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When Debating Iran's Nuclear Program, Sort Fact from Fiction

04/09/2015 12:12 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2015
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American policy makers have made it a point, expressed consistently over time, to emphasize that intelligence estimates do not, in and of themselves, constitute policy decisions, and are useful only in so far as they inform policy makers who then make the actual decisions. The logic of this argument allows for the notion of detached decision-making on the part of the policy makers, and includes a built-in premise that the estimates they use are constructed in such a manner as to allow for a wide range of policy options. This model of decision-making works well on paper, and within the realm of academic theory, but in the harsh reality of post-9/11 America, where overhyped information is further exaggerated through a relentless 24-hour news cycle that encourages simplicity to the point of intellectual dishonesty, it is hard to imagine a scenario where such a pattern of informed, deliberate decision-making has, or could, occur.

This is especially true with regard to Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program, an issue that has been projected front and center to the American public as a result of the ongoing debate over the viability of the recently concluded nuclear framework agreement. The technical aspects of that agreement will be the subject of intense negotiations scheduled to take place through June 30, when a final accord is expected to be reached. The details of any such accord will provide the grist for expert analysis by those equipped to engage in such. For the most part, the American public is not. However, the role of the American public is critical in determining the level of political support generated for any nuclear agreement with Iran, especially given the contentious debate ongoing between Congress and the White House over this issue. While the technical minutia of nuclear enrichment and the means to effectively monitor such may elude most Americans, the concerns over a nuclear-armed Iran do not. A meaningful debate and dialogue over Iran's nuclear program is essential in a democracy such as the United States, but it is likewise essential that any such discussion be done responsibly, and be based upon facts, not fiction.

America's decade-long experience in the post-9/11 Middle East has conditioned the American public, and by extension the American body politic, to embrace hyperbole and sensationalism over fact and nuance. In doing so, decisions are being made which do not reflect reality, and as such not only fail to rectify the situation at hand, but more often than not, exacerbate it. America's experience with Iran stands as a clear case in point, where analysts have failed to accurately depict the true nature of Iran's military capability, among other issues, and policy makers have, as a result, failed to formulate policies which deal with the issues arising from decades of American-Iranian animosity fueled by post-9/11 emotions, which continue to run high to this day. Getting it wrong on Iran has become an American institution, one which may have far-reaching detrimental consequences.

The level of analytic deficiency which is present in the current American assessment of Iran mirrors the now-disgraced work of the neo-conservative "Team B," created to second-guess CIA estimates of Soviet military power in the late 1970's. The CIA Director at the time, George H. W. Bush, noted that the work of "Team B" "...lends itself for purposes other than estimative accuracy." This is perhaps the most sympathetic spin one could attach to the present-day analysis and assessments conducted by the US Government regarding both Iran's military threat (defined in terms of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capability), and system of government (described as moving a blend of theocratic-military dictatorship). One is loath to ascribe a too-rosy characteristic to either Iranian military capability or its system of government. However, the present American assessment is so poorly supported by fact-based analysis that it borders on the dangerously ridiculous.

The United States has, for the past decade, labeled Iran as a nation pursuing nuclear weapons capability. This conclusion is based upon internal intelligence estimates, as well as the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), mandated by the United Nations Security Council to monitor Iran's nuclear activities. The US intelligence estimates are inconclusive and contentious, thereby placing an even greater emphasis on the conclusions and analysis of the IAEA on ascertaining Iran's nuclear ambition. Much of the work of the IAEA to date has centered on Iran's effort to enrich uranium, a program Iran says is for peaceful nuclear energy, and the IAEA says might have application in a yet-to-be-discovered nuclear weapons program. From a technical standpoint, Iran's enrichment program represents an analytical black hole, where nothing can be discerned that would permit a finding that would certify Iran as a nation pursuing nuclear weapons. As such, one is left disassembling a complex web of conspiracy theories put forward by the IAEA and its supporters as fact, and yet still remain largely unsubstantiated.

The IAEA derives its concerns over "Possible military dimensions" of Iran's nuclear program not from any new intelligence information or data collected by its personnel inside Iran, but rather a re-packaging of data the IAEA had previously considered too questionable in terms of its veracity for use in formulating official positions. The majority of this data is directly linked to a laptop computer, or more precisely, the contents of a laptop computer, presented to the IAEA by the United States back in 2005, and said to contain material sourced from inside Iran which related to ongoing Iranian efforts to develop a nuclear weapon. The laptop computer itself was not of Iranian origin, but rather served as the vehicle for which the United States had assembled a significant body of fragmentary data, most, if not all, of which was sourced to an Iranian opposition group -- the Mujahedin-e Khalq, or MEK -- which has a mixed record with regard to its past reporting on Iran's nuclear program.

It was the MEK which disclosed Iran's nuclear enrichment program at Natanz back in 2002, resulting in the IAEA's ongoing investigations in Iran today. But subsequent reports from the MEK about secret nuclear weapons facilities located on sensitive military installations had proven to be wrong. Most of the data on the laptop computer was not in the form of original documentation, but rather text documents prepared by the CIA from undisclosed sources. And the actual documentation that was contained on the laptop turned out to be questionable in nature, either showing obvious signs of alteration, or inconsistent in format from legitimate Iranian documents of a similar nature.

To overcome the obvious deficiencies associated with the laptop documentation, the United States took the lead in assembling intelligence information from its own sources and those of other nations, and used this new data to repackage the laptop material in a manner which made it impossible for the IAEA to share the material with Iran in an effort to compel cooperation. Iran had been able to provide strong refutation of the limited amount of data the IAEA had initially been allowed to share from the laptop computer, significantly watering down the impact of the allegations made. With the new intelligence material packaged in a manner which precluded any sharing of information with Iran, the IAEA demanded Iranian cooperation, most of which went beyond Iran's obligations under the NPT and its existing safeguards agreements. Iran's refusal to cooperate with what it calls "baseless" allegations lies at the center of the case the IAEA is currently making regarding "possible military dimensions" to Iran's nuclear program.

In addition to the issues created by a process which requires Iran to prove a negative (i.e., making an assertion void of demonstrable fact, then demanding that Iran prove the assertion false), there are two additional problems which dilute information used by the IAEA to bolster its case about "possible military dimensions" to the Iranian program. The first is the timeliness of the information being used. Most of the data is sourced to the 2004 timeframe. As the IAEA itself notes, the passage of time makes verification of this data increasingly difficult, even if Iran were to provide the level of cooperation being demanded by the IAEA. The other issue lies in the actual nature of the allegations themselves. Most of these allegations fail a certain logic test, such as those which claim an Iranian program to develop neutron initiators for a military weapon, without explaining why the nuclear material which would be required to conduct such experiments continues to be fully accounted for, or why no physical evidence of such experiments (such as trace elements of nuclear residue) has been detected by the sensitive inspection means used by the IAEA.

Allegations about a nuclear weapons design capable of producing a weapon that could be delivered by a ballistic missile likewise fail the logic test, since nowhere in the cited documentation in the possession of the IAEA is there any mention of a nuclear warhead or nuclear weapons design, but rather what is claimed to be ballistic missile re-entry vehicle design specifications. References to high precision detonators fired simultaneously likewise raise questions, since they refer to a highly-classified nuclear weapons design technique which was used on certain US-designed nuclear weapons in the past. The technical skill and experience required to produce such a weapon in Iran today requires one to accept, by way of example, the Wright Brothers to be exploring modern jet-propulsion fighters even before they conducted their first powered flight at Kitty Hawk.

Other alleged tests and studies can either be similarly explained away as illogical, or associated with the legitimate military needs of Iran in light of its current security situation. In this, the IAEA approach to investigating Iran's nuclear programs bears an eerie resemblance to another UN-led investigation of a covert nuclear weapons program. In the 1990's the United Nations Special Commission, or UNSCOM, was tasked by the Security Council with overseeing the destruction, removal or rendering harmless of Iraq's chemical, biological, nuclear and long-range ballistic missile capabilities. The nuclear aspect of this work was done in concert with the IAEA. By 1992, it was acknowledged by all parties that the major infrastructure associated with Iraq's former nuclear program, including all nuclear material, had been accounted for and/or disposed of. One of the unresolved issues was that of technical knowledge of the scientists and technicians who had formerly worked on the Iraqi nuclear weapons program.

A major concern within UNSCOM and the IAEA was that Iraq was grouping this knowledge under the guise of national reconstruction programs so that the involved personnel might be able to continue their nuclear weapons-related work in secret. Organization charts, drawn from a combination of intelligence sources (primarily from Israel and the United States) and in-house analysis by both UNSCOM and the IAEA, were created, populated with scientists and technicians, who were then assigned various covert research and manufacturing tasks, all part of what was assessed as a "known effort" by Iraq to reconstitute its nuclear program. In the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, this was all shown to be false -- Iraq was not reconstituting a nuclear capability, and all of the scientists and technicians were, as Iraq claimed, working for the cause of national reconstruction.

The IAEA today seems to not have learned from the past. It has built a conspiracy theory about nuclear weapons research and development around the person of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a scientist and University lecturer, and his alleged role in the development of a "nuclear trigger" for an Iranian nuclear bomb. Mr. Fakhrizadeh has been named as one of the persons whom the United Nations has placed economic and travel sanctions on because of his work with Iran's nuclear program, and Iran's ongoing refusal to allow him to be interviewed by the IAEA. The IAEA analysis is based upon claims, derived from Israeli and western intelligence sources, that Mr. Fakhrizadeh was involved with an institute, the Physics Research Center, which in the 1990's received several items, such as vacuum equipment, magnets, a balancing machine, and a mass spectrometer, which were dual-use in nature, meaning they had legitimate peaceful applications as well as being capable of being used in nuclear weapons-related activities. The IAEA assesses, again based upon the conclusions of western and Israeli intelligence reports, that Mr. Fakhrizadeh transferred the equipment, personnel and nuclear weapons mission previously associated (through analysis, not fact) with the Physics Research Center with him when he assumed his current role as the head of the "Advanced Technology Development and Deployment Department." The IAEA has in its possession a document, part of a larger trove of similar documents of questionable provenance, which states that Mr. Fakhrizadeh serves in the role of department head at the present time.

The document the IAEA is relying on, however, has been demonstrated to be a forgery. The information contained within the document, purporting to show Mr. Fakhrizadeh as a department head, and providing names and organizational references for a dozen other entities the IAEA has affiliated with an Iranian nuclear weapons program, is at odds with known facts, and is internally contradictory. Iran has provided documents to the IAEA which demonstrate that Mr. Fakhrizadeh's work with the Physics Research Center was entirely peaceful in nature, a claim the IAEA has certified as accurate. The IAEA likewise does not contest that the material acquired by the Physics Research Center was procured and used for peaceful purposes. It also acknowledges that the document which links Mr. Fakhrizadeh to the work of the "Advanced Technology and Deployment Department" has serious credibility issues, and that Mr. Fakhrizadeh's role in any such organization has probably been misrepresented.

The IAEA claims that it needs to interview Mr. Fakhrizadeh in order to "corroborate" its findings. Iran, however, refuses to permit such an interview on the grounds that it has nothing to do with Iran's obligations under its nuclear safeguards agreement with the IAEA, and that it would legitimize a process which allowed forged documents to serve as a basis for probing into legitimate Iranian national security matters which fall outside the purview of the IAEA's mandate. Thus, Mr. Fakhrizadeh's name remains on the list of Iranians being sanctioned by the United Nations, and the document which serves to legitimize the IAEA's interest in Mr. Fakhrizadeh, although exposed as fraudulent, continues to serve as the basis for one of the IAEA's "unresolved issues," thereby continuing the saga of an Iranian "nuclear trigger" which does not exist, breathing life into conspiracy theories about an Iranian nuclear weapons program which has been manufactured by western and Israeli intelligence services from thin air.

The intellectually dishonest approach witnessed in the IAEA investigation of Iran's nuclear program, clearly demonstrated in the Fakhrizadeh case, has not stopped the United States from endorsing the IAEA's findings, flawed as they are, and expanding upon them. The lack of integrity displayed in the consistent misrepresentation of Iran's nuclear capabilities by the United States is not an isolated incident. Indeed, the flawed assessment in regard to Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions is directly tied into similarly flawed analysis put forward by the United States on Iran's ballistic missile capabilities.

The Iranian missile silos have been a reality for more than a decade. Far from representing cutting-edge technology, the Iranian missile silos are reflective of the reality that Iran's first- and second-generation Shahab missiles are inaccurate systems, possessing a circular-error-probability (CEP) of more than one kilometer (this means that a missile will land within one kilometer of its designated impact point.) The one ton warhead of the Shahab-A missile is capable of causing considerable damage, equivalent to a 2,000-pound bomb dropped by the US Air Force. The lethal radius of a 2,000 bomb is measured in terms of "probability of injury," or PI, with 225-275 meters producing a 10% PI rate, and 500 meters for a .1% PI. This isn't bad when one is guiding a 2,000-pound bomb onto its target using satellite guidance or laser designation, in which case the CEP is close to zero. But for a system such as the Shahab-A missile, its inaccuracy reduces its viability as a strategic weapon of any significance, unless measures are undertaken to increase its chance of hitting its intended target.

In this, the Iranians have taken a page out of the Iraqi ballistic missile book. In 1989-1990, the Iraqis built what were known as "fixed launch facilities" in western Iraq, where a cluster of six-ten missile erector-launcher arms were installed on fixed concrete pads. These sites were oriented toward Israel, and were intended to deliver a salvo of missiles to designated targets, such as the Kirya military headquarters, the Dimona nuclear plant, and several Israeli airbases. The belief was that, despite the inherent inaccuracy of the modified SCUD missiles used by Iraq, the overlapping CEPs produced by a salvo of missiles would result in at least one hitting its intended target. The fixed launcher concept was flawed, however, in that the missiles would be exposed while being fueled, armed and prepared for launch, and any presence of missiles at the sites would serve as a warning that an attack was imminent, thereby prompting a preemptive strike. Although built, Iraq never used its fixed-arm launchers during the Gulf War, instead launching the totality of its missiles from mobile launchers.

The use by Iran of missile silos eliminates many of the drawbacks of the fixed arm launchers, while retaining the overlapping CEP concept of salvo firing. Furthermore, the Iranian missiles use what is known as "storable fuel," which means that, unlike the Iraqi missiles which had to be fueled up shortly prior to launch, the Iranian missiles are fueled and ready to launch on short notice, thereby reducing reaction time. But the missile silos in Iran are merely a cosmetic change when it comes to addressing the issue of missile vulnerability. These are not facilities designed to withstand a near-miss by a 150 kiloton nuclear warhead, as was the case with American and Soviet missile silos constructed during the Cold War, but rather to remove the missiles from the surface, protecting them from shrapnel and debris generated by a near miss from conventional ordnance. The covers of the silos, consisting of reinforced concrete and metal structures which slide apart prior to launch, are less than a meter thick. A single B-52 bomber, equipped with a dozen 2,000-pound satellite guided bombs, each programmed to hit a single silo, could take out an entire Iranian missile silo base. If subjected to a coordinated American pre-emptive strike, it is unlikely Iran would be able to fire more than a handful of silo-based missiles, if any.

The Shahab-3C, however, is a different missile altogether. Equipped with a more modern, tri-conic warhead, the Shahab-3C has improved on the accuracy of the Shahab-A, having a CEP of around 200 meters. The new warhead design, however, has resulted in the reduction of the payload carried from 1,000 kilograms to around 700 kilograms. To compensate for this reduced size, the Iranians have configured the Sahab-3C to carry cluster warheads capable of delivery hundreds of small bomblets to its target. The improved accuracy, combined with the use of cluster munitions, makes the Shahab-3C an ideal weapons system for single weapon-single target allocation. This allows the Iranians to deploy the Shahab-3C as a mobile missile, capable of independent firing, while still possessing confidence that the intended target will be struck. The mobile Shahab-3C represents by far the greatest threat to any potential adversary of Iran. And yet, for all of its capabilities, the Shahab-3C remains a system capable of delivering the explosive power comparable to a single airstrike conducted by an American fighter-bomber in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and with far less accuracy.

Contrary to US intelligence estimates which state otherwise, the Shahab missile, whether carrying a one-ton conventional warhead, or a 700 kilogram cluster bomb, is not a nuclear-capable delivery system, even if Iran had a nuclear weapons program, which it does not. It is a system capable of disrupting or interdicting non-hardened, fixed position targets such as a building complex or airfield. It is not capable of destroying a hardened target, and is virtually useless against mobile targets. From a military perspective, the Shahab-3 is of marginal value, and as such represents a marginal threat. From perspective of a targeted civilian population, however, the value of the Shahab increases exponentially. It is here that one finds the true nature of the threat posed by the Shahab, which has nothing to do with its true military impact, and everything to do with its potential psychological impact. The New York Times has referred to the Shahab-3 as "one of Iran's deadliest weapons, standing 56 feet tall." It underscores this meaningless threat assessment with an observation that, "in parades, Iran has draped them with banners reading, 'Wipe Israel off the map.'" The military relevance of such banners mirrors that of the signs that were posted along the parade grounds of the Iraqi missile force headquarters in the 1990's in the wake of its complete destruction by US air power during the Gulf War, which read "It was enough to make Israel cry" -- meaningless, in every sense of the word.

Speculation continues to run rampant in the western media about Iranian intent and capability with regard to nuclear weapons. American media outlets are not the only ones guilty of unsubstantiated hyperbole. Germany's Der Spiegel magazine published a few years back a story which provided details about an alleged nuclear reactor in Syria that was bombed by Israel, and the connections between this reactor and a secret Iranian nuclear weapons program. The account appeared quite credible, but for the most part was fueled by well-placed leaks from unnamed diplomatic and intelligence sources opposed to Iran's nuclear program that were impossible to independently verify. There is a fine line between investigative journalism, which seeks to inform the public, and information warfare, which seeks to shape public opinion. It is incumbent upon the consumer of media-based information to discern between the two, especially given the consequences of allowing fiction-based perceptions to influence policy formulation and implementation.

It is essential that any analysis of the Iranian nuclear program proceed from a foundation derived from fact, not speculation. Using this approach, most of the more sensational media reports about an Iranian nuclear weapons program fail on a critical point of substance, that being the issue of accounting of the total quantity of nuclear material in Iran. This "material balance" is the single most important factor when considering Iran's compliance with its obligations under the NPT. The principle task of the NPT safeguards inspections program which Iran, as a signatory member, is required to submit to, is to prevent the diversion of nuclear material away from permitted nuclear activities to prohibited military programs.

While there has been considerable disagreement between Iran and the IAEA over technical aspects of implementation of nuclear safeguards inspections inside Iran, there emerges one incontrovertible fact: the IAEA has been able to fully account for the totality of Iran's declarable nuclear material. There has been no meaningful diversion of nuclear material, and any diversions which occurred in the past have been fully accounted for. Simply put, void of any significant diversion of material from Iran's safeguarded nuclear stocks, and lacking any evidence of Iranian acquisition of undeclared nuclear material, either through procurement abroad or covert indigenous production, there can be no nuclear weapon, no matter how heated the rhetoric from Israel or Congressional Republicans becomes.

A favorite mantra of those opposed to any nuclear deal with Iran is that Iran cannot be trusted to abide by any accord it enters into. It is true that Iran has, in the past, carried out undeclared diversions of its safeguarded nuclear material. Between 1998 and 2002 Iran used 1.9 kilograms of imported uranium hexafluoride stocks to test centrifuges. Iran had originally declared that this material had leaked from its containers. However, when pressed by the IAEA, Iran acknowledged the illicit test, as well as the subsequent production of a small amount of uranium enriched to 1.2 percent. Iran also used 50 kilograms of natural uranium metal, a safeguarded material, in uranium enrichment experiments using lasers. This resulted in a small amount of uranium being produced which was enriched to 3 percent. While these actions were declarable, and Iran's failure to do so represented a de-facto violation of its safeguards agreement with the IAEA, the material produced by Iran was so small as to be insignificant in terms of any nuclear weapons activity, and was in fact consistent with Iran's declared intention to enrich uranium to levels of no more than 3.5 percent to be used as nuclear fuel.

