The International Atomic Energy Agency's "final assessment" on "unresolved issues" regarding the Iran nuclear program, released on December 2, leans toward supporting US intelligence assessments that Iran had a nuclear weapons program through 2003 - as well as its more recent assessment that no such program has continued since then.
The document won't jeopardize the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action reached between Iran and the P5+1 (the UN Security Council's five permanent members, plus Germany) in July. The United States and its negotiating partners will now draft a resolution that clears the way for a vote by the IAEA Board of Governors that will declare that questions surrounding the "possible military dimensions" of Iran's nuclear program have been resolved sufficiently to shift the IAEA's attention to monitoring the implementation of the new agreement.
But Iran can be expected to issue a scathing rebuttal to the document. Although it mentions information turned over by Iran on the issues covered, the assessment almost always appears to reaffirm that its assessments in its November 2011 report were correct - even when it has been forced to backtrack from some of its claims.
The most dramatic case of the IAEA handling hotly contested accusations in this way is its treatment of the alleged explosives cylinder that it had reported in 2011 as being placed in the Iranian military complex of Parchin in 2000. The IAEA had cited intelligence claims by member states in the earlier report that Iran had installed the alleged cylinder to conduct "hydrodynamic tests" - simulated nuclear explosions without the use of enriched uranium. The same report linked those tests to the use of components made from "high density materials such as tungsten."
But that intelligence was "incorrect" and "based on a lack of relevant expertise in nuclear weapons development and simulated testing," according to former IAEA senior inspector Robert Kelley, one of the world's leading specialists on intelligence analysis of foreign nuclear weapons programs and a former project leader on nuclear intelligence at Los Alamos National Laboratory. In a research note for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in October, Kelley said tungsten cannot be used for hydrodynamic testing, because it cannot be melted or cast into the necessary shape for such a simulated nuclear explosion, and grinding it into a powdered form that could be used is prohibitively complex and expensive.
Moreover, tungsten has very different properties from uranium and would therefore "give ambiguous results that do not answer the experimenter's questions," Kelley wrote. Kelley concluded that the only plausible substitute for enriched uranium in conducting such a test is uranium metal.
Significantly, in its new report, the IAEA - possibly chastened by Kelley's analysis - backtracks from some key assertions about the Parchin cylinder issue that were made in the 2011 report. It no longer attributes the information that the alleged cylinder was constructed to conduct hydrodynamic tests to intelligence from member states. The final assessment makes it clear that the idea that the cylinder was constructed for hydrodynamic testing was merely an inference from "information" that the alleged cylinder could contain the detonation of up to 70 kilograms of high explosives, which the agency assumed would be "suitable for conducting hydrodynamic experiments with high explosives."
In addition, the assessment makes no reference to the use of tungsten or any other substitute for uranium in such tests. In effect, the IAEA has withdrawn its previous assertion that the alleged cylinder was linked to hydrodynamic testing.
That retreat follows both IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano's acknowledgement after his visit to Parchin that he found neither the alleged cylinder nor any of the associated equipment in the building,and the completion of laboratory testing of the environmental samples taken in and near the building.
The major revelation in the IAEA's final report is half-hidden in a footnote, the significance of which is not explained. The footnote says, "The results identified two particles that appear to be chemically man-modified particles of natural uranium. This small number of particles with such elemental composition and morphology is not sufficient to indicate a connection with the use of nuclear material."
What that footnote about the environmental samples reveals, in effect, is that no hydrodynamic tests were conducted at the Parchin site. Any such test would have involved natural uranium metal, and would have been picked up in the environmental samples, as Kelley observed in the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute note.
Despite being compelled to retreat from earlier claims, however, the document seeks to defend its embrace of the Parchin cylinder story by attacking Iran's insistence that the building at Parchin had been used all along for storing chemicals for high explosives. The agency argues the environmental samples "did not detect explosive compounds or their precursors that would have indicated that the building had been used for the long-term storage of chemicals for explosives."
But it is not clear that the absence of traces of chemicals in environmental swipes is proof that the chemicals have not been stored in the building. The IAEA's environmental sampling has been geared to detecting nuclear-related particles. And drums of chemicals wouldn't necessarily leave any residue that could be detected.
Iran also contested the IAEA's argument that satellite imagery supports the intelligence claim of a large cylinder by producing its own aerial photograph in October that showed otherwise. The assessment document provides no details or context in regard to Iran's aerial photo, but claims that the agency has acquired new satellite imagery that "supports previous indications of the presence of a large cylindrical object at the location of interest to the Agency in the summer of 2000."
That carefully chosen, vague wording implies that the new IAEA satellite imagery is actually highly ambiguous. The 2011 report used the same ploy, asserting that its satellite images were "consistent with" the intelligence claims.
Another claim in the 2011 report that the IAEA has refused to abandon, even though Iran submitted strong evidence to refute it, is that Iran's work on a "multipoint initiation [MPI] system" for high explosives was done with the assistance of a "foreign expert" who had worked on a nuclear weapons program. That report further asserted that Iran had carried such "large scale high explosives experiments" in "the region of Marivan."
In August and September 2015, Iran provided detailed information about the development of MPI technology for a conventional military application beginning in the mid-1990s and even demonstrated how the MPI technology had been used in conventional explosive applications. But Iran denied that it had used the precise hemispheric geometry linked to nuclear detonations attributed to it in the 2011 report.
The strongest Iranian challenge to the IAEA accusation, however, came in November 2014, when Iran's permanent representative to the IAEA announced an offer to allow the agency to visit Marivan, where the alleged nuclear-weapons-related experiments had supposedly taken place. But the IAEA refused the invitation, without any explanation.
The final assessment document makes no reference to Marivan or to the "foreign expert" who had supposedly advised Iran on its nuclear-related experiments. Instead it appears to argue that it is impossible to determine whether Iran's work on MPI was dabbling in nuclear weapons research or not.
"The Agency assesses that the MPI technology developed by Iran has characteristics relevant to a nuclear explosive device," the document reads, "as well as to a small number of alternative applications."