Fifteen years later, the Russian scientist has emerged as a central character in the still-unfolding mystery that is Iran’s nuclear program. A report last week by the International Atomic Energy Agency highlighted the role of a “foreign expert” — identified by Western diplomats close to the U.N. nuclear agency as Danilenko — in Iran’s efforts to gain expertise in disciplines essential to building a nuclear warhead.
No bomb was built, the diplomats say. But help from foreign scientists such as Danilenko enabled Iran to leapfrog over technical hurdles that otherwise could have taken years to overcome, according to former and current U.N. officials, Western diplomats and weapons experts.
Such assistance also provided a trail of evidence that the IAEA’s investigators were later able to follow. Documents and other records — and, in the case of Danilenko, interviews — would offer a rare glimpse inside a highly secretive program hidden within Iranian universities and civilian institutions, the officials and experts said.
“It’s like being an astronomer studying a black hole: You detect the black hole’s presence by seeing what falls into it,” said Art Keller, a former CIA analyst who specialized in Iran. “With covert programs, you watch for the flow of raw material and outside expertise.”
The process is not infallible. Evidence is often ambiguous, as the same technology can sometimes have peaceful as well as military applications. In the case of Danilenko, the scientist’s synthetic-
diamonds business provided a plausible explanation for his extensive contacts with senior Iranian scientists over half a decade. Danilenko has consistently denied that he ever knowingly aided Iran’s nuclear program.
“I am not a father of Iran’s nuclear program,” he told a Russian journalist last week. E-mails sent to Danilenko seeking comment were not answered.
For U.N. investigators, however, the Russian’s influence was visible in the design and testing of an unusual, half-sphere-shaped detonator the Iranians perfected eight years ago, shortly after Danilenko left Iran for good.
Weapons experts say detonators of the type made by Iran have one known purpose: squeezing a lump of highly enriched uranium to trigger a nuclear chain reaction.
“It remains for Danilenko to explain his assistance to Iran,” said David Albright, a former U.N. inspector who has tracked the investigation of the Russian scientist over several years. “At the very least, Danilenko should have known exactly why the Iranians were interested in his research and expertise. The IAEA information suggests he has provided more than he has admitted.”