the Niger uranium document cited by the George W. Bush administration as part of its justification for invading Iraq in 2003. In that instance, the IAEA had quickly spotted anomalies in the "form, format, contents and signature" of the document that gave it away as a fabrication, as ElBaradei later told the UN Security Council.52 Although it took Jacques Baute, the IAEA official in charge of the Iraq case, only a few hours of internet research to identify the document as fraudulent once he obtained it, it took weeks of prodding the U.S. government to get a copy of it.53
It does not appear, however, that in the case of the alleged-studies documents, IAEA officials had asked the governments providing the documents to let them see the originals, to verify that the documents did originally have such markings and stamps. When I asked Heinonen about the Iranian complaint regarding the lack of confidentiality markings or official stamps, he said the question of whether a document bears such markings "depends on which stage" it had passed when it was obtained by an intelligence agent: "If someone takes a document straight from a computer where it's been typed, there are no security classifications," he said. As to a request to the providing governments for inspection of the original documents, he said, "I don't want to answer that question."54 Heinonen's answers indicate clearly that no effort was made to check on the most obvious indicator that a document was genuine. And his explanation that the purported Iranian intelligence agent was able to make the rounds of all the participants in the program and obtain the documents before security markings or official stamps had been inserted is completely implausible. The absence of such markings in the originals of the alleged-studies documents certainly constitutes prima facie evidence of fraud.
Just how and by whom the laptop documents were collected and brought out of Iran and then delivered to the U.S. government was a mystery from the time they were first reported in the news media. Both the IAEA officials briefed on the documents and the journalists writing about them in 2005 and 2006 were told the same story: the documents had been found on a laptop computer that had been stolen from a participant in the alleged Iranian nuclear-arms program whom German intelligence had been trying to recruit.55
That original version, however, was later "walked back," a senior IAEA official told me in September 2009.56 The following month, David Albright's ISIS revealed a new variant of the story in a website posting that declared, "ISIS now understands that the term ‘laptop' might refer to the method by which the United States shares sensitive data and not the form in which the data were removed from Iran." According to the story, the files were smuggled out of Iran by the wife of an Iranian who had been recruited by Germany's Federal Intelligence Service (Bundesnach richtendienst, BND) and was eventually discovered by Iranian intelligence.57
A story in Der Spiegel in mid-2010 added a number of new details while still placing the original documents on the mysterious laptop. The story gave the BND agent a code name ("Dolphin") and identified him as an Iranian businessman who had contracts with the Iranian government for the construction of buildings related to the nuclear program. The businessman/spy had "access to the inner circle" of officials involved in the nuclear program and met with his BND handlers during trips abroad to report on what he knew. Meanwhile, Dolphin was turning all the classified documents he had into electronic files stored on a laptop that was to become his "life insurance," a way to guarantee his eventual move to the United States. After he had been discovered by Iranian intelligence in 2003, so the story goes, he gave the laptop to his wife, who was able to smuggle it to Istanbul, and then to the U.S. consulate.58
These variants on the origin of the laptop documents are less credible than the original. "There are holes in the story," the senior IAEA official told me in an interview last year.59 In the first place, if such a businessman/spy really did exist, the BND would certainly not have been willing to have it confirmed publicly that it was their spy who had gathered the documents, even if they knew exactly what had happened to him. To make it even more incredible, a former U.S. intelligence official claiming to have been in on the operation told David Sanger of The New York Times that it was never clear whether the spy was imprisoned or executed.60 The supposed willingness of the BND to reveal that it did indeed recruit and manage the Iranian businessman as a spy is a reliable indication that the story is a fiction.
The idea that the businessman had some sort of access to the group of people with the documents on all three major projects in the purported program because he had construction contracts for the Natanz and Esfahan facilities is equally fatuous. The alleged secret nuclear-weapons program had nothing to do with any of those sites, so there would have been no reason for the purported businessman to have ever met any official involved in such a program.
Another element of the story that could not possibly be true is the claim that the spy was discovered in 2003. That date is contradicted by the four documents from the purported project to redesign the Shahab-3 reentry vehicle on work that had been completed in January-February 2004.61 Even the most highly skilled spies cannot collect documents that have not yet been written before they are caught.
