Danilenko’s work in Iran initially centered on his diamond-making scheme. But over the course of a six-year relationship, U.N. investigators later concluded, he provided expertise that would help Iran achieve something of far greater value.
The IAEA’s report cites “strong indications” that the unnamed “foreign expert” assisted Iran in developing a high-precision detonator as well as a sophisticated instrument for analyzing the shape of the explosive pulse.
The IAEA verified “through three separate routes, including the expert himself,” the extensive cooperation with Iranian scientists from 1996 to 2002, the report states. While in the country ostensibly to share his techniques for nanodiamonds, the expert “also lectured on explosion physics and its applications,” the IAEA report said.
U.N. investigators would eventually match Danilenko’s published research on detonators with designs produced by Iranian scientists working for the Physics Research Center. In one striking example, a 1992 paper co-authored by Danilenko describes a fiber-optic instrument that measures precisely when a shock wave arrives along thousands of different points along the surface of a sphere. Iran conducted at least one major test of such an instrument in 2003, the year after Danilenko stopped his visits to Iran.
Such instruments have few, if any, applications outside nuclear warhead design, weapons experts say. Indeed, when confronted by the IAEA, Iranian nuclear officials were unable to produce an explanation for why such tests were needed. Iran has consistently denied having ambitions to build nuclear weapons.
“This type of system appears suitable for testing a sphere of conventional explosives designed to compress the fissile core of a nuclear warhead,” said Josh Pollack, a government consultant and contributor to the nonproliferation blog Arms Control Wonk.
IAEA officials eventually interviewed Danilenko after his return to Russia and sought his help in clarifying what the Iranians were seeking to do with the technology. His response then was similar to his explanation last week to a Russian journalist: His work was restricted to nanodiamonds, and he had no knowledge of Iran’s weapons ambitions. “I am not a nuclear physicist,” he told the Russian newspaper Kommersant.
In private conversations, however, the scientist allowed that he “could not exclude that his information was used for other purposes,” the ISIS report said. In that sense, the institute said, Danilenko’s experience is similar to that of numerous other former weapons scientists who ended up traveling abroad to work in a country with nuclear aspirations. Of the dozens of similar cases studied by the institute, each began with an offer of “more benign assistance that provided a plausible cover for their secret assistance.”
“Synthetic diamond production is unlikely to have been a priority” for Iran, ISIS said. “Although it has obvious value as a cover story.”