Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s dramatic April 30 presentation on Israel’s acquisition of Iran’s nuclear weapons development archives was intended not to strengthen the Iran nuclear deal but to drive the last nail into its coffin. But in the now-unlikely event that President Trump were to decide to waive sanctions again before May 12 and keep the nuclear deal alive, the Israeli intelligence coup could be used effectively to help remedy what Trump has regarded as the critical flaws of the deal (known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA).
Reinforcing an earlier assessment
For those who have followed the Iran nuclear issue closely over the years, Netanyahu’s announcement was not terribly surprising. The U.S. 2007 National Intelligence Estimate and a long series of U.S. intelligence judgments ever since have assessed that Iran had a dedicated nuclear weapons development effort, that the nuclear weapons design component of that effort had mostly been halted by 2003, and that Iran has kept open the option to resume the pursuit of nuclear weapons at a future time.
Moreover, in December 2015, after a long review of the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program—a review that was handicapped by Tehran’s lack of cooperation—the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) came to the conclusion that Iran conducted activities relevant to the development of nuclear weapons before 2003, that some such activities took place after 2003, and that there were no credible indications that Iran engaged in such activities after 2009.
The JCPOA was negotiated not despite these assessments but largely because of them. Especially because Iran had acquired nuclear weapons knowledge and was determined to preserve an option to pursue nuclear weapons in the future, the United States believed it was essential to block Iran’s ability to convert that knowledge and that option into an actual nuclear weapons capability. The JCPOA effectively did that.
So the Israeli intelligence coup did not change our fundamental understanding of Iran’s past nuclear weapons efforts or its determination to keep its future options open. But the sheer volume, specificity, and apparent authenticity of the archived documents obtained by the Israelis will substantially reinforce that understanding—confirming the judgment that Iran once actively pursued nuclear weapons and showing it later went to great lengths to safeguard and preserve its nuclear weapons-related documents for possible future use.
However, Netanyahu goes beyond the assertion that Iran was keeping its future nuclear weapons options open. He essentially makes the case that the preservation of the weapons development documentation is proof that Iran has already decided to resurrect its program and acquire nuclear weapons. Why, he asks, would Iran “hide and meticulously catalogue” its incriminating records “if not to use them at a later date”?
But that is a weak link in the prime minister’s case. True, the weapons development materials were archived at the direction of then-Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani in the 2003 period. But that directive as well as subsequent Iranian efforts to keep the records intact and secret, including their movement to a new location in 2017, were consistent with the explanation that, while Iran was determined to maintain a potential option for the future, it had not made a decision to exercise that option.
Perhaps somewhere in that massive trove of purloined files investigators will find a smoking gun indicating that Iran had decided to break out and produce nuclear weapons and is just waiting for when (not if) the time is right. But at least so far, no such smoking gun has been found.
It also seems a stretch for Netanyahu to argue that the existence of the secret archives constitutes a violation of the JCPOA because the nuclear deal required Iran to “come clean” on its past activities. The lawyers will evaluate this and other legal matters raised by the prime minister’s presentation, but there doesn’t appear to be anything in the JCPOA that would require its parties to “fess up” about past activities—in contrast to the clear violation that would be committed by continuing such activities after the deal had entered into force.
Using the information to address the President’s concerns
But while the revelation of the archived documents does not tell us anything fundamentally new about Iranian behavior and does not provide legal grounds for charging Iran with a violation and terminating the JCPOA, it does provide a stronger basis for addressing the issues that President Trump regards as the deal’s key deficiencies.
If the authenticity and credibility of the archived documents stand up to scrutiny, Iran’s reputation will be damaged. While close observers of the Iran nuclear issue, especially in the West, believe that Iran did have a nuclear weapons program, many countries and their publics have remained skeptical and have tended to take at face value Iran’s repeated and vociferous denials.
Tehran’s Big Lie that it has never pursued nuclear weapons has been amazingly effective. Even some who were convinced by the previous evidence of Iran’s weapons activities have either put that knowledge behind them or have tended to dismiss the relevance of that knowledge to evaluating Iran’s behavior going forward.