Both versions of the official story of the origins of the laptop documents have in common the premise that the documents were assembled by someone either directly involved in the program or a spy with access close to them. But there is evidence that the laptop documents were brought to the U.S. consulate in Turkey by someone affiliated with the National Council of Resistance in Iran, the political arm of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), or Peoples Mujahideen Organization of Iran (PMOI), a terrorist organization that had killed both Iranian and U.S. civilians in the past.62 Within days of the original announcement of the existence of the Iranian laptop documents by Secretary of State Colin Powell, the coordinator for German-American relations in the German Foreign Ministry, Karsten Voight, was quoted by The Wall Street Journal as saying the information had been provided by "an Iranian dissident group." Voight's assertion was confirmed by a second source close to the German chancellor and foreign minister, who was more specific. "I can assure you that the documents came from the Iranian resistance organization," the source told me in late 2007.63 The MEK is the only Iranian opposition group that is armed and could, therefore, be called a "resistance" organization.
For most news organizations, the MEK's political arm, the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI), had achieved the status of a reliable source of intelligence on the Iranian nuclear program, because it had announced the existence of Iranian nuclear sites at Natanz and Arak at an August 2002 press conference in Washington, D.C. But later on, multiple sources — Iranian dissidents, Israelis and IAEA officials — all said that the NCRI had gotten the information about the sites from Israel.
An IAEA official told investigative journalist Seymour Hersh that the information had come from Israeli intelligence, and two journalists for Der Spiegel, which has had close relations with Israeli officials, have also confirmed that Israeli intelligence provided the group with the locations of the sites. Finally, an adviser to an Iranian monarchist group said that "a friendly government," which he refused to name, had provided the information on Natanz not only to the MEK but to other opposition groups as well.64 Israel had established a relationship with the MEK by September 1995, as indicated in a very friendly interview that month with the chairman of the NCRI's international-relations committee by Daniel Pipes and Patrick Clawson, two figures closely associated with the pro-Israel lobby. 65 Israel had provided assistance to broadcasts by the NCRI from Paris into Iran, according to another Iranian exile group, and an Israeli diplomat confirmed to a reporter for The New Yorker that Israel had found the MEK "useful" but would not elaborate.66
Based on interviews with U.S., British and Israeli officials in 2005, Israeli authors Yossi Melman and Meir Javadanfar reported, "A way to ‘launder' information from Western intelligence to the IAEA was found so that agencies and their sources could be protected. Information is ‘filtered' to the IAEA via Iranian opposition groups, especially the National Resistance Council of Iran."67 The "laundered" data clearly included the locations of Natanz and Arak. U.S. intelligence agencies and national laboratories had already concluded from satellite photography that some kind of nuclear facility — probably an enrichment plant — was being constructed at Natanz, and that a heavy-water production facility was being built in Arak. IAEA Director General Mohammed ElBaradei himself confirmed in December 2002 that the precise coordinates of the two sites had been provided to the IAEA in June 2002.68
The involvement of the MEK/NCRI in the laptop episode and Israel's past use of the MEK/PMOI for this purpose point to Israel as the original source of the documents. Israel had both the opportunity and the obvious motivation to mount such an effort to convince the world that Iran had an active nuclear-weapons program. Since the early 1990s, the Israeli government had been expressing the alarmist view that Iran was engaged in such a covert program, and it had been lobbying the U.S. intelligence community with only limited success to adopt the same view.69
Israel is also the only country known to have been carrying out an aggressive program in 2003-04 aimed at exerting influence on the Iran nuclear issue by leaking alleged intelligence to governments and the news media. The Israeli program was started in the summer of 2003 with the creation of a new unit of Mossad, its international intelligence agency, to generate stories in the Western media by briefing reporters on covert Iranian efforts to obtain nuclear weapons, according to Israeli officials. As part of the program, Mossad sometimes passed on documents alleged to have been obtained by Israeli spies inside Iran.70
Eight Indicators of Fraud
The authors of the laptop documents left a trail of indicators that reveal their fraudulent character. Because of their ignorance of some key facts about the Iranian nuclear program and their effort to ensure that the documents would have the desired political effect, they made a series of errors. This investigation of all the available data related to the laptop documents found eight indicators of fraud:
1) The warhead schematics shown in the documents were based on a design that had already been abandoned by the Iranian military in favor of a new and improved design.
2) The Iranian military could not possibly have assigned the project code number (Project 5/15) to the uranium-conversion project. The ore-processing project had been given that designation by AEOI some two-and-a-half years before the purported nuclear-weapons project is said to have been created.
