Two Years After ElBaradei’s Departure, IAEA Joins Anti-Iran Drumbeat

Mohamed ElBaradei (Wikimedia Commons photo)

As I noted on Thursday, the “sport” of predicting when Israel will attack Iran has now moved from the progressive blogosphere to many conventional news outlets.  This week will see a major escalation in the anti-Iran rhetoric after the release of a much-anticipated report on Iran from the International Atomic Energy Agency.  Many news outlets already are saying this report will be damning for Iran.  Today, the Washington Post devotes front-page prominence to its “scoop” of details expected to be contained in the report. The title for the article, which seems meant to be read with breathless fear, is “IAEA says foreign expertise has brought Iran to threshold of nuclear capability”.

Here is the how the Post article opens:

Intelligence provided to U.N. nuclear officials shows that Iran’s government has mastered the critical steps needed to build a nuclear weapon, receiving assistance from foreign scientists to overcome key technical hurdles, according to Western diplomats and nuclear experts briefed on the findings.

So, outsiders have provided assistance to Iran so that they have “mastered key steps needed to build a nuclear weapon”.  But, if we dig a bit deeper in the article, we have a little more detail on just what these “key steps” are.  The Post seems to be relying almost exclusively on information provided by David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, a non-partisan organization concentrating on nonproliferation:

Albright said IAEA officials, based on the totality of the evidence given to them, have concluded that Iran “has sufficient information to design and produce a workable implosion nuclear device” using highly enriched uranium as its fissile core. In the presentation, he described intelligence that points to a formalized and rigorous process for gaining all the necessary skills for weapons-building, using native talent as well as a generous helping of foreign expertise.

It would appear that the latest basis for war will be the conclusion that Iran has developed technology for a nuclear trigger.  Another aspect of this triggering technology is reported by AP, where they describe a large steel container designed for testing the trigger technology.

These reports simply ignore the major barrier Iran has not yet passed.  As I noted on Thursday, Iran’s current capability for uranium enrichment is at 20% uranium and a bomb requires uranium enriched to 90%.  But if Iran has been tutored on how to trigger the 90% uranium once it exists and might be carrying out experiments on that triggering, then now is the time to attack if we listen to those beating the war drums.

But how have we gone from the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that stated unequivocally that Iran suspended all weapons work in 2003 to now, with claims Iran is on the “threshold” of nuclear capability?  For one thing, there was a change at the top of the IAEA.  The Director General of the IAEA from 1997 to 2009 was Mohamed ElBaradei. Recall that ElBaradei received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. Many believe that ElBaradei’s prize was awarded to highlight the difference between his diligent, truth-based work on weapons inspections and nonproliferation and the false “intelligence” on WMD’s the Bush administration manufactured as the basis for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The new Director General of the IAEA took over December 1, 2009.  Two years seems to be just about the right amount of time for a new attitude to propagate through such an institution, so it seems reasonable to assume that ElBaradei’s influence at IAEA is no longer being felt in the new report about to be issued.  I’m not familiar with Yukiya Amano or his previous work.  It appears that most of his career has been in the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he did spend one year as their director of the Nuclear Energy Division, but that seems to be the extent to which his career may have been intertwined with the problematic Japanese nuclear energy industry.

As for David Albright, whom the Post relied on extensively for its “scoop”, the History Commons entry for him shows that he demonstrated a healthy dose of skepticism for Bush administration claims about Iraq in 2003 and did not hesitate to go public with his concerns. That someone with Albright’s credibility and track record is concerned about where Iran is headed with their nuclear technology then becomes a reason to look carefully at the new claims being made.  I’m a little less concerned about any “knowledge” Iran may have gotten from outside consultants, as nuclear technology has been around for decades and is hardly a well-protected secret.  I would like to see more detailed information, though, on the reported steel container for testing the explosive trigger technology.  On the surface, this doesn’t sound like a facility that might have a more peaceful alternative use, so we definitely need to know more about this facility.

In the end, though, the trusted voice of ElBaradei will be missed as the world debates what is going on in Iran.  If only the world had listened to him back in 2005.  Here is a snippet from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, where he outlined how we could have avoided exactly what is happening in Iran today:

Second, tighten control over the operations for producing the nuclear material that could be used in weapons. Under the current system, any country has the right to master these operations for civilian uses. But in doing so, it also masters the most difficult steps in making a nuclear bomb.

To overcome this, I am hoping that we can make these operations multinational – so that no one country can have exclusive control over any such operation. My plan is to begin by setting up a reserve fuel bank, under IAEA control, so that every country will be assured that it will get the fuel needed for its bona fide peaceful nuclear activities. This assurance of supply will remove the incentive – and the justification – for each country to develop its own fuel cycle. We should then be able to agree on a moratorium on new national facilities, and to begin work on multinational arrangements for enrichment, fuel production, waste disposal and reprocessing.

