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Iran’s Nuclear Archive


On April 30, 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu displayed excerpts of some 100,000 files Israel obtained from a secret compound in Tehran detailing Iran’s nuclear weapons activities (Haaretz, April 30, 2018). Netanyahu said Iran moved records of the weapons program to a secret warehouse in Tehran. The Mossad discovered the location in February 2016, broke into the building in January 2017, and smuggled the original documents back to Israel (New York Times, April 30, 2018). It was notable that the trove was found by Israeli intelligence rather than the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is responsible for inspections and monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities, raising again questions about the agency’s ability to verify the JCPOA or any other nuclear agreement.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “these documents are real, they are authentic” and the White House issued a statement saying Netanyahu’s information is “new and compelling.” The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) noted that Netanyahu presented a “surprising amount of information that was not previously known by Israeli, Western intelligence, or the IAEA about Iran’s nuclear weapons program” (@TheGoodISIS, April 30, 2018).

“These files conclusively prove that Iran is brazenly lying when it says it never had a nuclear weapons program,” Netanyahu said. Pompeo agreed that the documents indicated “the Iranians have continued to lie to their own people.” He added, that they debunked the Iranian claim that they have “never had a program like this” (Department of State, April 30, 2018).

According to the documents, the nuclear weapons program, Project Amad, began in the early 1990s with the goal of designing, producing and testing five warheads, each with a 10 kiloton TNT yield, for integration on a missile. Following the signing of the JCPOA, Iran preserved and expanded its nuclear knowhow for future use, under a different name using the same personnel.

The agreement had also called for the IAEA to report on Iran’s past nuclear activities, but it never did so, in part due to Iran’s refusal to cooperate. The final IAEA report prior to implementation of the JCPOA said Iran failed “to cooperate on central points” to establish that it had never pursued a nuclear weapon. Nevertheless, the IAEA concluded Iran had been “exploring the technologies, testing, and components that would be needed to produce a weapon someday” (New York Times, December 2, 2015).

ISIS noted that “Iran had an opportunity to come clean about its past nuclear weapons effort” in 2015, but, “instead, Israel found, it accelerated its effort to organize, preserve, and hide this massive archive of nuclear weaponization data and documents” (@TheGoodISIS, April 30, 2018).

According to ISIS: “No document explicitly stated that Iran will use the archives to build nuclear weapons in the future. But, question has to be asked, why preserve and extend such extensive archives if Iran never plans to build nuclear weapons?” (@TheGoodISIS, April 30, 2018).

The Wall Street Journal noted that “regimes that have peaceful intentions don’t behave this way. When South Africa decided to denuclearize in the early 1990s, President F.W. de Klerk ordered the destruction of all sensitive technical and policy documents and gave U.N. inspectors ‘anytime, anywhere’ access to inspect nuclear facilities. In Muammar Gadhafi’s case, U.S. officials physically removed sensitive nuclear-weapons documents, uranium and equipment from Libya” (Wall Street Journal, May 9, 2018).

Supporters of the agreement argued that Netanyahu did not provide any evidence that the Iranians were violating the nuclear agreement; however David Albright of ISIS highlighted several important findings from the archive which demonstrated Iran was not in compliance with the agreement (“Nuclear Experts: Iran Nuclear Documents are a ‘Jackpot,’ Show Continued Intent to Make Bomb,” The Tower, May 11, 2018):

  • Unlike South Africa, Iran hid the documentation of its nuclear weapons program from inspectors. Consequently, Iran did not denuclearize as required by the JCPOA.
  • The JCPOA limits Iran’s nuclear activities to peaceful use. “It’s hard,” Albright said, “to see how this [the archive] is consistent with this pledge.”
  • Section T in the JCPOA states “that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.” Iran put the head of the AMAD nuclear weapons program, Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizade, in charge of the secret stewardship program. This made the stewardship program, effectively, a program “contributing to nuclear weapons,” that was forbidden by the JCPOA.
  • The JCPOA required Iran to disclose its past nuclear weapons work, but the archive showed that Iran had equipment that was used for nuclear weapons work that it never disclosed to the IAEA.

Based on their analysis of the material obtained by Israel, David Albright, Sarah Burkhard, Olli Heinonen, and Frank Pabian concluded “there is no proof that Iran has abandoned its goal of building nuclear weapons, only that it has accepted that its projects and plans are put on the shelf.” The documents and photographs indicate “Iran conducted at Parchin more high explosive tests related to nuclear weapons development than previously thought.” They also noted that Iran had very sophisticated dual use equipment that they suspect was stored by Iran for “future us or assigned it to other projects,” which raises the question: “where is it now?”

The findings lead them to also question “whether Iran is simply preserving, curating, and improving its nuclear weapons capabilities, awaiting a decision to reconstitute a full-blown nuclear weapons program at a later date, if such a political decision is made.” They add that Iran’s “failure to destroy all these documents, and purportedly, the equipment used in these activities, does not align with its commitment under the JCPOA ‘that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire nuclear weapons.’” The authors say this is in stark contrast to the case of South Africa, which, after agreeing to abandon its nuclear weapons program, “involved program officials searching for and burning all nuclear weapons sensitive documents and destroying the sensitive components, equipment, and non-nuclear materials.”

