Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, said Iran is close to finishing a factory where it can build a new generation of centrifuge machines. He also said Iran has imported some 400 tons of yellowcake uranium since signing the JCPOA, bringing its stockpile to between 900 and 950 tons. This is permissible under the agreement; however, Iran is still required to limit enrichment of uranium to 3.67 percent, enough to use in a nuclear power plant but less than the 90 percent needed for an atomic weapon (AP, July 18, 2018).
Reports released in 2018 by the German intelligence agencies in Hamburg, Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, North Rhine-Westphalia and Hesse obtained by the Jerusalem Post indicate Iran continues to seek weapons of mass destruction (Jerusalem Post, July 21, 2018).
The July report from Hamburg said that Iran is among the “crisis countries” that “are still making an effort to obtain products for the manufacture of atomic, biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction (proliferation) and the corresponding missile carrier technology (rocket technology).” The report added, “Iran continues to pursue unchanged an ambitious program to modernize its rocket technology with the goal of a continued increase of the reach of the missiles.”
Bavaria’s intelligence agency disclosed in April 2018: “Iran, North Korea, Syria and Pakistan are making efforts to expand their conventional weapons arsenal through the production of weapons of mass destruction.”
The report compiled in Hesse specified that Iran was one of two countries seeking to obtain nuclear weapons. “States like Iran and North Korea attempt, in the context of proliferation, to acquire and spread such weapons by, for example, disguising the transportation ways through third countries.”
In June 2018, Baden-Württemberg intelligence reported: “Iran continued to undertake, as did Pakistan and Syria, efforts to obtain goods and know-how to be used for the development of weapons of mass destruction and to optimize corresponding missile-delivery systems.”
The North Rhine-Westphalia intelligence agency wrote: “Because of the demand for relevant goods for its rocket program, Iran continues to represent proliferation defense in our work.”
After signing the JCPOA, Iran stopped production of 20% enriched uranium and deposited the excessive fuel in Russia in nearly 10 batches. Iran announced on August 11, 2018, it asked for the return of the first batch seven months earlier and now plans to bring back a second. In April, Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said it would take only four days to ramp up enrichment again to 20% at its Fordo nuclear facility, which begs the question how this is possible if the nuclear deal was supposed to cut off all avenues for Iran to build a bomb. Salehi also threatened countries that might consider following the United States’ lead in pulling out of the JCPOA by suggesting Iran could respond by advancing its nuclear program beyond the pre-agreement levels (Fars News Agency, August 11, 2018). Meanwhile, David Albright disclosed that nearly all of Iran’s advanced centrifuges were failing (Jerusalem Post, January 30, 2019).
Iran has also been employing cyberwarfare to target U.S. officials and experts. Hackers have been trying to break into the private emails of U.S. Treasury officials, high-profile defenders, detractors and enforcers of the nuclear deal, and Arab atomic scientists, Iranian civil society figures and D.C. think tank employees (AP, December 13, 2018).
While many of Iran’s actions were alarming, U.S. intelligence issued its annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment” in January 2019 and concluded that Iran was not taking steps necessary to make a bomb. C.I.A. director Gina Haspel testified before Congress that “at the moment, technically they are in compliance, but we do see them debating amongst themselves as they’ve failed to realize the economic benefits they hoped for from the deal.” She also cautioned that Iran is “making some preparations that would increase their ability to take a step back if they make that decision.” technically in compliance with the terms of the nuclear agreement (New York Times, January 29, 2019).
Eli Lake observed that “the very same assessment notes that Iran’s work on a space launch vehicle ‘shortens the timeline’ for it to develop the long-range missiles capable of delivering a nuclear payload. Like North Korea, Iran is still pursuing its insurance policy” (Bloomberg, January 29, 2019).
Emily Landau, director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, argued the assessment is misleading because Iran is developing advanced centrifuges and testing missiles that can carry nuclear warheads. “Both activities are key to having a nuclear-weapons capability, and Iran can work on them without violating the JCPOA,” she said. In addition, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has not acted on the information found in the Iranian nuclear archives. “How can the assessment be so sure about its conclusions when this information is not taken into account?” (JNS, February 7, 2019).
The U.S. assessment was also peculiar given the admission of Salehi regarding the Arak nuclear facility, which was designed to produce weapons-grade plutonium. In 2016, the IAEA confirmed that Iran had satisfied the requirement to fill specialized tubes with cement to make the reactor’s central component, the “calandria,” unusable, but Salehi said, “We did not tell them that we had other tubes. Otherwise, they would have told us to pour cement into those tubes as well. Now we have the same tubes.” This raises the questions: “Where did Iran purchase the tubes, and where are they now? Has the regime built a replacement calandria already — or even a new reactor?” (Wall Street Journal, February 6, 2019).
Perhaps the best indication that Iran has continued to advance its nuclear program comes from Salehi, who said in September 2018: “If we have to go back and withdraw from the nuclear deal, we certainly do not go back to where we were before ... We will be standing in a much, much higher position” (Gatestone Institute, March 30, 2019).
In February 2019), Salehi explained how Iran effectively used a loophole in the JCPOA to develop advanced centrifuges. In the first 10 years of the agreement, Iran was only permitted to use IR1 centrifuges for enrichment. In the meantime, they have completed tests on IR4 and IR2M centrifuges. “We have all the data, and we can easily manufacture them on an industrial scale,” he said, when the JCPOA limit expires (MEMRI, February 8, 2019).
On September 27, 2018, Netanyahu revealed the existence of a secret warehouse in the Turquz Abad district in Tehran, which he said held equipment and materiel related to Iran’s past or possibly on-going nuclear weapons efforts. He also disclosed that the facility had held 15 kilograms of radioactive material that Iran subsequently dispersed around Tehran.
Meanwhile, the Iranians emptied the warehouse and “disposed of radioactively contaminated material stored at the site.” According to Olli Heinonen, Former Deputy Director General of the IAEA and head of its Department of Safeguards, “The IAEA’s lack of action or explanation of its inaction undermines its credibility and raises questions about its effectiveness in its Iran safeguards mission” (Institute for Science and International Security, November 29, 2018). Months after Israel urged the agency to inspect the site, inspectors were sent to investigate. Given the amount of time that had elapsed, it was unlikely the agency would find anything (Wall Street Journal, April 5, 2019).
Moreover, since the implementation of the JCPOA, the IAEA has been unable to determine if Iran’s nuclear program is devoted solely for peaceful purposes. In addition, Iran may still have undeclared nuclear activities.
On April 9, President Hassan Rouhani authorized the installation of a cascade of 20 advanced IR-6 centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear site, another step that could facilitate future work on nuclear weapons (MEMRI, April 10, 2019).