by Gareth Porter
As the world awaits the mid-December report of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukiya Amano on the accusations of past Iranian work on nuclear weapons, anticipation of the report’s content will be shaped primarily by the nearly universal belief that Iran has hidden such work repeatedly over the years.
The alleged Iranian nuclear deception that appears to have exerted an especially powerful influence on elite attitudes is the razing of the Tehran neighborhood of Lavizan-Shian in 2003-04. The narrative surrounding Lavizan-Shian has long had the characteristics of a political myth, as defined by political theorist Christopher Flood: it is a narrative that “needs to be believed to be true by a social group.” For many who have worked on the Iran nuclear issue, the story of Lavizan-Shian has been a potent symbol of the reasons for supporting U.S. pressure on Iran’s nuclear program.
The power of the narrative resides in the idea that Iran bulldozed a military-related site that the IAEA was interested in inspecting for evidence of nuclear-related work and the belief that this was an especially heavy-handed—and even cynical—method of preventing the agency from finding out the truth.
As is true of so many other popularly held beliefs about Iran’s nuclear program however, that narrative is based on a series of assumptions that turn out to be false.
The tale of Lavizan-Shian began to unfold in 2003-04 with a series of discoveries by the IAEA. The first discovery was information provided by an unidentified intelligence agency to the IAEA about telexed requests from Sharif University seeking the procurement of “dual use” equipment dating back to the late 1980s and early 1990s. Some intelligence analysts had viewed those requests as prima facie evidence of a military nuclear program, because they bore the telex number of the Physics Research Center (PHRC), which was affiliated with the Ministry of Defense. That information prompted the IAEA to raise questions about a possible military role in Iran’s nuclear program in 2004. Later the IAEA would acknowledge that the reason the PHRC number had been used on the telexes was that the Sharif University faculty member who had helped to procure the equipment for faculty and student use had also been simultaneously the director of PHRC.
The IAEA also learned in 2004 that the PHRC had ordered two “whole body counters,” a device for monitoring radiation workers. The possession of a whole body counter is not in itself evidence of covert enrichment, much less a nuclear weapons program, as Pierre Goldschmidt, who was the deputy director of IAEA for safeguards, acknowledged in an article written after he had left the Agency.
Nevertheless, Goldschmidt and Olli Heinonen, who was responsible for Iran in department, decided that the presence of a whole body counter at the site was “unusual” because it was not a declared nuclear site. But the purpose of the PHRC at that time, as the IAEA reported in late 2004, was “preparedness for combat and neutralization of casualties due to nuclear attack.” Furthermore, the IAEA itself has had a whole body counter installed in its Vienna headquarters or at another site for years, according to the former head of the IAEA Iraq Action Team, Robert Kelley. So the suggestion that there was something suspicious about the PHRC obtaining such medical diagnostic equipment reveals more about the mentality of the leadership at the IAEA at that point than about the nuclear intentions of Iran.
But what precipitated the decision to take action on the Physics Resource Center site at Lavizan-Shian in Tehran was a set of satellite images of the site in August 2003 and March 2004 acquired by David Albright’s Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS). In publishing the images on June 17, 2004, ISIS described them as showing that “the buildings were removed and the earth scraped. Even the roads and walkways were removed or covered.” ISIS went on to attribute a deceitful motive to Iran in destroying the site.
This destruction at the site raised concerns because it is the type of measure Iran would need to take if it was trying to defeat the powerful environmental sampling capabilities of IAEA inspectors. At other sites, less extensive deception measures were employed by Iran, but the inspectors nonetheless discovered traces of enriched uranium, revealing details about activities at the sites and leading Iran to revise its declarations to the IAEA.
ISIS gave the image to ABC News for broadcast on June 16, 2004—just as the IAEA’s board of governors was holding a quarterly meeting. The images were also broadcast at a moment when the Bush administration was eager to build a case that Iran was hiding a nuclear weapons program. On June 18, the permanent representative of the United States to the IAEA, Ambassador Kenneth Brill, accused Iran of taking “the wrecking ball and bulldozer” to the site “to deal with some particularly incriminating facts.” An unnamed diplomat told Associated Press that the agency that the photos showed that “several buildings had been destroyed and topsoil had been removed at Lavizan Shiyan”.
The IAEA immediately requested an inspection visit to the Lavizan-Shian site, and Iran quickly agreed. The inspection took place only 10 days later on June 28-30, 2004. The IAEA took environmental samples not only on the ground but from two whole body counters (one formerly located at Lavizan-Shian, the other located at Esfahan) and a trailer said to have contained one of the counters while it was located at Lavizan-Shian.
During the IAEA inspection visit, Iran explained that the site had been razed in response to a decision ordering the Ministry of Defense to return the site to the municipality of Tehran. In response to an IAEA request for details, Iran turned over official documents on the dispute between the Ministry and the municipality and on the demand for the return of the land. The IAEA never questioned the authenticity of those documents.
The IAEA reported later that “vegetation and soil samples collected from the Lavizan-Shian site” had revealed “no evidence of nuclear material.” The report did not allude to the results of the samples on the whole body counters, implying that they were negative as well.
But the IAEA report added, “It should be borne in mind, however, that detection of nuclear material in soil samples would be very difficult in light of the razing of the site.”
Was the Topsoil Removed?
The IAEA’s remark clearly implied that the topsoil had been removed completely, as the Bush administration’s envoy had charged, and that in the absence of such topsoil it would be difficult, if not impossible, to detect evidence of uranium particles.
In fact, no such removal of topsoil had taken place. During my visit to Tehran in September 2014, I met with a consultant to the Supreme National Security Council of Iran who had been part of the team that helped arrange and carry out the IAEA inspection visit. He showed me a series of six or seven photographs of the IAEA team carrying out its inspection at the site, which showed clearly not only that the topsoil had not been removed, but that significant solid debris and solid structures—both living and non-living—still remained at the site, including rocks, bricks, trees, and other vegetation and even a wall. Any of those objectives would have provided far better basis for environmental swipes than any soil sample.
In a communication to this writer on October 13, former IAEA senior inspector Robert Kelley wrote that a former colleague from the Iraq Action Team who had been involved in the Lavizan-Shian site visit had “said very clearly that the soil was not removed to a significant depth and that, for example, grass was still growing in places indicating it had not been removed at all.” That testimony corroborated a Reuters report in September 2004, after the environmental samples from Lavizan-Shian had come back negative for traces of uranium, saying that an unnamed “diplomat close to the IAEA”—the traditional language used to mask the fact that the source was an IAEA official—had informed the news agency that “on-site inspections of Lavizan produced no proof that any soil had been removed at all.”
I asked Pierre Goldschmidt, who was then deputy director the IAEA for safeguards, by email whether he had been informed by Olli Heinonen, who was then in charge of the Safeguards Department’s division responsible for Iran, that neither topsoil nor vegetation and other debris had been removed from Lavizan-Shian before the inspection, and that inspectors had a perfectly adequate basis for accurate environmental samples. Goldschmidt did not reply directly to the question but said that the question would be better directed to Heinonen.
Heinonen responded to a query by suggesting that what was seen in the photographs of the inspection could have been a massive deception by Tehran. “Soil can be removed and a new one brought as a replacement,” he wrote. When I asked Goldschmidt whether Heinonen or anyone else had suggested that an entirely different topsoil—complete with trees and other vegetation—had been put in place at Lavizan-Shian, he did not answer the question.
Inaccurate Media Coverage
The media soon began to publish reports that reflected the inferences the IAEA were encouraging reporters to make: that that Iran had prevented the IAEA from inspecting the site until after it had eliminated the incriminating evidence and that it had been impossible for the IAEA to collect valid environmental samples.
Carla Anne Robbins wrote in The Wall Street Journal on March 18, 2005: “In the fall of 2003, the IAEA started asking questions about purchases going to the site, including ‘whole body counters’ for detecting radiation. Soon after, US and IAEA satellite photos showed part of the complex being bulldozed and rubble hauled away.” But the inference that Iran had been aware that Lavizan-Shian was under investigation was mistaken: as David Albright, who arranged for the broadcast of the satellite images, makes clear in a short feature on Lavizan-Shian, the IAEA was careful not to tip off Iran about its interest in site until it requested the inspection visit in June 2004.
Alissa J. Rubin reported in The Los Angeles Times on February 27, 2006: “Iranian officials said the site’s flattening was part of a long-planned agreement with the city of Tehran, but turning the earth repeatedly also makes it almost impossible to detect traces of enriched uranium.” The inference that the topsoil had been removed from Lavizan-Shian was false, but a journalist could certainly have gotten that impression from the language of the report.
William Broad of The New York Times added yet another angle to the myth of Lavizan-Shian with a May 13, 2006 story that suggested that traces of high enriched uranium had been found on some vacuum equipment in Iran that “European diplomats” said had been “linked to” what Broad called “the Military [sic] Physics Research Center at the Lavizan-Shian base.” That was a cleverly misleading statement, implying that the equipment had once been owned by PHRC and located at Lavizan-Shian.
In fact, as the IAEA acknowledged in its final report on the matter, the vacuum equipment was only “linked” to PHRC by the fact that the professor at Shariff University who had helped in the procurement of the equipment for the university had simultaneously been the head of PHRC and had used PHRC to telex messages for the procurement. The IAEA accepted the explanation given by Iran that the contamination had been from centrifuge equipment imported from abroad. The final IAEA judgment was based on the documentation submitted by Iran showing that the equipment had always been intended for and used by the university as well as interviews with the individual who had used the vacuum equipment to repair a pump at a laboratory owned by the Atomic Energy Commission and with the individual who had requested the repair.
Contrary to the implication left by Broad’s source, it was never located at Lavizan-Shian. But the news media never reported the IAEA clarification of either the PHRC procurement issue or the equipment contamination issue.
Reinforcing the Myth
The misleading Broad story gave new power to the myth of Lavizan-Shian, reflected in a series of blogs by proliferation wonk Jeffrey Lewis. In May 2012, Lewis recalled both the original narrative of the site being razed before the IAEA could inspect it and added the even more incriminating detail he inferred from Broad’s story: “When the IAEA took environmental samples from vacuum equipment that had been stored at the site, it found uranium particles with enrichment levels of 36 and 54 percent.”
Lewis has returned to the Lavizan-Shian narrative repeatedly in the past few years in conjunction with the nuclear negotiations with Iran. In August 2012, he wrote in Foreign Policy, “Iran closed up shop at Lavizan and when the IAEA asked to visit, sent in the bulldozers,” thus invoking the common misconception that the IAEA had requested an inspection of Lavizan-Shian before the site had been razed. And in September 2014, he wrote—again in Foreign Policy—“When the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) became interested in Iran’s nuclear activities at Lavizan in 2003, Iran knocked down all the buildings and hauled away the dirt. The site is now a leafy park.”
Lewis has also wielded the Lavizan-Shian myth as a weapon of scorn for those who don’t share his view of Iran’s nuclear program. In an exchange on Twitter with blogger Nima Shirazi, he responded to Shirazi’s comment that it was “ a stretch” to say Iran was working on a bomb, by snapping, “Such a stretch that Tehran bulldozed the building before the IAEA could visit.” When Shirazi answered that the IAEA had detected no nuclear activity at the site, Lewis retorted, “Bulldozers are amazing” and added, “You should apply for an internship in the PHRC PR department.”
For a generation of officials and policy advocates, the false narrative surrounding the Lavizan-Shian site has certainly fulfilled the function of bucking up their confidence in the official U.S. view of the Iranian nuclear program as a cover for nuclear weapons work. And in so doing, it has played an important role in distorting the public discourse on the Iran nuclear issue.
Photo: David Albright