Washington - Western diplomats have reportedly faulted Iran in recent weeks for failing to provide the International Atomic Energy Agency with information on experiments on high explosives intended to produce a nuclear weapon, according to an intelligence document the IAEA is investigating.
But the document not only remains unverified but can only be linked to Iran by a far-fetched official account marked by a series of coincidences related to a foreign scientist that that are highly suspicious.
The original appearance of the document in early 2008, moreover, was not only conveniently timed to support Israel's attack on a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran in December that was damaging to Israeli interests, but was leaked to the news media with a message that coincided with the current Israeli argument.
The IAEA has long touted the document, which came from an unidentified member state, as key evidence justifying suspicion that Iran has covered up past nuclear weapons work.
In its September 2008 report the IAEA said the document describes "experimentation in connection with symmetrical initiation of a hemispherical high explosive charge suitable for an implosion type nuclear device."
But an official Iranian communication to the IAEA Secretariat challenged its authenticity, declaring, "There is no evidence or indication in this document regarding its linkage to Iran or its preparation by Iran."
The IAEA has never responded to the Iranian communication.
The story of the high explosives document and related intelligence published in the November 2011 IAEA report raises more questions about the document than it answers.
The report said the document describes the experiments as being monitored with "large numbers of optical fiber cables" and cited intelligence that the experiments had been assisted by a foreign expert said to have worked in his home country's nuclear weapons programme.
The individual to whom the report referred, Ukrainian scientist Vyacheslav Danilenko, was not a nuclear weapons expert, however, but a specialist on nanodiamond synthesis. Danilenko had lectured on that subject in Iran from 2000 to 2005 and had co-authored a professional paper on the use of fiber optic cables to monitor explosive shock waves in 1992, which was available online.
Those facts presented the opportunity for a foreign intelligence service to create a report on high explosives experiments that would suggest a link to nuclear weapons as well as to Danilenko. Danilenko's open-source publication could help convince the IAEA Safeguards Department of the authenticity of the document, which would otherwise have been missing.
Even more suspicious, soon after the appearance of the high explosives document, the same state that had turned it over to the IAEA claimed to have intelligence on a large cylinder at Parchin suitable for carrying out the high explosives experiments described in the document, according to the 2011 IAEA report.
And it identified Danilenko as the designer of the cylinder, again basing the claim on an open-source publication that included a sketch of a cylinder he had designed in 1999-2000.
The whole story thus depended on two very convenient intelligence finds within a very short time, both of which were linked to a single individual and his open source publications.
Furthermore, the cylinder Danilenko sketched and discussed in the publication was explicitly designed for nanodiamonds production, not for bomb-making experiments.
Robert Kelley, who was the chief of IAEA teams in Iraq, has observed that the IAEA account of the installation of the cylinder at a site in Parchin by March 2000 is implausible, since Danilenko was on record as saying he was still in the process of designing it in 2000.
And Kelley, an expert on nuclear weapons, has pointed out that the cylinder would have been unnecessary for "multipoint initiation" experiments. "We've been taken for a ride on this whole thing," Kelley told IPS.
The document surfaced in early 2008, under circumstances pointing to an Israeli role. An article in the May 2008 issue of Jane's International Defence Review, dated Mar. 14, 2008, referred to, "[d]ocuments shown exclusively to Jane's" by a "source connected to a Western intelligence service".
It said the documents showed that Iran had "actively pursued the development of a nuclear weapon system based on relatively advanced multipoint initiation (MPI) nuclear implosion detonation technology for some years...."
The article revealed the political agenda behind the leaking of the high explosives document. "The picture the papers paints," he wrote, "starkly contradicts the US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released in December 2007, which said Tehran had frozen its military nuclear programme in 2003."
That was the argument that Israeli officials and supporters in the United States had been making in the wake of the National Intelligence Estimate, which Israel was eager to discredit.
The IAEA first mentioned the high explosives document in an annex to its May 2008 report, shortly after the document had been leaked to Janes.
David Albright, the director of the Institute for Science and International Security, who enjoyed a close relationship with the IAEA Deputy Director Olli Heinonen, revealed in an interview with this writer in September 2008 that Heinonen had told him one document that he had obtained earlier that year had confirmed his trust in the earlier collection of intelligence documents. Albright said that document had "probably" come from Israel.
Former IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei was very sceptical about all the purported Iranian documents shared with the IAEA by the United States. Referring to those documents, he writes in his 2011 memoirs, "No one knew if any of this was real."
ElBaradei recalls that the IAEA received still more purported Iranian documents directly from Israel in summer 2009. The new documents included a two-page document in Farsi describing a four-year programme to produce a neutron initiator for a fission chain reaction.
Kelley has said that ElBaradei found the document lacking credibility, because it had no chain of custody, no identifiable source, and no official markings or anything else that could establish its authenticity—the same objections Iran has raised about the high explosives document.
Meanwhile, ElBaradei resisted pressure from the United States and its European allies in 2009 to publish a report on that and other documents – including the high explosive document — as an annex to an IAEA report. ElBaradei's successor as director general, Yukia Amano, published the annex the anti-Iran coalition had wanted earlier in the November 2011 report.
Amano later told colleagues at the agency that he had no choice, because he promised the United States to do so as part of the agreement by Washington to support his bid for the job within the Board of Governors, according to a former IAEA official who asked not to be identified.