Security and Intelligence: Atomic fallout

Nuclear expert David Albright explains the most important discoveries from the Iranian archives stolen by the Mossad.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the UN General Assembly in New York last year (photo credit: CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the UN General Assembly in New York last year
Few people have a deep understanding of the significance of the nuclear secrets that the Mossad appropriated from Shirobad, Iran, in its already mythic operation in January 2018. But David Albright is one of them.
Albright, a former International Atomic Energy Agency Nuclear Safety Action Team inspector and the head of the Institute for Science and International Security, is close to CIA, Mossad and IAEA officials.
Since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly disclosed in April 2018 the Mossad’s seizing of the secret Iranian archives, Albright has put out report after report, analyzing the details of the documents on a much more scientific basis than others who lack his unique experience.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on the sidelines of the recent Institute for National Security Studies conference in Tel Aviv, the US-based Albright delved into the most important findings from the archive and expounded on how they relate to complexities surrounding the nuclear standoff with Iran.
ALBRIGHT EMPHASIZED the archive revelation that Tehran’s program to produce at least five nuclear weapons was more advanced in 2003 than Western intelligence agencies had realized.
The archive “conclusively shows that the Parchin [Iranian nuclear] site did house high explosive chambers capable for use in nuclear weapons research and development,” beyond what the West had known about, he explained.
Next, he raised the question of why Iran was keeping such a massive amount of files about nuclear weapons, if it had no intention of seeking those weapons in the future.
“Why would a country seeking only civilian nuclear power have the need for this kind of highly detailed nuclear weapons archive?” asked Albright.
One underreported element about the archives is indications that the Mossad believes it can prove some of the curating of the nuclear files was carried out after the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
Albright said that if this is true, it would be another strong sign that the files show current violations of the deal, and that they are not merely a historical record from 2003 as critics claim.
Netanyahu had already disclosed publicly that the Mossad followed Iran’s moving of the archive to a new site as late as 2017 to keep it concealed.
Add to all of this that the files can be easily retrieved and used to develop nuclear weapons, and the conclusion is that they are far from “academics retiring and putting files in boxes in some national laboratory archive,” said Albright.
In addition, he said that even critics of Iran had not given sufficient attention to Netanyahu’s public disclosure in his September 2018 UN speech of another Iranian nuclear site – in the Turquzabad district of Tehran.
The former IAEA inspector said that the second site contained at least 15-20 containers with equipment relating to the nuclear program weighing 20 tons, including movable labs.
“There were lots of pictures of the equipment, and lots of it has not been accounted for” by the Islamic Republic in its dealings with the IAEA, said Albright. “Some of the equipment can only have been made for the purpose of making a specific subcomponent for a nuclear weapon.”
Albright said that one of his future reports will get into greater depth about this issue, which demonstrates that there is additional evidence against Iran to unearth, over nine months after the public disclosure of Tehran’s nuclear archive.
Knowing that the Mossad brought back to Israel over 100,000 files, and that this was likely only between 20% and 50% of the archive, Albright said the scale and combination of nuclear files and unaccounted for equipment starts “moving you toward arguments of violations” of the nuclear deal.
Framing the Islamic Republic’s decision to maintain the nuclear archive as a departure from most countries’ behavior, he used South Africa as an example.
“South Africa felt it had to destroy its nuclear documents and equipment in order to feel it satisfied Article 2 of the NPT [the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons],” he said, adding that “the same standard was used for Libya and Switzerland.”
Albright explained that when Switzerland destroyed its nuclear documents in 2004, it was done under IAEA supervision to fully verify their destruction. This showed how seriously a nuclear weapons document is normally viewed, and a double standard of leniency that has been give to Iran, he said.
DISCUSSING WHAT he called Iranian lies about its nuclear program, he said that it is not only the substance of the lies that is significant, but the fact that those telling the nuclear lies in the past are the same Iranian officials who are currently asking to be believed.