3) The premise of the documents — that the military would have taken responsibility for work on uranium conversion — is highly implausible. The work on a different technology had already been done by civilians under the AEOI over a period of more than a decade.
4) The idea that Kimia Maadan would be asked to design a process for uranium conversion is highly implausible. The company lacked experience and expertise on that part of the process, and expertise in uranium conversion had been concentrated within the AEOI for well over a decade.
5) It is highly implausible that a project on uranium conversion would use a letter about a dual-use technology as the vehicle to compose handwritten notes mentioning the leadership of a project on redesigning the reentry vehicle of the Shahab-3 to accommodate a nuclear weapon.
6) It is highly implausible that a company that had done nothing beyond completing a flow sheet outlining a process for uranium conversion would have been authorized to immediately begin making concrete plans for equipping such a facility without going through a lengthy stage of testing the technology depicted in the flow sheet.
7) It is highly implausible that a letter about equipping a uranium-conversion facility would be sent to the leadership of a project on redesigning a missile-reentry vehicle for a "technical opinion."
8) The fact that the IAEA does not know whether the original laptop documents had official stamps and security classification markings — missing from the versions shared with the agency — means either that the United States failed to respond to an IAEA request for visual evidence of such original markings, or that it discouraged the IAEA from asking for the evidence. In either case, the logical inference must be that the original documents obtained by the United States do not have such marks of authenticity. This can be regarded as prima facie evidence of fraud.
The political implications of this evidence of fraud in the alleged-studies documents are far-reaching. No other hard evidence of an Iranian intention to manufacture nuclear weapons has been found, despite a search that has lasted at least two decades. This suggests that Iran has been interested in a "nuclear hedging option" similar to that of Japan and other nations aspiring to master the nuclear fuel cycle rather than possess nuclear weapons themselves.
The political climate in the United States has shifted in favor of confrontation with Iran — based overwhelmingly on the assumption that these documents are genuine. Now evidence has emerged that the documents are fraudulent. Therefore, a more fundamental review of U.S. policy toward the Iranian nuclear issue is necessary.
1 Yossi Melman and Meir Javadanfar, The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran (Carroll and Graf, 2007), pp. 142-43.
2 Author's interview with David Albright, September 24, 2008.
3 See Mark Hibbs, "Iran Plant Disclosure May Prompt IAEA to Focus on Weapons Data," Nucleonics Week, Vol. 50, No. 39, October 1, 2009, pp. 1, 12-14.
4 Author's interview with Olli Heinonen, Cambridge, Mass., November 5, 2010.
5 That boiler plate statement was first included in Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran, IAEA Report GOV/2008/15, May 26, 2008, p. 16. Subsequent reports in 2008 and 2009 repeated that language. All IAEA reports on Iran have the same title. Hereafter all IAEA reports are cited by number and date.
6 GOV/2010/10, February 18, 2010, pp. 8-9.
7 GOV/2009/55, August 28, 2009, p. 5.
8 See Dafna Linzer and Joby Warrick, "U.S. Finds That Iran Halted Nuclear Arms Bid in 2003," The Washington Post, December 4, 2007, p. A1. See also Baker and Linzer, "Diving Deep, Unearthing a Surprise." op. cit. A slightly different version is presented in Greg Miller, "Anatomy of an About-Face on Iran," Los Angeles Times, December 5, 2007, which quotes a source as saying an Iranian official was heard "complaining about the suspension of the military program in 2003."
9 The Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) decided in October 2003 on a course that clearly ruled out nuclear weapons for the first time; see text of speech by SNSC Secretary Hassan Rohani, "Beyond the Challenges Facing Iran and the IAEA Concern the Nuclear Dossier," Rahbord (in Persian), September 30, 2005, pp. 7-38, in FBIS-IAP20060113336001.
10 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Iran Report, November 23, 2004. See also Robert Collier, "Islam Forbids Use, Clerics Proclaim," San Francisco Chronicle, October 31, 2003. See also interview with Rowhani in Kayhan, July 26, 2005, at http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/file_download/99/Rowhani_Interview.pdf.
11 See James Blitz, Daniel Dombey and Najmeh Bozorgmehr, "Iran ‘Has Secret Nuclear Arms Plan'," Financial Times, September 29, 2009; William J. Broad, Mark Mazzettti and David E. Sanger, "A Nuclear Debate: Is Iran Designing Warheads?" The New York Times, September 29, 2009; Joby Warrick and Greg Miller, "Iranian Technocrats, Disillusioned with Government, Offer Wealth of Intelligence to U.S.," The Washington Post, April 25, 2010.