We must also strengthen the verification system. IAEA inspections are the heart and soul of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. To be effective, it is essential that we are provided with the necessary authority, information, advanced technology, and resources. And our inspections must be backed by the UN Security Council, to be called on in cases of non-compliance.

This week’s report from the IAEA could well determine whether a new war will break out in Iran.  It is vital that the IAEA provide sufficient details in its report and in follow-up discussions for the world to determine the reliability of the information in the report. Sources of information should be documented fully and the credibility of those sources needs to be vetted.  The determination on the part of Israel and the US for war with Iran feels strikingly like the US determination to attack Iraq in 2003.  If the intelligence has been gamed once again, it is incumbent on the citizens of the world to find the flaws in the intelligence and point them out before hostilities break out. Many people pointed out those flaws in 2003 and were ignored.  Will the world listen this time if there are flaws in the Iran report?

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.
35 replies
  1. Jim White says:

    It was a bit outside the topic of the post, but I was really struck by this passage in ElBaradei’s Nobel speech. Keep in mind this was one month short of six years ago that he said this:

    We are 1,000 people here today in this august hall. Imagine for a moment that we represent the world’s population. These 200 people on my left would be the wealthy of the world, who consume 80 per cent of the available resources. And these 400 people on my right would be living on an income of less than $2 per day.

    This underprivileged group of people on my right is no less intelligent or less worthy than their fellow human beings on the other side of the aisle. They were simply born into this fate.

    In the real world, this imbalance in living conditions inevitably leads to inequality of opportunity, and in many cases loss of hope. And what is worse, all too often the plight of the poor is compounded by and results in human rights abuses, a lack of good governance, and a deep sense of injustice. This combination naturally creates a most fertile breeding ground for civil wars, organized crime, and extremism in its different forms

    .

    ElBaradei gets it on so many levels. I hope that he is allowed to read the background info that went into the IAEA report and to provide his own perspective on its meaning.

  2. emptywheel says:

    One other thing that is important to remember about this is that IAEA has already shared this intelligence with the world community. So what dictates the timing of the public discussion now? If this is supposed to justify either a war or sanctions by countries who have already seen the intell, why wait until now?

    And of course, that raises the question of the timing of the Scary Iran Plot, for which the USG controlled the roll-out timing.

  3. rugger9 says:

    While I see the constant drumbeat for some kind of “action” on Iran, seeing Israel test fire a ballistic missile and accelerating the settlement building program [prohibited by the Oslo accords] is not good news. The most useful question failed to be asked, however: where did Iran get its skill? China or Russia, who’d like the USA down a peg or two? Pakistan, where we can’t debrief [or apparently restrict the movements of] AQ Khan the known proliferator?

    Comprehensive, thinking assessment is needed, something AIPAC doesn’t want so our kids can be killed for their war profiteering.

    Or is it “wag the dog”?

  4. orionATL says:

    oh go read david sanger in the nytimes yesterday (“opinion”)

    and today (“reporting”).

    he’ll tell you, or insinuate, all you really need to know about iran’s dastardly determination to build “da bomb” so it can blow up an israeli city or two.

    his opinion piece/slash reporting will also tell you that judy miller was not an aberration at the nytimes. she was, like sanger, a senior new york times reporter.

    the times is all for war all the time where israeli interests are involved.

  5. lysias says:

    If I read the Washington Post article correctly, all that Iran is accused of doing is obtaining knowledge, scientific and technological knowledge. Since when has that been a casus belli?

    And, once that knowledge is acquired, just how does one put the genie back in the bottle? Just what would constitute victory in a war against knowledge?

  6. Weasel says:

    You said:

    That someone with Albright’s credibility and track record is concerned about where Iran is headed with their nuclear technology then becomes a reason to look carefully at the new claims being made.

    However, Albright isn’t “concerned about where Iran is headed.” Look at what he is doing:

    But some of the highlights were described in a presentation by Albright at a private conference of intelligence professionals last week. PowerPoint slides from the presentation were obtained by The Washington Post, and details of Albright’s summary were confirmed by two European diplomats privy to the IAEA’s internal reports. The two officials spoke on the condition of anonymity, in keeping with diplomatic protocol.

    He’s holding presentations to push this issue hard, and then leaking his claims to the Washington Post, the most pro-war journal in the country. Albright can’t be considered some dispassionate scholar, he’s part of the operation pushing this story and preparing the storyline in advance of the actual IAEA report.

  7. Jim White says:

    @lysias: Yes, the Post article concentrates almost entirely on Iran gaining knowledge, but I did include the link to the AP article that claims there is a facility dedicated to experiments on the conventional explosives used in the trigger device. So there is a claim of active work on technology that is said to be only useful for nuclear weapons. That’s the part I said we need to evaluate very carefully.

