Cole’s concern is understandable, given the way the Iraq war was sold. A number of circumstances are different this time: the Obama administration is not explicitly looking for war as was the case with the Bush administration, and this report comes from an international body, the IAEA, rather than the American government. But let’s take the most suspicious viewpoint and insist that a serious error would open questions of competence and veracity.
Here’s what the IAEA report says about this scientist.
44. The Agency has strong indications that the development by Iran of the high explosives initiation system, and its development of the high speed diagnostic configuration used to monitor related experiments, were assisted by the work of a foreign expert who was not only knowledgeable in these technologies, but who, a Member State has informed the Agency, worked for much of his career with this technology in the nuclear weapon programme of the country of his origin. The Agency has reviewed publications by this foreign expert and has met with him. The Agency has been able to verify through three separate routes, including the expert himself, that this person was in Iran from about 1996 to about 2002, ostensibly to assist Iran in the development of a facility and techniques for making ultra-dispersed diamonds (“UDDs” or “nanodiamonds”), where he also lectured on explosion physics and its applications.The claim that “this foreign expert” is Vyacheslav Danilenko comes from Joby Warrick at the Washington Post:
According to the intelligence provided to the IAEA, key assistance in both areas was provided by Vyacheslav Danilenko, a former Soviet nuclear scientist who was contracted in the mid-1990s by Iran’s Physics Research Center, a facility linked to the country’s nuclear program. Documents provided to the U.N. officials showed that Danilenko offered assistance to the Iranians over at least five years, giving lectures and sharing research papers on developing and testing an explosives package that the Iranians apparently incorporated into their warhead design, according to two officials with access to the IAEA’s confidential files.Warrick cites the source for this information as David Albright, with confirmation by “two European diplomats privy to the IAEA’s internal reports.”
Danilenko’s role was judged to be so critical that IAEA investigators devoted considerable effort to obtaining his cooperation, the two officials said. The scientist acknowledged his role but said he thought his work was limited to assisting civilian engineering projects, the sources said.
There is no evidence that Russian government officials knew of Danilenko’s activities in Iran. ¬E-mails requesting comment from Russian officials in Washington and Moscow were not returned. Efforts to reach Danilenko through his former company were not successful.
Porter finds a publication by Danilenko on the history of his involvement with nanodiamonds in a symposium volume, Ultrananocrystalline Diamond: Synthesis, Properties and Applications, edited by Olga A. Shenderova and Dieter M. Gruen, published in 2006, apparently this book. I have found another book, Synthesis, Properties And Applications of Ultrananocrystalline Diamond, by Dieter M. Gruen, Olga A. Shenderova, Alexander Ya Vul', to which Danilenko has contributed a chapter.
The operating assumption by all involved seems to be that Danilenko is the person referred to in paragraph 44 of the Annex to the IAEA report. There seems to be a certain amount of playing with words in the various articles on this subject, or perhaps misunderstanding in regard to the phrase “nuclear weapons scientist.” The IAEA gives a longer description of the person that does not include that phrase. In any case, the important question is whether Danilenko had nuclear information on (from the IAEA report) “the high explosives initiation system, and … the high speed diagnostic configuration used to monitor related experiments.”
From Danilenko’s article in the symposium volume, he was working at Snezhinsk in the 1960s. Snezhinsk, also known as Chelyabinsk-70, was one of the Soviet Union’s secret cities in its nuclear weapons complex. Anyone living and working there would have held high security clearances. Indeed, Danilenko points out in that article that his work on diamonds during that time was classified, as everything at Chelyabinsk-70 was. The weapons work probably still is, so an inability to find anything in that area by him is not an indication that he didn’t do such work.
The Soviet Union did not bring in researchers to the secret cities to conduct unclassified research. However, research that would have been unclassified elsewhere might have been carried out if it grew out of and contributed to the weapons research. That was likely the case for Danilenko’s diamond research.
Even if, by some odd chance, Soviet authorities thought it was a good idea to bring a group doing solely unclassified research into a secret city, Danilenko would have had all appropriate clearances and would have been aware of research on nuclear weapons detonation systems similar to his because he would have been working at the same experimental facilities.
The claim that because he was working on explosively-formed diamonds, he could not have been working on weapons is simply foolish. Scientists frequently work on more than one project simultaneously, particularly if those projects are closely related.
Danilenko is reported to have issued a denial, “I am not a nuclear scientist and I am not the founder of the Iranian nuclear program.” The quote is entirely in the present tense and says little about his past or the work he has done on detonation systems. Nobody has suggested that he is the founder of the Iranian nuclear program. So there’s not much to this denial.
Danilenko’s son-in-law has been quoted as saying that Danilenko helped the Iranians with another project mentioned in the IAEA report, a large detonation chamber. This would be consistent with work on diamonds or detonation systems. The detonation chamber reported by the IAEA at Parchin, an Iranian military base, seems to be much larger than would be needed for the manufacture of diamonds. Knowledge of detonation chambers would be consistent with nuclear weapons work as well. In any case, there is no way to tell from the information in the IAEA report what the chamber was to be used for.
What the IAEA report says about this “foreign expert” appears to be consistent with Danilenko’s history, and that history includes the opportunity to have learned about nuclear weapons detonation systems.
I should probably say something about the basis for my understanding of the Soviet secret cities. I’ve worked with an ISTC program and reviewed a number of proposals for them. The ISTC’s purpose was to provide alternative work for Soviet nuclear weapons scientists after the fall of the Soviet Union, to prevent their selling their expertise to other countries and aiding proliferation. I’ve also been discussing these issues with four other people who have experience with the Soviet system. We all have the same understanding of how that system worked. That’s been a friendly back-and-forth, so I don’t feel I can use their names.
I made the points in this post to Porter and his source “blogger Moon of Alabama” on a private listserv before Porter’s article was published.
Update: David Albright at ISIS has done more research into Danilenko's publications than Porter or I have and finds additional publications that could be weapons-related. What he has to say generally supports what I've said here, and he adds more detail.
More from Joby Warrick at the Washington Post.
Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner.