Green Salt and Nuclear Laptop: New IAEA Report Says Iran Answers Some Questions, Still Has Others to Answer

| Fri Feb. 22, 2008 11:23 AM EST

The UN atomic watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has a new report out on Iran (.pdf).

I confess it would take me a very long time and several dictionaries to penetrate its highly technical language. So I turned to one of the smartest nonproliferation experts I know, Jacqueline Shire, a senior fellow with the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), for highlights. "I think that paragraphs 35-42 are the most negative for Iran," Shire says, "Though the IAEA would say that they are just now receiving the info from the US necessary for confronting/challenging Iran's claims of fabrication."

The paragraphs Shire points to are in a section of the IAEA report called "Alleged Studies." They describe in dry, bullet-point form and highly technical language a quiet drama: how IAEA officials in late January and early February presented information handed over after a battle getting it from the U.S. government that concern questions of something called the so-called "Green Salt Project" and an alleged Iranian nuclear laptop that the US government obtained. Iran in turn called some of that American-sourced evidence "fabrications," on other points, the IAEA said it was still awaiting an Iranian response.

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The New York Times reported on IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei's battle to get the evidence from the Americans earlier this week:

The Bush administration has agreed to turn over to international inspectors intelligence data it has collected that it says proves Iran worked on developing a nuclear weapon until a little more than four years ago, according to American and foreign diplomats.

The decision reverses the United States' longstanding refusal to share the data, citing the need to protect intelligence sources.

The administration acted as the International Atomic Energy Agency is scheduled to issue a report as early as next week on Iran's past nuclear activities. Administration officials hope that the nuclear inspectors can now confront Iran with what the Americans believe is the strongest evidence that the Iranians had a nuclear program.

The Bush administration's refusal to turn over the data has been a source of friction with Mohammed ElBaradei, the director general of the agency, who has argued that Iran must be given a fair chance to examine some of the case that Washington has developed.

But it remains unclear how much of the data Dr. ElBaradei will be allowed to disclose to the Iranians. In particular, it is not clear if the information includes diagrams and designs that were secretly taken out of Iran on a laptop computer in 2004 and turned over to the Central Intelligence Agency. ...

According to American and foreign officials interviewed about the contents of the laptop, the information found there included descriptions of the so-called Green Salt Project. That project, which involved uranium processing, high explosives and a missile warhead design, demonstrated what the agency suspected were links between Iran's military and its ostensibly peaceful nuclear program. If that evidence were substantiated, it would undercut Iran's claims that its program is aimed solely at producing electrical power.

The documents on the laptop described two programs, termed L-101 and L-102 by the Iranians, describing designs and computer simulations that appeared to be related to weapons work. ...

The presentation included selections from more than a thousand pages of Iranian computer simulations and accounts of experiments that, according to the American officials, showed a longstanding effort to design what appeared to be a nuclear warhead or similar "re-entry vehicle." ...

For the technical minded, you can check out the relevant section of the IAEA report (.pdf) yourselves.

Shire also notes that it is "interesting that the cascades continue to underperform." Her organization, ISIS, later offered this analysis (.pdf) elaborating on that observation:

In a conversation with a senior IAEA official, ISIS learned more about the P1 centrifuges' underperformance. Apparently, of the 1,670kg of uranium hexafluoride introduced into the cascade, some 400 kilograms remains in a "process buffer" between the initial feed location and the cascades, with the result that the natural uranium has not yet entered the actual cascades. This reduces the actual feed for the purposes of estimating the amount of low enriched uranium produced over the last 12 month period to 1,270 kg. ...,

Furthermore, ISIS says:

Two items stand out in the latest IAEA report on Iran's nuclear program. The first is that in all but two areas, Iran made progress in addressing unresolved issues outlined in the so-called Workplan agreed upon in August 2007. In the IAEA's assessment, Iran has provided plausible explanations for sources of uranium contamination found on equipment at a technical
university, its research into Polonium-210 and activities at the Gchine uranium mine. [...]

Iran also insists that procurement by the Physics Research Center for items such as balancing machines, magnets, fluorine handling equipment, and mass spectrometers, which could be useful in uranium enrichment or conversion activities, was all intended for other purposes, primarily educational. [...]

A bigger issue identified in the report is Iran's continued stonewalling on the information contained in the "laptop documents" and from other member states, referred to by the IAEA as the "alleged studies."

How solid is the US intelligence that ElBaradei battled to get and confront the Iranians with? "It comes from this so-called laptop and I believe is fairly solid (unless it was totally fabricated, which given the complexity of the stuff seems unlikely despite what the Iranians claim)," Shire says, pointing to this 2006 Dafna Linzer piece, "Strong Leads and Dead Ends in Nuclear Case Against Iran," as the most comprehensive yet on the topic.

Shire adds that commenter Hass (below) makes a valid point: "The report does acknowledge significant progress in resolving outstanding issues (Gchine mine, Polonium, uranium contamination)," Shire emails. "In pointing to the negative part I was just trying to highlight the meat of what would be controversial - not obscure the good news."