As a result of the new information, the authors believe there is “a renewed urgency” for the IAEA “to look again at the question of whether Iran is maintaining and advancing a nuclear weapons program.” They added, “It is also vital for the inspectors to have full, unrestricted access to relevant technical and scientific personnel, equipment, and sites” (David Albright, Sarah Burkhard, Olli Heinonen, and Frank Pabian, “New Information about the Parchin Site: What the Atomic Archive Reveals About Iran’s Past Nuclear Weapons Related High Explosive Work at the Parchin High Explosive Test Site,” Institute for Science and International Security, October 23, 2018).

Albright subsequently told Foreign Policy that the documents proved the Iranians “were further along than Western intelligence agencies realized.” He said “the U.S. was issuing statements that it would take a year at least, perhaps two years, to build a deliverable weapon. The information in the archive makes it clear they could have done it a lot quicker.” Albright added that the French government, which was then saying Iran could achieve a weapon in three months, was much closer in its estimates (Foreign Policy, November 13, 2018).

Examination of the documents released by Israel continues to yield new information. In April 2019, analysts from the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) found that Iran was engaged in a more extensive effort to develop and build a nuclear test site than previously known.

Iran’s Amad Plan envisioned the construction of five nuclear weapons in the early 2000s. Toward that end, Project Midan was initiated by the regime to identify locations for the construction of an underground site to test a nuclear explosive and measure its explosive yield by the end of 2003. The plan was shelved that year, but ISIS concluded “it is logical to assume that Iran continued to maintain preparedness to test and work on developing yield prediction methods after 2003.”

The information indicates Iran “violated its commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty” and “were not compatible with the spirit of its commitments as a signatory of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty” (ISIS, April 2, 2019).

The archive also revealed that Iran was developing, testing and manufacturing a key nuclear weapon subcomponent called a “shock wave generator.” After 2003, the project involved non-military explosive tests to cover its real purpose. “The development of the shock wave generator contributed importantly to Iran’s miniaturization of a nuclear weapons design,” according to  David Albright and Olli Heinonen. They said the IAEA needed to investigate the extent of the project and any related information or equipment that may still exist. If any is found, they argued it “should be destroyed irretrievably or removed from Iran in a verifiable manner” (Institute for Science and International Security, May 7, 2019).

In January 2019, a group of scholars from Harvard were allowed to examine part of the nuclear archive (“The Iran Nuclear Archive: Impressions and Implications,” Belfer Center, April 2019). They wrote that “Iran’s nuclear weapons program – known as Project AMAD – was unambiguously aimed at producing nuclear weapons.” They also found that Iran did not stop all its work in 2003. They ceased activities in large identifiable facilities, continued “research to fill in some technical gaps they still believed needed work.” Some of the work was done openly because it could be justified by civilian program; other efforts were to be done covertly. The Harvard researchers also examined satellite images showing that Iran removed material from the site, backing up assertions made by Netanyahu.

They also found the IAEA was wrong when it reported in December 2015 that Iran’s effort to acquire nuclear weapons prior to 2003 “did not advance beyond feasibility and scientific studies and the acquisition of certain relevant technical competences and capabilities.” Documents from the archive indicate “Iran had completed its nuclear weapons design and was preparing the facilities for manufacturing – though actual production of the needed nuclear material was still in the earliest stages, with hardly any centrifuges operating.”

The archive also confirmed previous suspicions that “there was indeed a large explosion containment chamber at Parchin in which Iran carried out extensive explosive experiments related to the nuclear weapons program.”

One significant new finding was that the program was more advanced than previously known. The Israelis concluded “Iran had managed to acquire several foreign weapons designs, had refined those designs to develop its own, and had settled on a single frozen design as the basis for its initial weapons production.” With help from foreign experts, the Harvard researchers said, “Iran had made considerable progress on nearly every aspect of developing and manufacturing nuclear weapons, including implosion testing, weapon design, neutron generators, casting and machining (though with surrogate materials, not uranium), and integration of warheads and reentry vehicles.”

In addition, Iran built an underground tunnel for a secret facility to produce weapons components. Though Israel and the United States were aware of the tunnel, they were unaware it was related to the nuclear program. “This means that important features of Iran’s weapons-related efforts, including a major facility, remained undetected over a period of nearly two decades,” the authors said, “despite the extraordinary attention that a number of national intelligence agencies devoted to monitoring Iran’s nuclear program.”

The study concluded, “As of 2003, other than fissile material, Iran was quite far along in its effort to obtain the bomb.”

The nuclear archive also raised serious questions about the ability of the IAEA and Western intelligence sources to ensure Iran is not working on the development of a nuclear bomb:

While Iran’s activities involving fissile material are well-known and subject to IAEA scrutiny, the current location of equipment relevant to weaponization remains unknown, and the modest scale required for weaponization efforts means that overall confidence that such activities are not occurring at secret locations is lower. In short, Iran seems likely to be in a strong position to launch a reconstituted weapons program, should it ever choose to do so, and should it have a plausible path to acquiring fissile material without being detected and stopped (“The Iran Nuclear Archive: Impressions and Implications,” Belfer Center, April 2019).

The fact that the IAEA and Western intelligence agencies were unaware of the extent of Iran’s nuclear program does not inspire confidence that they know what Iran is doing today. Worse, the Israelis found evidence that “Iran had penetrated the IAEA and, on some occasions, knew in advance what questions the agency would ask or what sites they would seek to visit.” This raises the question: Could the IAEA still be compromised?