12 See Warrick and Miller, "Iranian Technocrats"; Matthew Cole, "U.S: Iran Threatens Family of Nuclear Defector Shahram Amiri," ABC News, June 28, 2010; Mathew Cole and Kirit Radia, "Clinton: Iranian Nuclear Defector Is ‘Free to Go'," ABC News, The Blotter, July 13, 2010; David E. Sanger, "U.S. Presses Its Case Against Iran Ahead of Sanctions Vote," The New York Times, June 8, 2010; David E. Sanger and Mark Mazzetti, "U.S. Says Scientist Aided CIA While Still in Iran," The New York Times, July 16, 2010.
13 Gary Thomas, "U.S. Defense Spy Chief Iran Undecided on a Nuclear Bomb," Voice of America, January 12, 2010.
14 See Gareth Porter, "Amiri Told CIA Iran Has No Nuclear Bomb Programme," InterPress Service, July 19, 2010.
15 The New York Times, November 14, 2005.
16 Heinonen interview, November 5, 2010.
17 Michael Ellemen et al, Iran's Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A Net Assessment (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2010), pp. 23-24.
18 GOV/2008/15, May 26, 2008, Annex, p. 1.
19 Iran's Ballistic Missile Capabilities, pp. 21, 102.
20 GOV/2008/15, May 26, 2008, Annex, p. 1.
21 Interview with Michael Elleman, Washington, D.C., September 20, 2010.
22 Iran's Ballistic Missile Capabilities, pp. 23-25.
23 Ibid., p. 23.
24 Elleman interview, September 20, 2010.
25 Iran's Ballistic Missile Capabilities, p.23 and fn. 53, p. 39.
26 Telephone interview with David Albright, September 15, 2008.
27 GOV/2008/15, May 26, 2008, Annex, p. 1.
28 GOV/2004/83, November 15, 2004, p. 3.
29 The history of the Esfahan UCF is found in GOV/2004/83, November 13, 2004, p. 3.
30 Linzer, "Strong Leads and Dead Ends," op. cit., p. A14.
31 GOV/2008/4, February 22, 2008, p. 5.
32 Heinonen Technical Briefing, p. 4.
33 GOV/2008/15, May 26, 2008, Annex, p. 1; GOV; GOV/2008/4, February 22, 2008, p. 6.
34 A programmable logic controller (PLC), also referred to as a programmable controller, is a digital computer that is used for automation of industrial processes, such as control of machinery on factory assembly lines. PLCs were first adopted by the automotive industry and are now in common use in all other automated processes. See Wikipedia, online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Programmable_logic_controller.
35 Hienonen Technical Briefing, p. 3.
36 GOV/2008/4, February 22, 2008, p. 6.
37 Linzer, "Strong Leads and Dead Ends," op. cit., p. A14.
38 Text of speech by U.S. Ambassador to IAEA Jackie Sanders, June 16, 2005, http://www.america.gov/st/ washfile-english/2005/June/20050616173244frllehctim0.9385797.html.
39 GOV/2005/67, September 2, 2005, pp. 7-8.
40 Linzer, "Strong Leads and Dead Ends," op. cit., p. A14.
41 GOV/2005/67, September 2, 2005, p. 8.
42 GOV/2008/4, February 22, 2008, pp. 5-6.
43 Ibid., p. 5.
44 See excepts from "Possible Military Dimensions of Iran's Nuclear Program," dated early 2009, Institute for Science and International Security, October 2, 2009, p. 3, http://www.isis-online.org/publications/iran/IAEA_info_3October2009.pdf.
45 GOV/2008/4, February 22, 2008, p. 6.
46 Heinonen interview, November 5, 2010.
47 The IAEA source is quoted in Gareth Porter, "Documents Linking Iran to Nuclear Weapons Push May Have Been Fabricated," The Raw Story, November 10, 2008, at http://www.rawstory.com/news/2008/IAEA_ suspects_fraud_in_evidence_for_1109.html.
48 Interview with Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Vienna, September 6, 2009.
49 E-mail from Peter Lawrence, an Australian who has been involved with computer audits and investigations in a large firm of chartered accountants and is familiar with techniques used in business and government for document security, January 8, 2010.