Solid proof of Iran’s past weapons efforts—and of Iranian lying about those efforts (including up to the present day)—may increase the likelihood that the risks associated with Iran’s future activities, including its missile program and its plans for a large-scale enrichment program, will be evaluated more cautiously against the background of its past effort to develop nuclear weapons.
Iran may now find itself on the defensive, and this could give the Trump administration additional leverage to address the shortcomings it has identified in the JCPOA and over which it has been negotiating with Britain, France, and Germany in recent months.
Take the issue of access to sensitive sites, including military sites, in Iran. The Trump administration has wanted to ensure that the IAEA would have access to such sites, especially given Iran’s erroneous assertion that military sites are off-limits. If the archived documents reveal previously unknown locations where weapons-related activities took place—and the IAEA will need to study the documents to find out if that is the case—this could provide a legitimate basis for the IAEA to seek access.
Given the existence of the locations in Iran’s own records, it would be hard for Tehran to argue that an IAEA request was a “fishing expedition,” and the Iranians would be under considerable pressure to accept the inspection. Denying access in these circumstances would appear incriminating and could subject Iran to charges of a JCPOA violation, with implications for the snap-back of sanctions. Thus, depending on what is found in the archived records—especially whether they contain sites not already known to the IAEA—the Israeli intelligence haul could improve prospects for justified IAEA access.
Similarly, the case for constraining Iranian missile capabilities could be strengthened. Iran’s argument for resisting any limits on its missile capabilities is that its missiles are not, and have never been, intended for the delivery of nuclear weapons and serve only legitimate conventional defense requirements. However, the archived documents include a design for a nuclear payload on Iran’s Shahab-3 ballistic missile, apparently corroborating information contained on a laptop computer obtained by Western intelligence in 2005.
Knowledge that Iran had both preserved its option to acquire nuclear weapons and done design work to mount them on ballistic missiles it continues to develop and deploy could significantly bolster the justification for seeking constraints on Iranian missile programs—and weaken Iran’s case for rejecting such constraints out of hand.
The secret weapons files could also make a satisfactory solution of the JCPOA “sunset” issue more important. The United States and its European partners have all been concerned that, after key JCPOA nuclear restrictions expire after 10 and 15 years, Iran would be free to build up its enrichment capability significantly and reduce the time it would need to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon.
Documentary evidence that Iran’s former defense minister had directed the preservation of records regarding the development of nuclear weapons for possible future use could make the prospect of a large-scale Iranian enrichment program more threatening and generate greater international support for pursuing limits on future Iranian enrichment capacity. (When former Defense Minister Shamkhani issued his directive, Hassan Rouhani, now president of Iran, was head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, the job Shamkhani now holds—suggesting that a commitment to preserving Iran’s nuclear weapon option is persistent and widely shared within the Islamic Republic’s ruling elite.)
The timing of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s presentation and the public manner in which it was rolled out strongly suggest that it was intended primarily to encourage President Trump to terminate the JCPOA. Given this widely assumed motivation, many supporters of the nuclear deal in Europe and the United States have tended to dismiss the significance of the previously hidden archives, arguing that the secret files contain nothing new and that, in any event, Iran’s insistence on preserving a nuclear weapons option is all the more reason to retain the JCPOA rather than scrap it.
They are right that the JCPOA provides the most effective way of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons in the near and medium terms and the most promising platform for dissuading and deterring Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons over the long term. But they are wrong to dismiss the weapons archives so quickly.
The archives should be studied carefully by the IAEA and by national authorities. They may provide valuable clues about Iran’s past efforts and possible future courses of action, both of which could help promote effective monitoring and enforcement of the nuclear deal. And as suggested here, they could strengthen the hand of the United States and its partners to address what the Trump administration has regarded as the main shortcomings of the JCPOA.
But of course, that would require the administration to keep the JCPOA in force and to use the additional leverage provided by the secret documents in the effort to remedy those shortcomings—a prospect that looks increasingly remote.
On February 24, Vanda Felbab-Brown joins the National Committee on US-China Relations for a discussion on “The faces of fentanyl: China, the United States, and those in-between.”