When Western intelligence agencies began in the early 1990s to intercept telexes from an Iranian university to foreign high technology firms, intelligence analysts believed they saw the first signs of military involvement in Iran’s nuclear programme. That suspicion led to U.S. intelligence assessments over the next decade that Iran was secretly pursuing nuclear weapons.
The supposed evidence of military efforts to procure uranium enrichment equipment shown in the telexes was also the main premise of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s investigation of Iran’s nuclear programme from 2003 through 2007.
But the interpretation of the intercepted telexes on which later assessments were based turned out to have been a fundamental error. The analysts, eager to find evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons programme, had wrongly assumed that the combination of interest in technologies that could be used in a nuclear programme and the apparent role of a military-related institution meant that the military was behind the procurement requests.
In 2007-08, Iran provided hard evidence that the technologies had actually been sought by university teachers and researchers.
The intercepted telexes that set in train the series of U.S. intelligence assessments that Iran was working on nuclear weapons were sent from Sharif University of Technology in Tehran beginning in late 1990 and continued through 1992. The dates of the telexes, their specific procurement requests and the telex number of PHRC were all revealed in a February 2012 paper by David Albright, the executive director of the Institute for Science and International Security, and two co-authors.
The telexes that interested intelligence agencies following them all pertained to dual-use technologies, meaning that they were consistent with work on uranium conversion and enrichment but could also be used for non-nuclear applications.
But what raised acute suspicions on the part of intelligence analysts was the fact that those procurement requests bore the telex number of the Physics Research Center (PHRC), which was known to have contracts with the Iranian military.
U.S., British, German and Israeli foreign intelligence agencies were sharing raw intelligence on Iranian efforts to procure technology for its nuclear programme, according to published sources.
The telexes included requests for “high-vacuum” equipment, “ring” magnets, a balancing machine and cylinders of fluorine gas, all of which were viewed as useful for a programme of uranium conversion and enrichment.
The Schenck balancing machine ordered in late 1990 or early 1991 provoked interest among proliferation analysts, because it could be used to balance the rotor assembly parts on the P1 centrifuge for uranium enrichment. The “ring” magnets sought by the university were believed to be appropriate for centrifuge production.
The request for 45 cylinders of fluorine gas was considered suspicious, because fluorine is combined with uranium to produce uranium hexafluoride, the form of uranium that used for enrichment.
The first indirect allusion to evidence from the telexes in the news came in late 1992, when an official of the George H. W. Bush administration told The Washington Post that the administration had pushed for a complete cutoff of all nuclear-related technology to Iran, because of what was called “a suspicious procurement pattern”.
Then the Iranian efforts to obtain those specific technologies from major foreign suppliers were reported, without mentioning the intercepted telexes, in a Public Broadcasting System “Frontlines” documentary called “Iran and the Bomb” broadcast in April 1993, which portrayed them as clear indications of an Iranian nuclear weapons programme.
The producer of the documentary, Herbert Krosney, described the Iranian procurement efforts in similar terms in his book “Deadly Business” published the same year.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton’s CIA Director John Deutch declared, “A wide variety of data indicate that Tehran has assigned civilian and military organisations to support the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.”
For the next decade, the CIA’s non-proliferation specialists continued to rely on their analysis of the telexes to buttress their assessment that Iran was developing nuclear weapons. The top-secret 2001 National Intelligence Estimate bore the title “Iran Nuclear Weapons Program: Multifaceted and Poised to Succeed, but When?”
Former IAEA Deputy Director General for Safeguards Olli Heinonen recalled in a May 2012 article that the IAEA had obtained a “set of procurement information about the PHRC” – an obvious reference to the collection of telexes – which led him to launch an investigation in 2004 of what the IAEA later called the “Procurement activities by the former Head of PHRC”.
But after an August 2007 agreement between Iran and IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei on a timetable for the resolution of “all remaining issues”, Iran provided full information on all the procurement issues the IAEA had raised.
That information revealed that the former PHRC head, Sayyed Abbas Shahmoradi-Zavareh, who had been a professor at Sharif University at the time, had been asked by several faculty departments to help procure equipment or material for teaching and research.
Iran produced voluminous evidence to support its explanation for each of the procurement efforts the IAEA had questioned. It showed that the high vacuum equipment had been requested by the Physics Department for student experiments in evaporation and vacuum techniques for producing thin coatings by providing instruction manuals on the experiments, internal communications and even the shipping documents on the procurement.
The Physics Department had also requested the magnets for students to carry out “Lenz-Faraday experiments”, according to the evidence provided, including the instruction manuals, the original requests for funding and the invoice for cash sales from the supplier. The balancing machine was for the Mechanical Engineering Department, as was supported by similar documentation turned over to the IAEA. IAEA inspectors had also found that the machine was indeed located at the department.
The 45 cylinders of fluorine that Shahmoradi-Zavareh had tried to procure had been requested by the Office of Industrial Relations for research on the chemical stability of polymeric vessels, as shown by the original request letter and communications between the former PHRC head and the president of the university.
The IAEA report on February 2008 recorded the detailed documentation provided by Iran on each of the issues, none of which was challenged by the IAEA. The report declared the issue “no longer outstanding at this stage”, despite U.S. pressure on ElBaradei to avoid closing that or any other issue in the work programme, as reported in diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.
The IAEA report showed that the primary intelligence basis for the U.S. charge of an Iranian nuclear weapons programme for more than a decade had been erroneous.
That dramatic development in the Iran nuclear story went unnoticed in news media reporting on the IAEA report, however. By then the U.S. government, the IAEA and the news media had raised other evidence that was more dramatic – a set of documents supposedly purloined from an Iran laptop computer associated with an alleged covert Iranian nuclear weapons programme from 2001 to 2003. And the November 2007 NIE had concluded that Iran had been running such a programme but had halted it in 2003.
Despite the clear acceptance of the Iranian explanation by the IAEA, David Albright of ISIS has continued to argue that the telexes support suspicions that Iran’s Defence Ministry was involved in the nuclear programme.
In his February 2012 paper, Albright discusses the procurement requests documented in the telexes as though the IAEA investigation had been left without any resolution. Albright makes no reference to the detailed documentation provided by Iran in each case or to the IAEA’s determination that the issue was “no longer outstanding”.
Ten days later, the Washington Post published a news article reflecting Albright’s claim that the telexes proved that the PHRC had been guiding Iran’s secret uranium enrichment programme during the 1990s. The writer was evidently unaware that the February 2008 IAEA report had provided convincing evidence that the intelligence analyst’s interpretations had been fundamentally wrong.
Gareth Porter, an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy, received the UK-based Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 for articles on the U.S. war in Afghanistan. His new book Manufactured Crisis: the Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, will be published in February 2014.