Tzvi Kahn, a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, spoke to participants in a June 29 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about archival documents pertaining to Iran's nuclear program that were seized by Israel in January 2018 and their implications for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, other non-proliferation agreements, and US policy towards Iran going forward.
The raid by Israel's Mossad intelligence agency on a warehouse in Iran's capital city of Tehran removed about 55,000 paper files and 183 CDs with another 55,000 files on them, all of which catalog Iran's efforts to develop a nuclear weapon. Israeli officials estimate that only 20 to 50% of the archive's total contents were seized.
The archive "contained a wealth of new information that contradicts long standing assumptions about Iran's nuclear weapons program," said Kahn.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showcases seized Iranian nuclear archive documents during a press conference in Tel Aviv on April 30, 2018.
A December 2015 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had assessed that Iran's efforts to develop a bomb "did not advance beyond feasibility and scientific studies and the acquisition of certain relevant technical competencies and capabilities." A 2007 US national intelligence estimate had judged with high confidence that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, thereafter engaging only in ostensibly civilian nuclear activities.
The trove of captured documents from the archive "shows that the nuclear weapons program continued, albeit in a more circumscribed and diffused manner, past 2003" and identifies additional nuclear facilities, equipment, and activities previously unknown to the IAEA. These include
- The existence of a tunnel complex underneath the Parchin military complex, known as the Shahid Boroujerdi project, "likely intended for the fabrication of uranium based nuclear weapon components."
- The fact that Iran conducted more high explosive tests at Parchin than indicated in previous IAEA reports.
- Details about a plan, known as Project Midan, to construct an underground nuclear weapons test site.
- The fact that, as of 2003, Iran had already designed a nuclear weapon and developed plans to produce five warheads.
- Minutes of meetings in which Iranian officials discuss methods of concealing Iran's nuclear activities.
- "Deception folders" detailing Iran's misinformation to the IAEA, "ensuring their uniformity in each meeting with the agency."
What are the practical ramifications of all this? Tehran's decision to preserve the archive is itself "inconsistent" with its commitment under the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), to never "seek, develop, or acquire any nuclear weapons," said Kahn. "If Iran no longer seeks nuclear weapons, though, why would it preserve the archive?" Iran's failure to declare the archive itself and the sites and activities detailed in it to the IAEA also "constitutes a violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty," which Iran ratified in 1970, as well as the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement and 2003 Additional Protocol Iran signed with the IAEA.
"If Iran no longer seeks nuclear weapons, though, why would it preserve the archive?"
Despite "Iran's violations of NPT, the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, and the Additional Protocol," the IAEA has hesitated to punish Iran. On June 19, 2020, the IAEA Board of Governors issued a resolution calling on Iran to "fully cooperate" with the agency, including by providing "prompt access" to two covert sites. However, the IAEA "refrained from referring Iran to the UN Security Council," said Kahn, and the language in the resolution was soft, "merely calling on Iran to cooperate with IAEA, not requiring it" and containing "no warning of future punishment." If the IAEA continues its refusal to punish Iran, "why should any other world regime take the IAEA seriously? At stake is nothing less than integrity and credibility of the IAEA."
The only other mechanism to punish Iran for continuing to conceal nuclear sites and activities from the international community is the so-called snapback provision of the JCPOA. "If Iran violates the JCPOA, the United States can unilaterally reimpose all sanctions [previously] enacted by the UN Security Council, even without the support of other countries, such as Russia and China," said Kahn. "The United States retains the right to initiate a snapback, even though the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA in May of 2018." It is "long past time for the UN security council to snap back sanctions on Iran for its long history of nuclear mendacity."
The international community's failure to get tough with Iran only increases the likelihood of eventual war, said Kahn. "If Iran continues to pursue its nuclear ambitions, and if the breakout time continues to go down, then the United States is going to have a choice about whether or not to engage in military action."
Gary C. Gambill is general editor at the Middle East Forum. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.