Israel’s acquisition in early 2018 of a significant portion of Iran’s nuclear archive, which details an effort to build five nuclear weapons and prepare an underground nuclear test site in the early 2000s, has revealed an unpleasant truth: Iran has been in violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the 2015 nuclear deal, and other non-proliferation commitments. This finding is supported by the recent U.S. State Department’s arms compliance report that “Iran’s retention of the archives … raise[s] serious questions regarding whether Iran intended to preserve the option to resume elements of a nuclear weapons program in the future.”
Instead of demanding a nuclear standard for Iran that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has applied to other countries, however, many are turning a blind eye to Tehran’s dangerous transgressions. This tendency could be worsened by Iran’s recent announcement that it intends to stop abiding by some of the nuclear limitations of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Why would a country that claims its nuclear program is permanently peaceful maintain such information and equipment? Continuing to permit it to do so will further weaken the nonproliferation regime and increase the odds that other states will exploit similar negligence, concessions and loopholes.
The seized archive consists of 55,000 printed pages and another 55,000 computer files on discs. This trove shows a robust program in the early 2000s to build nuclear weapons. Under intense international pressure in 2003, Iran downsized it, but the archive shows that instead of ending it, Iran reoriented its nuclear weapons program to survive as a smaller, more camouflaged one. This collection isn’t for Iranian historians: it clearly is designed to be used to preserve and reconstitute a path to an atomic arsenal, if so decided. It is today actually the crown jewels of Tehran’s nuclear-weapons program.
The documents show that Iran’s atomic ambitions were much further along than previously known. Most worrisome, breakout time for a missile-deliverable nuclear warhead was much shorter than U.S. officials thought likely.
Politics and pride invested in past diplomacy, certainly not nuclear prudence, may explain why this damning documentation has been treated very differently than other atomic-bomb paperwork found in non-nuclear-weapon states that signed the NPT. Consider the case of Switzerland, where the George W. Bush administration saw Bern’s possession of atomic-weapons designs and a range of other sensitive nuclear documents as a violation of the country’s NPT obligations.
The Swiss government had seized a large cache of documents from nuclear smugglers connected to the notorious A.Q. Khan proliferation network. It contained nuclear-weapon designs. Many of the documents were essential to the prosecution of these men. In 2006, Washington demanded that all the documents be removed from Switzerland. The Swiss decided instead to destroy them, under the supervision of the IAEA, ruling that their continued possession of sensitive nuclear weapons designs would be a violation of the NPT.
Another case is Libya, where the IAEA sealed the nuclear weapons-related-documents, and Washington took possession of the nuclear weapons designs. The set of nuclear-weapons documents currently in Iran far outstrips what Switzerland and Libya ever possessed.
When South Africa dismantled its bomb program, Pretoria decided to destroy thousands of sensitive nuclear-weapon documents and related industrial infrastructure. It viewed the destruction of documents and associated equipment and materiel, correctly, as an essential part of providing assurance that South Africa would abide by the NPT. When the IAEA inspected the program, it asked that more documents, components and equipment be destroyed — and Pretoria quickly did so.
What should the major powers and the IAEA do? The presumption ought to be that Tehran’s possession of such an archive violates the NPT and the 2015 JCPOA. More robust IAEA inspections are obviously required, with inspectors gaining access to the documents, relevant facilities, equipment and key personnel mentioned in the seized part of the archive. Note: several facilities mentioned in this archive were not previously known to the IAEA and Western governments. Iran should not destroy any information or equipment, or alter locations before the IAEA has completed its investigations. Those investigations should include weapons experts with proper clearances. At the end of the inspection process, proliferation-sensitive information and equipment, where ongoing possession is not in line with Iran’s undertaking under Article II of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, should be destroyed or removed from Iran in a verifiable manner.
Of course, Iran could make copies or documents could be missed. But a thorough review of the documents is essential in setting up a baseline with relevant locations and capabilities for long-term monitoring and the early detection of any illicit activity, if any of these activities are reconstituted.
To not do this is to ignore international precedent and a rule-based order essential to maintaining nuclear non-proliferation. Allowing this transgression to stand undermines the NPT and leads to further questions about the value of the JCPOA. It also weakens the credibility of IAEA verification. If Iran’s atomic programs are truly peaceful, it should be willing to subject its archive to scrutiny and ultimately to verified destruction.
Other countries that aspire to build nuclear weapons will be watching. Some diplomats in Vienna claim that destruction and further exposure of Iran’s weapons plans will cause further instability in the implementation of the JCPOA. But does the maintenance of such archives create stability when Iran again starts to expand its uranium enrichment efforts, and continues adding importantly to its missile programs? Likely not. Non-action is not an option.
David Albright is president and founder of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, D.C.
Olli Heinonen is former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency and head of its Department of Safeguards. He is a senior advisor on science and nonproliferation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.