Laptop of DeathCross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

Donald Rumsfeld’s new book Known and Unknown dredged up bad memories of the false pretexts the United States employed to invade and occupy Iraq. Among those that Colin Powell presented to the U.N. Security Council were Curveball’s claim, which he recently admitted was a lie, that he worked on an Iraqi WMD program.

Then there were documents forged to show that Saddam Hussein had attempted to purchase “yellowcake” uranium from Niger. And who can forget the aluminum tubes, likely missile parts, passed off as  uranium centrifuge components. Speaking of Curveball, to use another sports cliché, far from a slam dunk, they were all airballs.

Yet the same method is being reprised to attribute WMDs to Iran as was used with Iraq. Though this time, the goal isn’t necessarily to grease the skids for a U.S. attack on Iran. Since that’s unlikely, the idea is to accustom the United States to the idea that it needs to come to Israel’s rescue when it attacks Iran and inevitably finds itself in over its head.

This unsavory process has been chronicled by investigative historian slash journalist Gareth Porter with far more depth than by anyone else. The product of his reporting on the subject over the years appeared in the winter 2010 issue of Middle East Policy (the Middle East Policy Council‘s publication) in the form of an article titled “The Iran Nuclear ‘Alleged Studies’ Documents: The Evidence of Fraud.”

The issues are technical, but what makes them even more daunting to follow are the machinations of those perpetrating the fraud. Since, in a demonstration of shortsightedness on the part of the publication considering how important it is, the article is behind a subscription wall, we’ll excerpt liberally.

You’re likely not familiar with the term “alleged studies” as it’s used in this context. They’re more popularly known, in the aggregate, as the laptop of death. (For instance, sese this Arms Control Wonk post). They have even been called the laptop of mass destruction, as in Asia Times Online’s headline to a 2008 article by Porter. In the MEP piece he begins:

For the past few years, a political consensus has formed in the United States that Iran is covertly pursuing a nuclear-weapons program under the cloak of a civilian nuclear-power program. That conclusion has been based largely on a set of supposedly purloined top-secret Iranian military documents describing just such a covert program during 2002-03. The documents have often been referred to as the “laptop documents,” but they include documents in both electronic and paper form and were called the “alleged studies” documents by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

They consist of

a pair of “flow sheets” showing a process for uranium conversion, a set of experiments . . . similar to that used on early designs for the U.S. atomic bomb, and studies on the redesign of the . . . nose cone, of the Shahab-3 missile to accommodate what appears to be a nuclear weapon.


. . . news media have portrayed the alleged-studies documents as credible evidence of a covert Iranian nuclear-weapons program [some] senior officials of the IAEA believed from the first, however, that the documents were “fabricated by a Western intelligence organization”

But, after former director Mohamed ElBaradei (and likely candidate for the Egyptian presidency) — considered a moderating influence on Western hostility toward Iran — left the agency

the IAEA said the material in the documents “is broadly consistent and credible in terms of the technical detail, the time frame in which the activities were conducted, and the people and organizations involved.”

Okay, if that’s what they believed. The problem is that post-Baradei

. . . the IAEA has effectively shifted the normal burden of proof in regard to the intelligence documents. Instead of requiring the IAEA and those who provided the documents to give evidence of their authenticity, [recently retired director of the IAEA's Safeguards Department Olli] Heinonen has demanded that the Iranians prove they are fabrications.

This is reminiscent of the “you can’t prove a negative” argument that those who attempted to slow the rush to war with Iraq invoked. In other words if you’re trying to prove something, it’s obviously contrary to the applicable principles of philosophy and science to begin with the assumption that said something exists and that what needs to be proved instead is its nonexistence.

The documents on missile re-design demonstrate how the fraud is being perpetrated. They

. . . had the most impact on media coverage. [They consist of] a series of technical drawings or schematics — all in Farsi — of as many as 18 different ways of fitting the unidentified payload into the missile-reentry vehicle or warhead. . . . But when IAEA analysts were allowed to study the documents, they found that images of the the warhead had the familiar “dunce cap” shape of the original North Korean No Dong missile, which Iran had acquired in the mid-1990s.

“That was odd,” writes Porter. He explains.

[When] Iran had flight-tested a new missile in mid-2004, the warhead had not had a dunce-cap shape but a new . . . “baby bottle” shape, which was more aerodynamic than the one on the original Shahab-3 missile. The warhead schematics in the alleged-studies documents thus depicted a reentry vehicle design that the analysts knew had already been abandoned by the Iranian military in favor of a new, improved one.

When I asked Heinonen . . . how he could consider it plausible that Iran’s purported secret nuclear weapons research program would redesign the warhead of a missile that the Iranian military had already decided to replace with an improved model, he suggested that the group that had done the schematics had no relationship with the regular Iranian missile program.

We’re all familiar with the phenomenon of firewalls between security agencies or branches of the military, but that’s ridiculous. The explanation?

Heinonen [suggested that] missile engineers . . . were ordered to redesign the older Shahab-3 model before the decision was made by the missile program to switch to a newer missile and warhead design, and that it couldn’t change its work plan once it was decided. . . . Heinonen’s explanation assumes that the Iranian military ordered an engineer to organize a team to redesign the warhead on its secret intermediate-range ballistic missile to accommodate a nuclear weapon but kept them in the dark about its plans to replace the Shahab-3 in favor of a completely new and improved model.

You can be forgiven if you find that far-fetched. Especially since

. . . the reason for the shift to the new missile . . . was that the Shahab-3 [which dates from the ] early to mid-1990s, had a range of only 800 to 1,000 km [compared to the new missile which has a range of] 1,500 to 1,600 kilometers, bringing Israel within the reach of an Iranian missile for the first time.

In other words, what would the Iranian military want with an underpowered missile? Porter then points out what should be obvious — and, in the process, demonstrates that the “alleged studies” were only looked over by those “allegedly studying.”

The implausibility of the suggestion that a group organized to redesign the . . .warhead would not have been working with the new warhead underlines the tortuous thinking that must be used to avoid an obvious conclusion: the warhead schematics are fraudulent.

Before we get to who’s behind the alleged studies, we’ll excerpt Porter’s summary of the fraud.

The authors of the laptop documents left a trail of indicators that reveal their fraudulent character. Because of their ignorance of some key facts about the Iranian nuclear program and their effort to ensure that the documents would have the desired political effect, they made a series of errors. This investigation of all the available data related to the laptop documents found eight indicators of fraud.

Among them, as noted above (emphasis added)

The warhead schematics shown in the documents were based on a design that had already been abandoned by the Iranian military in favor of a new and improved design.


The premise . . . that the military would have taken responsibility for work on uranium conversion — is highly implausible. The work on a different technology had already been done by civilians under the AEOI [Atomic Energy Organization of Iran] over a period of more than a decade.


The idea that Kimia Maadan [a private company] that had done nothing beyond completing a flow sheet outlining a process for uranium conversion would have been authorized to immediately begin making concrete plans for equipping such a facility without going through a lengthy stage of testing the technology depicted in the flow sheet. . . . is highly implausible.

Especially damning:

The fact that the IAEA does not know whether the original laptop documents had official stamps and security classification markings . . . . can be regarded as prima facie evidence of fraud.

As for who

According to the story, the files were smuggled out of Iran by the wife of an Iranian who had been recruited by Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service. . . . But there is evidence that the laptop documents were brought to the U.S. consulate in Turkey by someone affiliated with . . . the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) . . . a terrorist organization that had killed both Iranian and U.S. civilians in the past.

Israeli authors Yossi Melman and Meir Javadanfar reported, “A way to ‘launder’ information from Western intelligence to the IAEA was found so that agencies and their sources could be protected. Information is ‘filtered’ to the IAEA via Iranian opposition groups [such as MEK]. [Its] involvement . . in the laptop episode and Israel’s past use of the [MEK] for this purpose point to Israel as the original source of the documents.

Returning to Iraq, rote, dogged repetition in the service of war-mongering carried the day. One must pay grudging tribute to Israel as well. Its campaign against Iran, equal to that against Iraq in implausibility and even more slipshod, has been successful in turning public sentiment against Iran, if not yet in convincing American authorities of the need for hostilities.

Meanwhile, we all owe Gareth Porter a debt of gratitude for ripping the curtain on the pettiness of this deception. Shame on us if we allow such wisps carry us away on the winds of war.

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One Response to Whipping Wisps Into Storm Clouds: Iran and the “Alleged Studies”

  1. Paul Rosenberg says:

    If Not Fraud…

    There is, of course, an alternative to the strong conclusion that these documents are outright frauds: a weaker conclusion that they could be from some relatively isolated, out-of-power clique. The Iranian equivalent of Gaffney and Rumsfeld during the Clinton years, reduced to ill-informed speculation with no pretense of official cover. Such a group might well be far enough out of the loop to account for the inconsistencies that Gareth meticulously works his way through.

    Of course the possibility of this is relatively slight. But if it were the case, then there’s the further possibility that our willful misreading of these documents as part of the official Iranian military program could ironically turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy: our crazies and their crazies empowering one another to the detriment of everyone else concerned–not to mention hundreds of millions of innocent bystanders.

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