Iran stopped meeting with the International Atomic Energy Agency last year over Western allegations of covert Iranian nuclear weapons work because the nuclear agency was demanding access to the designs for its Shahab-3 missile and other secret military data, according to both Iranian and IAEA officials.
The United States and other Western states have cited Iran's refusal to cooperate with the IAEA on resolving issues related to intelligence documents on a purported covert nuclear weapons programme as further evidence of its guilt.
"They've been asking for Shahab-3 drawings for about a year," Iran's ambassador to the United Nations in Vienna, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told IPS in an interview. "We found out a year ago and that's when we stopped the meetings with IAEA."
A senior official of the IAEA familiar with the Iran investigation, who insisted on anonymity as a condition for being interviewed, confirmed to IPS that the agency had requested not only that Iranian officials discuss the details of the Shahab-3's reentry system, but access to the actual engineering designs for the missile.
"We want them to explain to us that the design studies are not for nuclear weapons," said the official. "We're saying, you say you've done reentry vehicle reengineering [on Shahab-3], so show us some documentation."
The latest IAEA report, dated Aug. 28, notes that the agency "has been unable to engage Iran in any substantive discussions about these outstanding issues for over a year", but it does not link the Iranian disengagement to the demand for military secrets.
The Sep. 15, 2008 report said, however, that in a Sep. 5 letter Iran had "expressed concern that the resolution of some of these issues would require Agency access to sensitive information related to its conventional military and missile related activities."
Asked whether this request would not compromise Iran's national security secrets, the official conceded to IPS, "Yes there will have to be some compromise on their part, because the charges are serious. If someone is accused of nefarious crimes, it is in their interest to share a little of their security to show they are baseless."
Defending the IAEA's request, the official said, "All verification is a compromise of national security. Natanz [the Iranian uranium enrichment facility] is the most heavily verified enrichment plan in the world. It's a compromise of national sovereignty."
Soltanieh said he had protested the demand for such conventional military secrets at meetings of the IAEA Governing Board in 2008 and 2009. "They denied they asked for this information," said Soltanieh.
The Iranian ambassador first expressed concern about being asked to give the IAEA access to national security secrets about its missiles and other conventional military technology in a letter to ElBaradei Sep. 5, 2008.
The September 2008 IAEA report strongly implied without saying so explicitly that the agency was seeking access to actual plans for the missile. It said the IAEA had "proposed discussions with Iranian experts on the contents of the engineering reports examining in detail modeling studies related to the effects of various physical parameters on the reentry body from the time of the missile launch to payload detonation."
The most recent report of the IAEA, dated Aug. 28, 2009, referred to "the need to hold discussions with Iran on the engineering and modeling studies associated with the re-design of the payload chamber referred to in the alleged studies documentation to exclude the possibility that they were for a nuclear payload."
In a letter to IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei Sep. 4, 2009, Soltanieh complained that the report which had just been released had "reflected the unjustified previous requests by your staff in Tehran [for] discussing with Iranian military staff the issue of missiles and explosives!"
He noted that the director general had on several occasions "emphasised that the Agency is not intending to enter into the domain of the national security of Member States".
The agency also requested "additional information and documentation, and access to individuals, in support of [Iran's] statement about the civil and conventional military applications of its work in the area of EBW detonators," according to the September 2008 IAEA report.
The IAEA further asked to meet individual scientists named in one of the intelligence documents as being part of the purported Iranian nuclear weapons research programme. The senior IAEA official acknowledged in the interview with IPS, however, that it would be relatively easy for an outside agency to identify individuals who belonged to an organisation.
"It's not difficult to cook up such a document," the official said.
In his letter to ElBaradei, Soltanieh said these IAEA requests represented "interference in confidential conventional military activities of a Member State, related to its national security..."
The IAEA has offered to "discuss modalities that could enable Iran to demonstrate credibly that the activities referred to in the documentation are not nuclear related, as Iran asserts, while protecting sensitive information related to its conventional military activities."
But the senior IAEA official interviewed by IPS made it clear that such modalities would not preclude access to the documentation on the Shahab design.
Iran's enemies, especially the United States and Israel, are eager for intelligence on the design of the Shahab-3's reentry vehicle.
According to a detailed analysis by the Armed Combat Information Group (ACIG), the upgraded version of the Shahab-3 has an improved guidance system and warhead, as well as completely new re-entry vehicle with a different guidance system based on rocket-nozzle steering rather than a spin-stabilised re-entry vehicle.
The new reentry vehicle is smaller than the previous version, according to the former head of Israel's Ballistic Missile Defense Organisation. That gives the improved version greater precision.
But the most significant feature of the new variant, according to the ACIG analysis, is the capability for changing trajectory repeatedly during re-entry and in the missile's terminal phase. That capability allows the Shahab-3 to evade the radar systems associated with Israel's Arrow 2 missile.
If Israeli and the United States were able to get more information on the design of the reentry vehicle, they would be able to make adjustments in the Arrow 2 system to increase its effectiveness against the Iranian missile.
The IAEA secretariat is well-known to be major source of intelligence on Iran for the United States and Israel. In the 1990s, 10 of the 35 members of the U.S. mission to the United Nations in Vienna were Central Intelligence Agency personnel, according to the 2007 book "The Italian Letter", by journalists Peter Eisner and Knute Royce.
Ambassador Soltanieh told IPS that the IAEA safeguards department, to which the Iranians pass much sensitive information, has repeatedly leaked that information – usually out of context - to journalists for stories portraying the Iranian nuclear programme in a menacing light.
"Leakage of confidential information is a matter of serious concern," said Soltanieh. "In many cases, we give information to inspectors and soon it is in the media."
A Western diplomatic source in Vienna who insisted on not being identified said, "I don't think it would help a lot to get the specific plans of Shahab-3." For one thing, he observed, "They could be working on other studies and we wouldn't know about it."
The official admitted that it was "always difficult to prove that something is nonexistent".
Nevertheless, it would be "much safer for Iran to compromise on these issues than to keep its present attitude," the official said.
*Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. 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.