The False Intelligence Behind the “Manufactured Crisis” over Iran’s Nuclear Activities

We are pleased to publish the piece below by Gareth Porter, author of the new book, Manufactured Crisis:  The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, which offers an exceptionally thorough deconstruction of the intelligence (and media) “case” that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons.  We are grateful to Gareth for writing the piece, and commend his work to our readers.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett   

The False Intelligence Behind the “Manufactured Crisis” over Iran’s Nuclear Activities

Gareth Porter*

The world’s news media have long accepted without question the charge that Iran had for many years used its civilian nuclear program as a cover for a nuclear weapons program. That narrative has rested on intelligence documents and reports that were accepted as credible by the International Atomic Energy Agency.  The IAEA in turn has been treated in the news media as a non-political authority without any axe to grind.

But, as I document in detail in Manufactured Crisis, the intelligence documents at the heart of this narrative were fabrications created by the state with most obvious interest in promoting such a narrative—Israel.  The origin of the false intelligence was the ambition of the neoconservatives in the Bush administration and their Israeli ally to carry out regime change in Iran, which they believed would require the use of force, though not with large-scale ground troop as in Iraq.  They also believed that the only way to justify such a war would be to build a case that Iran was threatening to obtain nuclear weapons of mass destruction.

Against the backdrop of a political strategy for Iran, on which Undersecretary of State John Bolton was coordinating with Israel in 2003-04, a large cache of documents from a Iranian nuclear weapons research program came into the possession of Germany’s intelligence agency, the BND, late in the summer of 2004.  They included computer modeling of a series of efforts to integrate what appeared to be a nuclear weapon into the Shahab-3 Iranian missile, and experiments with high explosives that could be used to detonate a nuclear weapon.  Someone leaked to David Sanger of the New York Times that those documents had come from the laptop computer of an Iranian scientist involved in the alleged program who later feared that he had been discovered and managed to get the computer out through his wife.  U.S. officials told senior IAEA officials that they feared the “third party” that had brought out the documents was now dead, according to former Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei.

But that was a crudely constructed cover story to hide the real source of the documents.  In fact, the German intelligence agency, BND got those documents from a member of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), the Iranian terrorist organization that had become a client of Israel.  The MEK member was a sometime source for the agency,  but senior BND officials regarded the source as “doubtful,” according to former senior German official Karsten Voigt, who told me the whole story of his November 2004 conversation with his BND contacts on the record a year ago.

The senior BND officials had contacted Voigt, who was then coordinator of North-American relations for the foreign office, immediately after Secretary of State Colin Powell had made comments to reporters about “information” that Iran was “working hard” to combine a ballistic missile with “a weapon.”   The BND officials were alarmed that the Bush administration was intending to make a case for war against Iran based on those doubtful documents.

The sequence of events presented a remarkable series of parallels with the Bush administration’s exploitation of the BND source codenamed “Curveball” to make the case for war against Iraq less than two years earlier.  That Iraqi refugee in Germany—who turned out to be the brother of a senior official of Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Council—had told tales of Iraqi mobile bioweapons labs to the BND, which had passed them on to the CIA.  But BND officers had eventually begun to doubt his stories.  When George Tenet had asked BND chief August Hanning in December 2002 whether the United States could use the information publicly, Hanning had written a personal note to warn him that the United States should not rely on the information without further confirmation.  Colin Powell had nevertheless used the very information about which Hanning had warned as the centerpiece of the case for war in Iraq.  Now Powell was going public with another claim about WMD intelligence from another dubious source to make what sounded like the beginning of a case for war against another adversary of the United States.

Voigt believed the senior BND officials wanted him to issue another warning to the United States not to rely on these documents, and a few days later, he did give such a warning in public, in a coded fashion. In an article in the Wall Street Journal Voigt was reported to have said the information to which Powell had referred had come from “an Iranian dissident group” and that the United States and Europe should not “let their Iran policy be influenced by single-source headlines.”

The BND officials were not the only ones who had questions about those documents.   Some U.S. intelligence analysts wondered why the purported nuclear weapons research project documents only included material about alleged high explosives experiments, a missile reentry vehicle and the design of another uranium conversion facility totally different from the one Iran had adopted after years of research, development and testing.  Why, they wondered was there nothing about weapons design?  And why was the work on the missile reentry vehicle amateurish – or, as David Albright put it to this writer in a September 2008 interview, “so primitive”?  Why was the design for a bench-scale conversion process marred by such fundamental flaws that the IAEA’s Olli Heinonen had to acknowledge in a February 2008 briefing that it had “technical inconsistencies.”

The documents also exhibited anomalies that were direct indicators of fraud.  The most dramatic was the fact that the studies modeling the missile reentry vehicle were based on the initial Shahab-3 missile, which the Iranian missile program is known to have begun to replace with an improved model as early as 2000 – two years before those modeling studies were said to have been started in mid-2002. The redesign of the reentry vehicle, which was a key to improved design, would have been far advanced by then, according to Michael Elleman of International Institute for Strategic Studies, who was the main author of an authoritative study of the Iranian ballistic missile program.  The shape of the new reentry vehicle, first revealed to the world when the new missile was flight tested in August 2004, bore no resemblance to the old one portrayed in the documents.  The authors of the documents had obviously been unaware of that complete redesign of the reentry vehicle, meaning that they could not have part of an Iranian Defense Ministry-sponsored program.

The creators of the collection of documents were clever enough to build them around an authentic document that could be verified as real and thereby lend credibility to a collection that otherwise lacked any evidence of authenticity.  But the document was not from inside the Iranian government but a letter from a high tech company to an Iranian engineering firm.  It would have been relatively easy for Mossad, which carries out constant surveillance of high tech companies, to acquire that document.  The document was then used to provide evidence of connections between different parts of the alleged project that was otherwise absent: anonymous handwriting on it referred to the reentry vehicle study.   Those touches reveal creators who were eager to maximize the political effect of the document and apparently not worried that they would be too obvious.

The daring of the venture as well as the fact that the actual document around which it was built would have been a routine discovery for Mossad leave little room for doubt about the Israeli origins of the collection.

The plan had been to have the IAEA focus entirely on what ElBaradei was calling the “alleged studies” once the “Work Program” negotiated with Iran on the various other issues the Agency had raised since 2004 was completed. But then came the National Intelligence Estimate of November 2007, which concluded that Iran had stopped the work on nuclear weapons that the intelligence community had been certain it had been doing for years in 2003.  That estimate all but eliminated the case for the use of force, so it created a serious problem for Israel.

The Israelis responded quickly, however, coming up with an entirely new series of intelligence documents and reports in 2008 and 2009 showing that Iranian nuclear weapons research and development program was far more advanced than previously believed.  Those documents were transmitted to the IAEA directly by Israel, according to ElBaradei’s memoirs, but the IAEA never disclosed that highly salient fact.

The first document arrived as early as April 2008, and the IAEA’s Safeguards Department immediately mentioned it in the May 2008 IAEA report.  It was a Farsi-language report on experiments with high explosives that was obviously intended to suggest the initiation of a hemispherical charge for an implosion nuclear weapon.

The very next IAEA report in September 2008 announced that the experiment “may have involved the assistance of foreign expertise.”   That was obviously a reference to a scholarly paper on a methodology for measuring intervals between explosions using fiber optic cables co-authored in 1992 by Ukrainian scientist Vyacheslav Danilenko, who had worked in Iran from 1999 to 2005.  The IAEA thus swallowed the implausible Israeli claim that a spy had obtained a top secret Iranian document on nuclear weapon-related experiments that just happened to involve the same methodology about which Danilenko had published.

The far more plausible sequence of events was that Mossad had discovered Danilenko’s work in Iran in a routine investigation of foreign personnel in the country and soon found out that he had worked at the Soviet nuclear weapons complex at Chelyabinsk and had published on a method for measuring explosive internals.  Those discoveries would have inspired the idea of secret Iran document describing high explosives experiments that would include a measurement technique that would implicate Danilenko—who would be portrayed as a Soviet nuclear weapons specialist—in the alleged Iran nuclear weapons program.

Further supporting that explanation for the appearance of the document is the fact that the most sensational intelligence claim in the November 2011 IAEA report involves yet another Danilenko publication.  The IAEA said it had “information” that Iran had built a high explosives containment chamber in 2000 “in which to conduct hydrodynamic experiments”, which it defines as tests to “simulate the first stages of a nuclear explosion”, at its Parchin military facility.  And it cited a publication by the same “foreign expert”—i.e., Danilenko—as allowing it to “confirm the date of construction of the cylinder and some of its design features (such as its dimensions).”

