WASHINGTON – Olli Heinonen, the Finnish nuclear engineer who resigned Thursday after five years as deputy director for safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), was the driving force in turning that agency into a mechanism to support U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran.
Heinonen was instrumental in making a collection of intelligence documents showing a purported Iranian nuclear weapons research programme the central focus of the IAEA’s work on Iran. The result was to shift opinion among Western publics to the view that Iran had been pursuing a covert nuclear weapons programme.
But his embrace of the intelligence documents provoked a fierce political struggle within the Secretariat of the IAEA, because other officials believed the documents were fraudulent.
Heinonen took over the Safeguards Department in July 2005 – the same month that the George W. Bush administration first briefed top IAEA officials on the intelligence collection.
The documents portrayed a purported nuclear weapons research programme, originally called the “Green Salt” project, that included efforts to redesign the nosecone of the Shahab-3 missile, high explosives apparently for the purpose of triggering a nuclear weapon and designs for a uranium conversion facility. Later the IAEA referred to the purported Iranian activities simply as the “alleged studies”.
The Bush administration was pushing the IAEA to use the documents to accuse Iran of having had a covert nuclear weapons programme. The administration was determined to ensure that the IAEA Governing Board would support referring Iran to the U.N. Security Council for action on sanctions, as part of a larger strategy to force Iran to abandon its uranium enrichment programme.
Long-time IAEA Director-General Mohammed ElBaradei and other officials involved in investigating and reporting on Iran’s nuclear programme were immediately sceptical about the authenticity of the documents. According to two Israeli authors, Yossi Melman and Meir Javadanfar, several IAEA officials told them in interviews in 2005 and 2006 that senior officials of the agency believed the documents had been “fabricated by a Western intelligence organisation”.
Heinonen, on the other hand, supported the strategy of exploiting the collection of intelligence documents to put Iran on the defensive. His approach was not to claim that the documents’ authenticity had been proven but to shift the burden of proof to Iran, demanding that it provide concrete evidence that it had not carried out the activities portrayed in the documents … //
… The active pressure of the United States and its allies on behalf of the hard line toward Iran was the main source of Heinonen’s power on the issue. Those states have been feeding intelligence on alleged covert Iranian nuclear activities to the Safeguards Division for years, and Heinonen knew that ElBaradei could not afford to confront the U.S.-led coalition openly over the issue.
The Bush administration had threatened to replace ElBaradei in 2004 and had reluctantly accepted his reelection as director-general in 2005. ElBaradei was not strong enough to threaten to fire the main antagonist over the issue of alleged studies.
ElBaradei’s successor Yukio Amano is even less capable of adopting an independent position on the issues surrounding the documents. The political dynamics of the IAEA ensure that Heinonen’s successor is certain to continue the same line on the Iran nuclear issue and intelligence documents as Heinonen’s. (full text).