Everyone has an opinion about the importance or irrelevance of the secret nuclear documents that the Mossad appropriated from Iran, but does anyone have a clue as to what they are talking about? Do people know what it was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu actually presented in his PowerPoint presentation, what was really old news and what was clearly new? Let’s break it down. First, what was actually presented, and second, how does it matter or not matter? Based on a careful analysis of the slides and a comparison to past IAEA reports, and without putting down the Mossad’s extraordinary spy-craft achievement, the majority of the Mossad Iran documents presented were from the period 1999-2003 – meaning not new.
The Amad program and Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh emphasized by Netanyahu in slide 19 and other slides, appear in paragraphs 22-23 of the IAEA’s December 2015 report summarizing Iran’s past nuclear activities.
Many of the other elements presented by Netanyahu could also be found in the same IAEA report. Slide 24 about developing nuclear cores can be found in paragraphs 33-35 of the report.
In Slide 25, when the prime minister explains that Iran was designing a multipoint initiation (MPI) system – a system for multiple detonations of a warhead – he is echoing paragraphs 41-46 of the report.
Likewise, Netanyahu rattled off a list of specific claims Iran made to the IAEA that the new documents disproved.
Slide 37 showed the documents contradicted Iranian claims that they had not done work conducted with MPI technology in making calculations related to the hemisphere and geometry. But the IAEA had figured that out on its own in paragraph 41.
The same is true about Slide 39 about hydronamic testing – testing the impact of the compressive shock on a simulated core of a nuclear explosive device – the IAEA said it recognized Iran had put obstacles in its way to understanding its activities back in paragraphs 48-57.
Slide 23 in which the prime minister describes Iran’s development of a nuclear weapons design, specifically implosion simulations, can be found in paragraphs 58-62 of the report.
An impressive breakdown and comparison between Netanyahu’s speech and past reports was done by top nuclear expert Jeffrey Lewis from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
Some of the comparison certainly dents the shine in part of Netanyahu’s presentation.
BUT THERE ARE items that Lewis and others are citing as old news where the new twists could be quite important.
For example, Lewis is correct that anyone who read the IAEA report already knew from paragraph 66 that Iran had performed “preparatory experimentation relevant to testing a nuclear explosive device.” From this perspective, it might seem that Netanyahu’s announcement that the treasure trove of secret Iran nuclear documents shows five sites where Iran was considering testing a nuclear device was also old news. But that misses the point.
Knowing that Iran was looking into nuclear test sites versus knowing the exact locations of the five sites – two in the Semnan Region in the northern center of the country and three in the Lot Desert in country’s central east – are night and day different. Also, now Western intelligence agencies can invest more in following suspicious developments at these sites. This was new information.
Further, the prime minister’s presentation gave the specific number of five warheads of 10 kilotons each as the Iranian goal. There is nothing small about this information.
Experts have long debated whether Iran was looking to make one dirty bomb, a full mature nuclear arsenal or something in between. This information indicates that Iran’s nuclear weapons goals over the years, while dangerous, were also modest – which is valuable to know for either diplomacy or any strike on those capabilities.
In contrast, there are wide-ranging informed estimates about how many nuclear weapons North Korea has and may want, but no one has a real clue.
There is another potentially important piece of information in Netanyahu’s presentation.
Paragraphs 81 and 85 of the IAEA report contend that Iran continued aspects of its nuclear weapons program between 2005 and 2009, but that these aspects were “not a coordinated effort” like during the 1999-2003 period. They also contend that there is no information about new Iranian nuclear activities after 2009.
First, this IAEA determination is based on a limited view. Iranian ballistic missile testing, which has continued after the 2015 nuclear deal since it was left out of the agreement, can help Iran with the weaponization and delivery of enriched uranium, but is not being looked at by the IAEA.
But beyond that, Netanyahu and an anonymous Israeli intelligence official have added into the mix that the Mossad started following where Iran was hiding the documents, which prove it lied about not pursuing nuclear weapons, in February 2016.
Furthermore, they have said that the documents were moved and concealed at the Shirobad district warehouse in southern Tehran in 2017.
No Israeli government official will explain why the files were moved specifically then, but Netanyahu has proved that the Iranians concealed the documents in multiple locations after they were supposed to have come clean in 2015, and moved the files in 2017 to avoid detection.
None of this proves new violations of the 2015 deal, but this level of organization undermines the idea that Iran’s nuclear efforts after 2003 were not coordinated from the top.
Toward the end of the period covered by the nuclear deal, key restrictions would expire if the IAEA formally reaches a “broader conclusion” that Tehran’s nuclear program is entirely peaceful.
The evidence presented by Netanyahu could impact this broader conclusion.
Also, it can indirectly impact whether the US and the EU affirm that the limits on Iran’s nuclear program can be lifted as mandated under the deal’s “sunset provisions,” or whether they must stay in place due to the lying.
Similarly, the prime minister presented a slide about integrating a nuclear warhead to be placed on a Shahab-3 missile.
This is not new and comes up in paragraph 69 of the IAEA report.
But how one looks at that report and whether Iran can even attempt a claim with a straight face that it is continuing to test ballistic missiles with no thought about using them for nuclear weapons, is certainly impacted by the details of Iran’s continued efforts to hide its program.
There are other possible reasons, besides a desire to develop nuclear weapons, why Iran might hide its past activities.
But it is extremely incriminating.
The bottom line is that the lion’s share of what Netanyahu presented could have been gleaned from the IAEA’s 2015 report. But some of the points he added could influence key aspects of the nuclear deal if it continues, and could influence the shape of the debate if the deal is nixed or fixed.