That Danilenko publication, however, was actually on the design of an explosives chamber for the production of nanodiamonds.  The drawing of the chamber accompanying the article, moreover, displays features, such as air and water systems for cooling the tank immediately before and after the explosion, that would have made it unusable for the purpose of testing nuclear weapons designs.  Despite having worked in a Soviet nuclear weapons complex for many years, Danilenko had worked from the beginning of his career on explosive synthesis of nanodiamonds, which involved no knowledge of nuclear weapons or of methods for testing them.  (The first American to discover nanodiamonds synthesis, Dr. Ray Grenier, who had also worked for many years in Los Alamos National Laboratory, the top U.S. nuclear weapons complex, told me that he himself had never worked on anything directly connected with nuclear weapons, and that all of his work on nanodiamonds synthesis had been unclassified.)

The IAEA never produced any confirming evidence for the tale of the bomb test chamber at Parchin provided by Israel.  Former IAEA chief inspector in Iraq Robert Kelley, who had also been project leader for nuclear intelligence at Los Alamos national laboratory and head of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Remote Sensing Laboratory, immediately pointed out that the IAEA description of the alleged explosive containment chamber and its intended purpose made no sense technically.  Kelley observed that the capacity of the alleged chamber to contain 70 kilograms of high explosives reported by the IAEA would have been as “far too small” for the kind of hydrodynamic nuclear tests the report claimed as its purpose. Kelley and three other intelligence experts on photo interpretation also pointed out that the satellite photos of the site at Parchin indicate that it displays none of the characteristics that would be associated with a high explosives testing site.

And Iran’s behavior in regard to the site in Parchin contradicts the notion that it needed to hide evidence of nuclear testing there.  Iran allowed the IAEA to pick any five sites in one of the four quadrants of Parchin to visit and take environmental samples in February 2005 and then did the same thing again in November 2005.   And the IAEA reported in February 2012 that it had obtained the complete run of satellite photos of the site from February 2005 to February 2012 and found that there was no evidence of any significant activity at the site for the entire seven years.

The tainted intelligence underlying the charges of a covert Iranian nuclear weapons program is now one of the major issues in the nuclear negotiations with Iran.   The introduction of the demand that Iran must satisfy the IAEA indicates either that the Obama administration believes completely in the official nuclear narrative and is dangerously overconfident about its bargaining position or that the administration has been assured by IAEA director general Yukiya Amano that he will do what is necessary to reach agreement with Iran on the issue of “possible military dimensions” of the nuclear program.  In either case, the fate of the false intelligence and the fate of the nuclear talks are now deeply intertwined.

* Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and historian who writes on U.S. national security issues.  His latest book Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, was published in February by Just World Books.  In 2012 he received the Gellhorn Prize for journalism awarded by the UK-based Gellhorn Trust.  Columbia University international relations specialist Robert Jervis called his previous book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, “[t]he most important contribution to our understanding of the war in Vietnam since the Pentagon Papers”.


The Use of Force, the Reflexive Resort to Economic Sanctions, and the Trials of America’s Hegemonic Mindset

As negotiations toward a “final” nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran continue, it is important to consider to what extent the world might be witnessing a fundamental change in American foreign policy.  We are inclined to think that the Obama administration would not have gone as far down the diplomatic road with Iran as it has in the absence of President Obama’s self-inflicted debacle over his declared intention to attack Syria after chemical weapons were used there in August 2013.  This episode drove home—to the Obama administration as well as to most of the rest of the world—that the United States can no longer credibly threaten to use military force in the Middle East for hegemonic purposes.

After the American public so resoundingly rebuffed Obama’s call for U.S. military action, his administration was compelled to conclude that starting down the diplomatic road with Iran was politically less costly than pushing for more sanctions and continuing to insist that the “military option” was still “on the table.”  But can the Obama administration really go all the way to a comprehensive realignment of relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran—and, in the process, show that the United States can shift proactively from a counterproductive drive to dominate the Middle East to serious engagement with all important regional powers, and not just slink out of region in defeat?

Making such a shift will require Washington to relinquish the self-damaging delusion that the United States can actually maintain hegemony in the Middle East on an open-ended basisAmerica’s reaction to the ongoing Ukraine crisis suggests that American elites are having a very difficult time giving up this delusion.

Yesterday, the United States and its European partners pushed to have the United Nations Security Council vote on a resolution condemning today’s referendum on the future status of Crimea; for video of the Security Council’s deliberations, see here.  As everyone knew going into the Council’s deliberations, Russia vetoed the resolution (China abstained).  But it was still a great occasion for the United States and its partners to offer more pompous bloviation on the issue.

In terms of pompous bloviation—bloviation that is so deeply rooted in its author’s unreflective addiction to the idea of America as benign hegemon that he can’t even recognize the obvious hypocrisy of what he is saying—it is hard to beat this segment from NBC’s Meet the Press, see here, with Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this month, just after the Ukraine crisis had broken out.  Blind to the self-damning irony of what he is saying, Kerry proclaims (see 1:46 into the video), “You just don’t invade another country on phony pretexts in order to assert your interests.”

Predictably, NBC’s ever-deferential David Gregory steered clear of the obvious come-back question.  Fortunately, Jon Stewart didn’t.  Playing the clip of Kerry intoning, “You just don’t invade another country on phony pretexts in order to assert your interests,” Stewart—see here, 5:25 into the video—immediately adds, “Any more.”  Shifting into his best John Kerry impersonation, Stewart goes on:  “Trust me, that is so 2003.  I mean I voted for it even though I was against it at the time.  What happened was I ran for president…I should go.”  (Of course, even Jon Stewart can’t quite see that, notwithstanding his criticism of the Iraq War, he has himself advocated U.S. intervention—on phony pretexts—in Libya and Syria.)

Similarly hegemonic delusion is reflected in the transatlantic spouting of “ideas” on how to hurt Russia’s economy with sanctions—ideas that, as the Financial Times’ James McKintosh notes, range “from the impractical to the pointless.”  Brookings Institution president Strobe Talbott blithely claimed that Russia’s banking sector “has made quite a lot of progress in plugging into the global system.  That means it is vulnerable, and a good lever for applying pressure.”

Western sanctions may well afflict some transitory discomfort on some parts of Russia’s economy.  But the reality is that a lot of Western financial institutions, especially in Europe, have themselves become dependent on Russian capital; as this capital is pulled out of these institutions in anticipation of sanctions, Western banks will suffer, too.  For the United States, Russia has become over the last decade a significant purchaser and holder of U.S. Treasury securities.  How does it serve American interests for Washington to incentivize the dumping of Russia’s Treasury holdings and to cut Russia off as a future buyer of U.S. government debt?

And, of course, there is the surfeit of triumphalism about how America can leverage its “shale revolution” to weaken Russia’s strategic position by exporting liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe.  For those who seem to think that the United States could be exporting gas to Eastern Europe and parts of the former Soviet Union within months (if not weeks), if only Washington would issue more export licenses, we would note that it takes literally years and costs at least $10 billion to develop an LNG train.  More broadly, the idea that the United States will ever produce enough LNG for export at sufficiently low price points to undercut the enormous built-in advantages that an established major gas producer like Russia enjoys in building and retaining its gas export markets in Eurasia seems, to say the least, highly fanciful.

American foreign policy remains far removed from some of the most basic elements of rational (and reality-based) strategy and diplomacy.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


The Ukraine Crisis and the Future of Iran-Russia Relations

Relations with Russia have always been one of the more complicated aspects of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy.  Following the Iranian Revolution, a fledgling Islamic Republic under severe threat from the United States began cultivating closer relations with Moscow in the late 1980s—even before the Soviet Union’s final collapse—and continued doing so after the Soviet Union had given way to the Russian Federation.  Yet, while the Islamic Republic has a clear interest in positive relations with Russia, Iranian policymakers have always been skeptical that their Russian counterparts really welcome Iran’s emergence as an independent regional power; they have also watched Moscow periodically compromise relations with Tehran to curry favor with Washington.

Last week, as the Ukraine crisis heated up, both Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and President Hassan Rohani’s chief of staff, Mohammad Nahavandian, made statements—see here and here—pointedly noting that Iran would be a reliable energy supplier for Europe.   It strikes us as tactically smart, especially in the context of the Ukraine crisis, for Tehran to highlight its interest in accessing European energy markets—and, in the process, to underscore for Moscow and others that Iran has options for promoting its economic and strategic goals.  After all, if Iran’s relations with the West improve, Russia may have to “work harder”—that is, provide more tangible payoffs to Tehran—to maintain the kind of relationship with the Islamic Republic that Moscow wants.

But there is also a risk that Iran could be perceived as putting itself forward to help the West—against Russia—on a matter that Moscow considers a vital interest.  For an important analysis of Washington’s refusal to respect post-Soviet Russia’s core security interests, see here for an interview with the brilliant Russia scholar Steve Cohen.  (The interview with Cohen starts 4:53 into the linked video, after an interview with former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul.)

So how will the Ukraine crisis affect the Kremlin’s calculations about Russia’s Iran policy?  On this point, we want to highlight a provocative analytic piece, see here, published last week by Fyodor Lukyanov.  (Lukyanov—among other things, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs, chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and a member of the Russian Council for International Affairs—is, in our experience, an exceptionally interesting analyst of Russian Middle East policy.)  We also encourage all of you to weigh in with your views.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett