By Gareth Porter -The most important intelligence documents used to argue that Iran had a covert nuclear-weapons research-and-development program in 2003 – a set of technical drawings of efforts to fit what appears to be a nuclear payload into the re-entry vehicle of Iran’s medium-range ballistic missile, the Shahab-3 – turn out to have a fatal flaw: the drawings depict a re-entry vehicle that had already been abandoned by the Iranian missile program in favor of an improved model.
The re-entry vehicle or warhead shown in the schematics had the familiar “dunce cap” shape of the original North Korean Nodong missile, an Inter Press Service (IPS) investigation has confirmed. But when Iran flight-tested a new missile in mid-2004, it did not have that dunce cap warhead but a new “triconic” or “baby bottle” shape, which was more aerodynamic than the one on the original Iranian missile.
The development of the new missile and warhead had already been under way for years by that time, according to the author of the most authoritative study of the Iranian missile program.
The schematics are dated March and April 2003, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report of May 2008. But according to Mike Elleman, lead author of the study published by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) last May, Iran had been introducing the new warhead shape, along with other major innovations in the design of the medium-range missile, over a period of two to five years.
Elleman confirmed in an interview with IPS that the redesign of the re-entry vehicle must have begun in 2002 at the latest.
The former head of the Safeguards Department of the IAEA, Olli Heinonen, who managed the IAEA investigation of the intelligence documents on Iran, confirmed in an interview with IPS that the schematics depicted in the documents were of the old Nodong Missile rather than the new missile that was tested in mid-2004.
Heinonen, now a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, explained the anomaly of an outdated warhead being shown in the schematics by suggesting that the group that had done the schematics had no relationship with the Iranian missile program.
“It looks from that information like this group was working with this individual,” Heinonen said, referring to the Dr Mohsen Fakrizadeh, the man named in the documents as heading the research program. “It was not working with the missile program.”
That explanation is contradicted, however, by the intelligence documents themselves. The IAEA describes what is purported to be a one-page letter from Fakhrizadeh to the Shahid Hemat Industrial Group dated March 3, 2003 “seeking assistance with the prompt transfer of data” for the work on redesigning the re-entry vehicle.
Shahid Hemat, which is part of the military’s Defense Industries Organization, had been involved in testing the engine for the Shahab-3 and in working in particular on aerodynamic properties and control systems for Iranian missiles, as had been reported in the US media.
Heinonen acknowledged in a subsequent interview that the program portrayed in the intelligence documents in question would have had to rely on the Iranian missile program to obtain basic data on the dimensions of the Shahab-3/Nodong missile.
Heinonen also argued in an interview that the engineers working for the purported covert nuclear-weapons program could have been ordered to redesign the older Shahab-3 model before the decision was made by the missile program to switch to a newer model, and could not change the work plan once it was decided.
But the IISS study makes it clear that the development of the new missile had already begun by 2000 – well before the 2002 launching of the purported covert warhead-redesign project identified in an excerpt of the draft study by the IAEA Safeguards Department, leaked to the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in October 2009.
The assumption that the Iranian military would have ordered an engineer to organize a project to redesign the warhead on its intermediate range ballistic missile to accommodate a nuclear payload but keep the project workers in the dark about its plans to replace the Shahab-3 with a completely new and improved model is implausible.
The shift to the new missile was driven by a very important consideration. The Shahab-3, purchased from North Korea in the early to mid-1990s, had a range of only 800 to 1,000 kilometers, depending on the weight of the payload, according to the IISS study. That meant that it was incapable of reaching Israel.
But the new missile, later named the Ghadr-1, could carry a payload of conventional high explosives 1,500 to 1,600 km, bringing Israel within the reach of an Iranian missile for the first time.
The IISS study indicates that a foreign intelligence agency intending to fabricate technical drawings of a re-entry vehicle could not have known that Iran had abandoned the Shahab-3 in favor of the more advanced Ghadr-1 until after mid-August 2004. The August 11, 2004 test launch, according to the study, was the first indication to the outside world that a new missile with a triconic warhead had been developed.
Before that test, Elleman confirmed to IPS: “No information was available that they were modifying the warhead.”
Even if the agency that fabricated the documents realized the mistake immediately, it would have been too late to create an entirely new set of documents based on the new warhead.
Those who had ordered the schematics for the Shahab-3 warhead drawn to implicate the Iranian military would have been misled by Iranian statements about the status of that missile. The IISS study recalls that Iran had said in early 2001 that the Shahab-3 had entered “serial production” and declared in July 2003 that it was “operational”.
The IISS study observes, however, that the announcement came only after the US invasion of Iraq, when Iran felt an urgent need to claim an operational missile capability. The study says it is “very dubious” that the missile was ever produced in significant numbers.
The missile re-entry schematics in question were part of a collection of intelligence documents obtained by the US government from an unknown source in 2004. Media stories in 2005 and 2006, based on briefings by US officials, suggested that the documents had been stored on a laptop computer that had been purloined from an Iranian engineer who had participated in a covert nuclear-weapons program.
But that story about the origin of the documents has now been replaced by a new account, which was first published by the Washington-based ISIS in October 2009. ISIS suggested that the documents on the purported Iranian program had not been provided to US intelligence on a laptop at all.
The ISIS account indicated that the documents were collected by an Iranian spying for German intelligence – a story further elaborated by Der Spiegel in June 2010.
Heinonen told IPS he had made no effort to ascertain the actual origins of the documents. “The people providing such documents want to protect their sources,” the former IAEA official said. “I would not want to get into that type of information.”
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.