  8. lysias says:

    @Jim White: The only example I can think of of anybody making a nation’s acquiring weapons a casus belli was our attack on Iraq for allegedly possessing weapons of mass destruction. How great a precedent is that?

    By the way, does a trigger device that uses conventional explosives constitute a nuclear weapon, or a weapon of mass destruction of any kind?

  9. MadDog says:

    @Jim White: Without far more detail than the AP provides, I remain dubious about the claims regarding:

    “…Intelligence from unnamed member states that a bus-sized steel container, located at the Iranian military base of Parchin is likely being used for nuclear-related high explosives testing of the kind needed to release an atomic blast. The agency has satellite imagery of the container…”

    This is highly reminiscent of the Bush/Cheney regime’s touting of their purported “intelligence” on the Iraq Trailers used for biological warfare.

    From the description that the AP article gives, it sounds like a steel container that resembles the millions of commonplace steel containers used for shipping.

    Secondly, just like the Iraq Trailers debacle, saying that there are satellite images of the Iranian steel container as some type of authoritative statement of the content or usage of said steel container is about as ludicrous an intelligence statement as one can get.

    Do they really imagine that folks would believe that they have some magical x-ray vision thingee to see inside said steel container?

  10. Jim White says:

    @MadDog: Indeed, it’s not that different from the claims on claims about Iraq’s aluminum tubes and centrifuges, too. We need to see LOTS more details before accepting that this can only be a weapons project.

  11. BoxTurtle says:

    @MadDog: They wouldn’t need anything special to test a “trigger”. During the manhatten project, we tested explosive lenses in the open on the ground. There’s no need for a can until you’re actually testing with U238 and even then you don’t need it if you don’t mind a mess.

    The can could be a chemical reactor, designed to hold high pressure/temprature reactions. Iran does have their own chemical industry.

    So I’m thinking this is another Iraqi weapons van as well.

    Iran could do all the work for a nuke up to the first real test in somebodies basement and we’d never know.

    Boxturtle (Perhaps it’s time for Hillary to make a “Colin’s Speeech” to the UN)

  12. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: From ISIS’s Nuclear Iran website on the Parchin site:

    “…On November 1, 2005 Agency inspectors were given access to a military site at Parchin and were able to take several environmental samples. The IAEA’s February 2006 report (11 page PDF) notes that “The Agency did not observe any unusual activities in the buildings visited, and the results of the analysis of environmental samples did not indicate the presence of nuclear material at those locations.” Visual inspection showed that sites were not as capable as suggested by satellite imagery. Although this visit dampened suspicions that this sites was dedicated to high explosive testing for nuclear weapons, suspicions about the Parchin site persist and more inspections are warranted.”

    (My Bold)

    If all the IAEA has is “technical means” intelligence (i.e. satellite imagery), and even if provided by more capable US satellite imagery systems than commerical satellite imagery, previous track records suggest continued skepticism is warranted.

  13. BoxTurtle says:

    http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2011/11/07/iran-nuke-pursuit-in-high-gear-un-watchdog-to-report/

    If you read the fox link, you’ll see that one of the horrible things that has happened is that Iran was given the plans for a “Neutron initiator”. For the record, these things have been completely described in unclassified literature. For decades. The simple version is a gold plated berylium sphere, with shallow channels cut into it. The channels contain Polonium-210. The sphere is placed at the center of the core and upon detonation the Po mixes with the Be and produces neutrons.

    The other method is a neutron tube, which is basically a small particle accelerator. They’re available to private industry, hospitals use them to product radioisotopes.

    OMG! Now everybody reading this is as dangerous as Iran!

    Boxturtle (Tomorrows lesson: Why you don’t really need an initiator to build a bomb)

  14. Jim White says:

    @CTuttle: Oh, my. Thanks for that very important link, CTutt. Here’s a key paragraph:

    Dr. Vyacheslav Danilenko is a well known Ukrainian (“former Soviet”) scientist. But his specialties are not “weapon” or “nuclear” science, indeed there seems to be nothing to support that claim, but the production of nanodiamonds via detonations (ppt). According to the history of detonation nanodiamonds he describes in chapter 10 of Ultrananocrystalline Diamond – Synthesis, Properties, and Applications (pdf) he has worked in that field since 1962, invented new methods used in the process and is related with Alit, an Ukrainian company that produces nanodiamonds.

    That could poke some serious holes in the claims from Albright, and, presumably, the IAEA.

  15. BoxTurtle says:

    @rugger9: And I can get Am from smoke detactors.

    But an initiator isn’t really needed, though it has many advantages. Pu or U under that compression WILL generate enough neutrons to start a reaction.

    But if I’m Iran and I want an initiator, I make neutron tubes myself or I order them from Russia.

    Boxturtle (Still, this is certainly a better story than the used car salesman and the diplomat)

  16. orionATL says:

    the situation unfolding at the hands of american officials with respect to iran devoloping a nuclear “capability”,

    reminds me of the psyops strategy cheney and rumsfeld vidited upon us citizens as a prelude to the glorious invasion and ten-yr occupation of iraq.

    that pnac/ovp/dod campaign was delineated by colonel sam gardiner.

    here is a comment and set of citation of gardiner’s from “democrstic underground”:

    “… A Strategy of Lies: How the White House Fed the Public a Steady Diet of Falsehoods

    The 56-page investigation was assembled by USAF Colonel (Ret.) Sam Gardiner. “Truth from These Podia: Summary of a Study of Strategic Influence, Perception Management, Strategic Information Warfare and Strategic Psychological Operations in Gulf II” identifies more than 50 stories about the Iraq war that were faked by government propaganda artists in a covert campaign to “market” the military invasion of Iraq. Gardiner has credentials. He has taught at the National War College, the Air War College and the Naval Warfare College and was a visiting scholar at the Swedish Defense College.

    According to Gardiner, “It was not bad intelligence” that lead to the quagmire in Iraq, “It was an orchestrated effort that began before the war” that was designed to mislead the public and the world. Gardiner’s research lead him to conclude that the US and Britain had conspired at the highest levels to plant “stories of strategic influence” that were known to be false.

    The Times of London described the $200-million-plus US operation as a “meticulously planned strategy to persuade the public, the Congress, and the allies of the need to confront the threat from Saddam Hussein.” The multimillion-dollar propaganda campaign run out of the White House and Defense Department was, in Gardiner’s final assessment “irresponsible in parts” and “might have been illegal.” …”

    this quote was taken from :

    http://www.democraticunderground.com/discuss/duboard.php?az=view_all&address=104×3839649

  17. rugger9 says:

    @BoxTurtle:
    Cold core neutron sources would be the search, and yes, it’s not hard.

    Condi all over again. Sorry I missed her book release last week, I was wondering when she would get her side out. Anyone heard from the stupidest guy on earth yet?

  18. orionATL says:

    sone insight might be gained by beginning a catalogue of propaganda about iran and, in particular, its nuclear “capability”.

    certainly, “the drug-peddler and the diplomat” is one.

    the bus-sized explosion-containment chamber has the esrmark of another.

    the readiness of iran to produce a useable nuclear weapon now, or soon is a third.

    anybody can play the game.

  19. GKJames says:

    I must be dim in that I don’t understand the drama over Iran and the bomb. Granted, I’ve assumed all along that that’s Iran’s intent. I assume further that Iran wants nukes for deterrence, not — as national narratives in Israel and the US have it — to take out Jerusalem. (“Those messianic mullahs are INSANE!” has never struck me as much of a premise for policy.)

    Sure it’s not helpful to have more nukes in the world. But is this really worth going to war over? All because in the bowels of the great ship of state we’ve still got cadres peeved about ’79? Because we can’t countenance the idea of Iran’s wanting to be a regional power? Given the admission that assaulting Iran would only delay, not eliminate, Iran’s getting the bomb, what would be the point of the exercise? Wouldn’t it be better to formalize Iran’s admission to the Nuclear Club so that, more than anything else, the rest of the world can be assured of reasonable command-and-control structures in place?

  20. Jim White says:

    @b: Thanks for writing that very important post. CTuttle had linked to it at 21 above, and after reading it I also tweeted it. You have provided very important information that needs to be provided as the world assesses the validity of the claims from the IAEA and the US.

  21. ottogrendel says:

    “Intelligence provided to U.N. nuclear officials shows that Iran’s government has mastered the critical steps needed to build a nuclear weapon . . .” and from the WaPo: “The officials, citing secret intelligence provided over several years to the International Atomic Energy Agency . . .”

    Intelligence provided by whom? Something as apparently as important as this and the WaPo’s audience is not informed about the source of the “intelligence”? Bullshit. What reason would anyone have for believing this?

    Relative to this topic, I recommend watching “Speaking Freely, Vol. 3: Ray McGovern on the Corruption of U.S. Intelligence”

  22. earlofhuntingdon says:

    I don’t suppose that if we stopped threatening to destroy Iran, Iran’s government would feel less inclined to develop weapons that would assure the destruction of those out to destroy it. Somewhere, I’ve read that script before.

  23. Bob Schacht says:

    Don’t you see? We have to kill Iran because they know too much.

    Bob in AZ
    where voters ousted Russell Pearce, the right-winger responsible for SB1070, in a recall election! who knew?

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