Netanyahu's Nuclear Exposé: a Hit or a Miss?

The nuclear weapon documents smuggled out of Iran by the Mossad have proven Iran's deceitful conduct regarding its nuclear program. Would they affect US President Donald Trump's decision on the fate of the Iranian nuclear agreement?

Netanyahu's Nuclear Exposé: a Hit or a Miss?

What's inside the "half a ton" of secret Iranian documents smuggled by Mossad? (Photo: AP)

The intelligence material regarding the Iranian nuclear program, obtained recently by a Mossad operation and presented by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu live on TV (April 30, 2018) was a remarkable achievement with regard to the operational aspect as well as with regard to the value and sheer scope of the material obtained. Nevertheless, and the impressive theatrical presentation notwithstanding, opinions in Israel and around the world are divided as to whether the information presented included any new revelations and whether the presentation has accomplished its goal. The expectations (in Israel and overseas) for Netanyahu to present, during his live broadcast, an undisputable "smoking gun" that would prove that Iran has been violating The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) of 2015, have not been fulfilled.

The documents smuggled out of Iran represent the objective of the Iranian nuclear weapon program: to build five 10-kiloton nuclear devices (a device on the scale of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in World War II) that would fit in the warhead of a ballistic missile. It is reasonable to assume that this was just an interim objective which, if accomplished successfully, would have led Iran to produce a substantial nuclear weapon arsenal. The elements of the program are presented in the documents in detail: the mining of uranium and production of urania ("yellowcake"); the enrichment of the uranium to nuclear weapon grade; the design of the bomb; the casting of the enriched uranium core, which consists of two uranium hemispheres; the implosion system designed to compress the nuclear core with high explosives in order to create a supercritical mass that would enable a sustained fission chain reaction of uranium-235 nuclei; the nuclear explosion tests, and the installation of the nuclear explosive device in the warhead of the Shahab-3 ballistic missile.

As an expansion of Netanyahu's presentation, the Iranian nuclear program was split back in 2003 into two efforts: an overt façade, presented as intended strictly for civilian applications and being run under the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), and a covert effort aimed at the development of nuclear weapons in the context of Project AMAD, headed by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Netanyahu noted that at some point, Fakhrizadeh had decided to close down Project AMAD and have its activities transferred to the "organization for scientific knowhow development", known by the Farsi acronym SPND. Evidently, and as outlined in the report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) dated February 2011, the covert nuclear program had been converted to SPND – the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research. As to Fakhrizadeh, according to several reports he traveled in February 2013, secretly and under a false identity, to North Korea, at the head of an Iranian delegation, to observe North Korea's third nuclear test.

There are those who currently claim, with some disparagement, that the information contained in the documents smuggled recently out of Iran is not new as it refers to the years 2003 through 2005. This claim is based, apparently, on the intelligence material stored in the laptop computer of an Iranian scientist which, having been stolen from him or smuggled by him out of Iran, was submitted to the CIA around May 2004. The information contained in this computer was submitted to IAEA in late 2005, and the Agency treated it as a "smoking gun" regarding the Iranian nuclear weapon project. The Iranian scientist's computer contained documents and blueprints that dealt with core aspects of the project – and they correlate with Netanyahu's presentation. The latest blueprints in that laptop computer were probably dated February 2003. Additionally, several IAEA member states submitted to the Agency other intelligence documents that correlated with the documents in the laptop computer, and the latest date given by some of those documents was March 2004.

However, the reference made to SPND in the recently smuggled documents proves that some of them are dated 2011 and possibly even later. This refutes the claim that the information dates back to 2003-2005. Moreover, Netanyahu also presented a drawing and a photograph taken from those documents, which refer to the Fordow uranium enrichment plant, the facility excavated into a mountain and built as a defense project in the context of Project AMAD. This facility was unveiled in the west around 2009, just before it was completed, and it is, therefore, reasonable to assume that the photograph Netanyahu presented was taken, probably, around 2009.

Moreover, the amount of documents smuggled out of Iran is staggering: about 55,000 pages and about 55,000 files stored on 183 discs. According to a senior intelligence source, the Israeli intelligence community never obtained such a substantial amount of intelligence material, and the processing and analysis of the material are yet to be completed, owing to the sheer mass of texts in Farsi. Apparently, the scope of the information that may be produced from the documents regarding the Iranian nuclear program far exceeds whatever IAEA and the intelligence agencies of the world have known to this day.

Below the Surface

However, according to Netanyahu's presentation, the highlight of the new information was the proof that Iran's claiming that its nuclear program was intended for peaceful purposes is nothing but deceit. Iran's on-going deceitful conduct casts a heavy shadow on the obsequious manner in which the Obama administration and the European Union approached Iran in 2015 so as to convince the Iranians to sign the JCPOA, contrary to common sense, according to which an agreement with a liar is inherently questionable.

In addition to the information in Netanyahu's presentation, the heads of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) themselves admitted in the past, as well as recently, that they sometimes lied to the world. Fereydoon Abbasi, for example, noted offhandedly in an interview in 2012 to the newspaper Al-Hayat: "We often submitted false information to the IAEA inspectors to protect our nuclear facilities and our achievements… We had no choice but to cheat IAEA and the other spies."

Additionally, Ali Akbar Salehi gave an interview to IRINN, the official Iranian TV news network, in late August 2017, in view of President Trump's intention to have the nuclear agreement revoked. In that interview, in which he threatened that Iran could promptly restart its military nuclear program, Salehi admitted that Iran is sometimes compelled to lie about its nuclear program. He said that while referring to the heavy water reactor Iran had erected near Arak, which was intended to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons (the Iranian plutonium activity was being run in the context of AEOI, not under Project AMAD/SPND, so the documents smuggled recently out of Iran probably do not include any reference to that activity). The JCPOA decreed that the plutonium reactor should be converted for civilian purposes and that the core vessel should be removed and rendered inoperable by filling any openings in it with concrete so that IAEA may verify that it may not be used for any nuclear applications. Contrary to the agreement, Salehi admitted that the photographs Iran distributed in the media, which allegedly show that the pit intended to accept the heavy water container of the original reactor had been filled completely with concrete, were in fact "Photoshopped". According to Salehi: "We poured cement only into some of the reactor's external pipes, several centimeters in diameter and two to three meters long, not into the reactor itself. If we are instructed to restore the former reactor… we will remove the front and back parts of these pipes and put in new pipes, which will take only several months."

As to the question of whether and to what extent Iran violated the JCPOA, the answer is to be found in the archive of the nuclear weapon program smuggled to Israel. Iran kept that sensitive information even after signing the agreement in 2015, while blatantly violating the following clause: "Iran will not engage in activities, including at the R&D level that could contribute to the development of a nuclear explosive device."

Additionally, it would seem that Iran is violating the JCPOA with regard to the development and manufacture of advanced centrifuge models. In a TV interview in April 2017, Salehi declared that serial production of the advanced centrifuge models IR2, IR4 and IR6 had begun. However, according to the JCPOA Iran was allowed to commence manufacturing of IR6 type centrifuges, at a rate of 200 units per year, only following the end of the eighth year after the implementation of the JCPOA, namely – only after February 2023. Salehi added that following that, Iran will commence manufacturing of cascades for IR8 centrifuges around the second half of 2019. By doing so, however, Iran will violate the JCPOA clause that decrees that Iran may start testing cascades that include up to 30 IR6 and IR8 centrifuges only eight and a half years after the implementation of the JCPOA, namely – only during the second half of July 2024.

Although Iran endeavors to show that it conforms to the letter and spirit of the agreement, several issues indicate just how flawed this agreement really is. Contrary to the spirit of the agreement, Iran seems to be making it difficult for the IAEA inspectors to access sites where nuclear weapon development activity may be taking place, on the pretext that these are military bases, so allowing the inspectors to enter them could compromise Iran's security.

In his TV interview in late August 2017, Salehi went as far as defying the USA, saying: "If we want to, we can start enriching uranium to 20% within five days." By doing so, he hinted that his country can break out of the JCPOA within less than six months, contrary to President Obama's claim, on the eve of the signature of the JCPOA, according to which Iran would require at least one year to break out of the agreement.

One issue that causes serious concerns is the "Sunset" issue: the option granted to Iran to be relieved of all of the restrictions imposed on it and renew its efforts to develop nuclear weapons. The indication of Iran's future intentions is reflected by the following facts: Iran maintained, in a secret archive, its nuclear weapon development plans even after the signature of the JCPOA; it pressed on with the activities associated with the development of advanced centrifuges, and it retained the option of resuming the installation of the heavy water reactor.

Despite the tendency of some elements within the European Union to ignore the flaws of the Iranian nuclear agreement and their adherence to maintaining it as it is, it will be up to President Trump to decide, by May 12, the fate of the JCPOA. Against the background of the documents smuggled out of Iran recently, President Trump will probably have to make his decision along the lines of Netanyahu's demand: "Either fix it or nix it."

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Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Rafael Ofek is an expert in the physics and technology of nuclear power. He had served in the Israeli intelligence community as a senior researcher and analyst

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