Israel’s intelligence coup accentuates Iran’s nuclear threat 

Israel’s intelligence coup accentuates Iran’s nuclear threat 
© Greg Nash

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday disclosed that Israeli intelligence had obtained thousands of Iranian files confirming an inconvenient truth: Iran routinely lies when it claims that it has never possessed a nuclear weapons program.

Tehran’s mendacity harbors practical implications for enforcement of the 2015 nuclear deal. By refusing to come clean on its past nuclear work, the clerical regime prevents nuclear inspectors from establishing a baseline for verification, potentially enabling Tehran to conceal illicit nuclear activities. At the very least, Iran’s caginess suggests that it retains the ability and intent to resume its nuclear program at a time of its choosing.

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In a dramatic press conference, Netanyahu affirmed that Tehran, following the negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), moved its nuclear weapons files to a secret facility in Tehran. In what the prime minister described as “a great intelligence achievement,” Israel covertly obtained the records, including 55,000 pages and another 55,000 files on 183 CDs. The documents explicitly articulate Tehran’s goal: the development of five warheads, each with 10 kilotons yield of TNT. “That’s like five Hiroshima bombs to be put on ballistic missiles,” said Netanyahu. 

 

Within hours of Jerusalem’s announcement, supporters of the JCPOA dismissed its significance, noting that they always knew that Tehran habitually dissembles about its nuclear ambitions. In fact, they argued, this duplicity explains precisely why the nuclear deal proved necessary in the first place. Rooted in verification rather than trust, the JCPOA would render Tehran’s deceptive rhetoric irrelevant by imposing what they described as the most intrusive inspections regime ever negotiated. 

This reasoning accounts in part for the international community’s failure to ensure Iran’s full disclosure of its prior nuclear conduct in the aftermath of the JCPOA. To be sure, Washington initially claimed it would attain the answers it seeks. The International Atomic Energy Agency, said President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaMake Trump own the shutdown over his ill-advised border wall Missing: Fiscal sanity in Washington Overnight Energy: Oil giant supports carbon tax push | Poll finds majorities in both parties back Green New Deal | NJ moves to rejoin regional climate pact MORE on the day of the accord’s finalization, “reached an agreement with Iran to get access that it needs to complete its investigation into the possible military dimensions of Iran’s past nuclear research.”

But Tehran subsequently stonewalled the investigation. In its final report on Iran’s military nuclear activities released in December 2015, the IAEA indicated that Tehran continued to deny inspectors admission to key sites, and permitted only partial access to the Parchin military complex, where nuclear weaponization efforts previously occurred. Nevertheless, the United States joined its partners on the 35-nation IAEA Board of Governors in a unanimous vote to remove the investigation from its agenda, thereby clearing the way for the JCPOA’s implementation and Iran’s accompanying sanctions relief.

In June 2016, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama administration had concluded that uranium particles found by inspectors during its abridged visit to Parchin were likely connected to its covert nuclear weapons program. “Normally, the IAEA requires additional samples to be taken when there are irregularities found in their tests, such as the presence of man-made uranium, according to former agency officials and other nuclear experts,” stated the Journal. “But under last year’s nuclear agreement, Tehran was only required to allow the IAEA’s inspectors to visit the Parchin facility once.” The IAEA has not inspected any military sites since then.

In this context, Israel’s intelligence coup offers renewed reasons for concern regarding the JCPOA and Tehran’s ultimate nuclear objectives. First, it suggests that nuclear activities prohibited by the JCPOA may endure at sites where the IAEA has yet to receive access. However, the international community has not pressed the IAEA to demand entry to these locations.

Second, it denotes that Tehran willfully prevaricated when it agreed, as part of the JCPOA, that its nuclear program “will be exclusively peaceful” and “under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.” The intelligence also undermines the IAEA’s ability to reach, as the JCPOA requires in the accord’s later years, a credible “Broader Conclusion that all nuclear material in Iran remains in peaceful activities,” which would trigger the lifting of additional sanctions by the United States, the United Nations, and the European Union.

Third, it indicates that the threat of Iran’s nuclear program will likely persist after the JCPOA’s key provisions begin to expire in 2023. Many supporters of the JCPOA have contended that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which Tehran signed in 1970, will still be sufficient to deter Iran from going nuclear at that time. But Israel’s findings show that Tehran had already been violating the NPT for years before the JCPOA. If the NPT were effective, the international community would never have needed the JCPOA in the first place.

Fourth, as the Institute for Science and International Security noted based on a background briefing it received from Israel, the Jewish state’s discovery includes a wealth of previously unknown information about Iran’s nuclear program, surprising the Israelis by its size and scope. This reality suggests that Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure, upon the onset of the JCPOA’s sunset clauses, may pose an even greater threat to the United States and its allies than previously imagined.

By May 12, as Netanyahu noted, President TrumpDonald John TrumpREAD: Transcript of James Comey's interview with House Republicans Klobuchar on 2020: ‘I do think you want voices from the Midwest’ Israel boycott fight roils Democrats in year-end spending debate MORE will decide whether to withdraw from the JCPOA or continue efforts to fix its key flaws. Whatever his decision, President Trump has rightly made clear that the status quo is unacceptable. Iran’s nuclear deceptions can no longer go unanswered. 

Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn.