Elaine Sciolino in the New York Times cites “European and American officials” as stating the IAEA has in its possession an Iranian document that describes assistance by a Russian scientist in developing a detonation system for a nuclear weapon design:

It was described as a “five-page document in English” dealing with experimentation with a complex initiation system to detonate a substantial amount of high explosives and to monitor the detonation with probes. There was no indication that the document was a translation of a much longer and more comprehensive document in Farsi.

The original document is described by officials familiar with it as a detailed narrative of experiments aimed at creating a perfectly-timed implosion of nuclear material.

According to experts, the two most difficult challenges in developing nuclear weapons is creating the bomb fuel and figuring out how to compress and detonate it.

An agency report last month revealed that Iran may have received “foreign expertise” in its detonator experiments.


European and American officials now say that the “foreign expertise” was a reference to the Russian scientist, but offered only scant details. They said the scientist is believed to have helped guide Iranians in the experiments, but that he was not the author of the document.

Am I the only person who thought this sounds awfully similar to Operation Merlin — the alleged covert action to supply Iran with a Russian firing set? Here is the description of Operation Merlin, from James Risen in State of War (via an excerpt in The Grauniad):

The story dates back to the Clinton administration and February 2000, when one frightened Russian scientist walked Vienna’s winter streets. The Russian had good reason to be afraid. He was walking around Vienna with blueprints for a nuclear bomb.

To be precise, he was carrying technical designs for a TBA 480 high-voltage block, otherwise known as a “firing set”, for a Russian-designed nuclear weapon. He held in his hands the knowledge needed to create a perfect implosion that could trigger a nuclear chain reaction inside a small spherical core. It was one of the greatest engineering secrets in the world, providing the solution to one of a handful of problems that separated nuclear powers such as the United States and Russia from rogue countries such as Iran that were desperate to join the nuclear club but had so far fallen short.

The Russian, who had defected to the US years earlier, still couldn’t believe the orders he had received from CIA headquarters. The CIA had given him the nuclear blueprints and then sent him to Vienna to sell them – or simply give them – to the Iranian representatives to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

I am not saying that there can’t be two Russians who provided this assistance or that we know Risen’s sources were telling the truth. But I am saying that the two cases are close enough for the leakers to offer a clarification.

Risen claims the Russian in Operation Merlin told the Iranians that there “was a flaw somewhere in the nuclear blueprints, and he could help them find it.” So, maybe he followed up on the offer of help. Or the Iranians called one of his colleagues back home. Or it is a totally independent Russian route to a firing set.