50 Catherine Philip, "Secret Document Exposes Iran's Nuclear Trigger," The Times, December 14, 2009. Online at http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/middle_east/article6955351.ece. Two pages from the document, in Persian, were published by The Times on the same date. See http://www.timesonline.co.uk/multimedia/archive/00659/iran_doc_659573a.pdf.
51 Gareth Porter, "U.S. Intelligence Found Iran Nuke Document Was Forged," InterPress Service, December 29, 2009. Online at http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=49833. Kamm made the admission on his blog on The Times website. See http://timesonline.typepad.com/oliver_kamm/2009/12/irans-nuclear-deceit-the-apologists-respond.html#comments.
52 Statement by Mohamed ElBarade to United Nations Security Council, March 7, 2003, at http://www.iaea.org/NewsCenter/Statements/2003/ebsp2003n006.shtml.
53 Peter Eisner and Knut Royce, The Italian Letter (Rodale, 2007), pp. 143-44.
54 Telephone interview with Heinonen, November 11, 2010.
55 Linzer, "Strong Leads and Dead Ends," op. cit.; Bob Drogin and Kim Murphy, "UN Calls Data on Iran's Nuclear Aims Unreliable," The Los Angeles Times, February 25, 2007.
56 Interview with a senior IAEA official, Vienna, September 7, 2009.
57 "Excerpts from Internal IAEA Document on Alleged Iranian Nuclear Weaponization," Institute for Science and International Security, October 2, 2009. Online at http://www.isis-online.org/publications/iran/IAEA_ info_3October2009.pdf.
58 Follath and Stark, "The Birth of a Bomb," Der Speigel, June 17, 2010.
59 Interview with senior IAEA official, Vienna, September 7, 2009.
60 Sanger, The Inheritance, op. cit. pp. 65-66.
61 GOV/2008/15, May 26, 2008, Annex, p. 2.
62 On the background of the MEK and NCRI, see Sasan Fayezmanesh, The United States and Iran: Sanctions, War and Policy of Dual Containment (Routledge Studies in Middle Eastern Politics, 2009), pp. 79-85; "Behind the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK)," Department of the Parliamentary Library, Australian Parliament, Research Note, No. 43, June 16, 2003.
63 Alex Keto, Geraldo Samor and Carla Anne Robbins, "Bush Pushes His Top Priorities at APEC Meeting," The Wall Street Journal, November 22, 2004; Interview with a German source close to the German Foreign Ministry, Washington, D.C., September 15, 2007.
64 Seymour M. Hersh, Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib (HarperCollins, 2004), p. 349; Follach and Stark, "The Birth of a Bomb," Der Spiegel, June 17, 2010; Connie Bruck, "Exiles," The New Yorker, March 6, 2006, online at http://www.iran-interlink.org/files/News4/Mar06/NewYorker060306.htm.
65 Mohammad Mohaddesin, "There's No Such Thing As a Moderate Fundamentalist," Middle East Quarterly, September 1995, pp 77-83, at http://www.danielpipes.org/6309/mohammad-mohaddessin-no-such-thing moderate-fundamentalist.
66 Bruck, "Exiles," The New Yorker, March 6, 2006, online at http://www.iran-interlink.org/files/News4/ Mar06/NewYorker060306.htm.
67 Melman and Javadanfar, The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran, op. cit., pp. 163-64.
68 Mark Hibbs, "U.S. Briefed Suppliers Group in October on Suspected Iranian Enrichment Plant," NuclearFuel, Vol. 27, No 26, December 23, 2002, p. 1; The Scotsman, December 14, 2002, cited in Fayezmanesh, The United States and Iran, p. 139.
69 Melman and Javadanfar, The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran, op. cit., pp. 159-164; Scott Ritter, Target Iran (Nation Books, 2006), pp. 23-28; Statement by Maj.-Gen. Yaakov Amidror, former head of research and assessment, IDF military intelligence, "The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran and Its Aftermath," Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, March 9, 2008, at http://www.jcpa.org/JCPA/Templates/ShowPage.asp? DBID=1&TMID=111&LNGID=1&FID=376&PID=0&IID=2053.
70 Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins, The Nuclear Jihadist (Twelve, 2007), pp. 296-97. Their account of the Israeli campaign to influence political attitudes toward Iran's nuclear program was based on interviews with "high-ranking Israeli military, intelligence and foreign ministry officials." Ibid., p. 394.
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