There were other failures on the part of Iran to declare nuclear-related activities involving the production of safeguarded material. An abortive Iranian effort to extract between .5 and 1.5 grams of polonium through bismuth irradiation in 1991 had been declared to the IAEA, even though some in the West questioned Iran's stated need for polonium (Iran claimed it was for use in a nuclear battery used in space applications). Iran had also extracted 2 milligrams of plutonium from irradiated uranium. While Iran claimed this plutonium was for medical purposes (a contention the small amount of material involved would support), it still represented a declarable activity that Iran had failed to comply with.

These examples of Iran's failure to comply with its safeguards agreements have been cited by many who condemn Iran for alleged "ongoing violations" of the NPT. However, the IAEA's legal advisor has noted that there cannot be a violation of the NPT unless it can be demonstrated that there has been a diversion of safeguarded material which cannot be accounted for, or which is related to proscribed activity. Since the IAEA continues to certify that the totality of Iran's safeguarded nuclear material is fully accounted for, it is difficult to meaningfully sustain any contention that Iran is either in violation of the NPT, or is involved in any covert nuclear weapons program.

It is on this point that most, if not all, media stories speculating about the existence of a covert Iranian nuclear weapons program fall short of making their case. The aforementioned Der Spiegel article quotes western intelligence sources which claim that in the aftermath of this attack Iran demanded that Syria return large quantities of uranium that were intended for use in this reactor. But since the IAEA can account for all of Iran's uranium stocks, and there is no evidence of any undeclared Iranian uranium stockpile, the question must be asked as to what uranium these sources are referring to. Other media sources speak of an Iranian "cold" test of a nuclear device, using natural uranium to test the viability of a weapons design. But there can have been no "cold" test without diversion of natural uranium, all of which is accounted for. Likewise, every speculative account of an Iranian "breakout" scenario requires the diversion of large quantities of uranium feedstock which, if derived from safeguarded stocks, would be detected immediately by the IAEA, making moot any notion of a "covert" activity.

The bottom line is that the IAEA's continued ability to account for Iran's safeguarded nuclear materials remains the best deterrent against any Iranian nuclear weapons program. Iran and the international community still have a long way to go before they will be able to reach any accommodation which provides Iran with the nuclear enrichment capabilities it desires while operating within an expanded framework of safeguards the IAEA and the West require. The nuclear framework agreement recently concluded between Iran and the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany goes a long way toward achieving this, but the devil is in the details, and those details need to be hammered out by June 30.

The IAEA and the rest of the world have both a duty and a right to be concerned about Iran's nuclear program, given Tehran's historical lack of transparency on the matter. However, any concerns over a near-term nuclear weapons capability manifesting itself in Iran are unfounded so long as the IAEA can maintain its full accounting over Iran's safeguarded nuclear material, something it has consistently been able to do since 2003, and the capabilities to continue to do so are only increased under the terms set out by the nuclear framework agreement. And yet there continues to be a great deal of talk about so-called "break-out" scenarios that ascribe periods of two months to a year for any Iranian nuclear weapons program reaching fruition, despite the lack of any verifiable information concerning the existence of such a program. Perception creates its own reality, and the ongoing effort by those opposed to Iran's nuclear program to shape public opinion through a concerted program of media-based information warfare has succeeded in planting the seeds of doubt in the minds of many who follow this issue. Having gone down that path once before with regard to the issue of Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, it is imperative that, on the issue of Iran and its nuclear program, the consumers of media-based information ensure that in forming their respective perceptions they are able to sort fact from fiction. The consequences of getting it wrong can be dire.