“There is lots of evidence of lying at the top levels of government,” during the time period covered by the nuclear archives, said Albright, citing Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who formerly was on Iran’s Supreme National Security Council; Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani, who formerly was the defense minister; and the current head of Iranian Aerospace, who formerly was in charge of setting up nuclear sites.
“They knew what they were doing. They knew what they could tell the truth about and where they needed to lie,” said Albright.
He strongly criticized his former colleagues at the IAEA for avoiding, and obfuscating about, analyzing the data and sites that Netanyahu and the Mossad revealed.
He said that the IAEA has said very little about the archives and has claimed that it takes extensive time, around a year, to look through mounds of new data properly.
Disagreeing with the IAEA, he said that even with large mounds of data, “you can start getting results right away.... There are methods you can use, which the IAEA has used and which I used in the 1990s with Iraq,” to target specific key elements of data and quickly analyze them.
He noted that with fewer resources than the IAEA, he has used this method and found “lots of information about Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and what is being found fits the big picture” of a concealed weapons program.
The IAEA declined to comment, but referred the Post to a January 30 statement pushing back against critics for trying to micromanage or politicize its activities.
Regarding critics’ claims that the archive just confirmed what Western intelligence agencies already knew about Iran’s pre-2003 activities, he said that before the archive, agencies, metaphorically, “could see the picture of a person, but could not recognize the person, the background or the foreground.
“With the archive sticking in the full details, you can see the person, the background, the foreground, and it fits” the accusation of a clandestine nuclear weapons program.
Transitioning to the broader context of where he expects the nuclear standoff with Iran to go in 2019, he said that the US will likely at some point hit Iran harder in the sanctions arena.
How can the US hit Tehran harder with sanctions when, between its August and November rounds, it already has imposed all of the sanctions it threatened, including on oil?
Surprisingly, Albright said that the US could lower Iran’s oil exports even further.
He said that even as the Trump administration had projected toughness in public statements, the order it actually issued regarding oil was that the entire sanctions regime should not impact oil prices too drastically.
This explains the mystery of why the US granted waivers to eight different countries regarding the sanctions. Albright said that even countries such as China could possibly be convinced to lower, if not cut off, their oil imports from Iran.
Essentially, he said the US could not move too dramatically, too fast, in reducing Iranian oil exports without risking a worldwide oil price spike. However, he said there were indications that the US will work to gradually reduce the Islamic Republic’s oil exports even further from its current volume. So gradual reduction will occur, but without a major spike in price.
He stated that the Trump administration believes Iran will stay in the deal even through these measures. He said the Trump administration believes that though “it may cheat on the margins, Iran will not break the limits” significantly, and the administration is hopeful that the additional measures may eventually change Iran’s behavior.
Addressing the administration’s assessment that Iran will stay within the deal, he said, “I hope that is the case. Iran is a complicated country. There are a lot of internal pressures to build a bomb, and constituencies who want to see the deal end.”
Another reason for the gradual rollout of sanctions over six months, and with waivers beyond the six months, was that the Trump administration “consciously decided not to bring down the deal” even as the US itself exited.
What else can the US do to prevent a nuclear Iran, if concerns grow that it is moving toward a weapon?
Albright implied a Stuxnet 2.0 – a new cyberattack on Tehran’s nuclear facilities following a successful cyberattack by the Stuxnet virus reportedly released against Iran by the US and Israel in 2009-2010 – could be in order under certain circumstances.
Also, he said that the US “needs to make it clear to Iran that there are a range of tools the US and its allies can use against Iran,” and he “would not rule out US military strikes” eventually, “if this really goes badly.”
Qualifying his statement about military strikes, he said, “I don’t want to go down that path. I don’t know what we will end up with, and I don’t know how successful it would be. One strike might not be enough,” and the US might need “to threaten to attack again” to prevent Iran from simply fixing any damaged facilities.
Next, he was pressed that most in the Israeli defense establishment believe that Trump threatens Iran a lot, but would not actually be ready to risk striking it, and would leave that to the Jewish state.
“It cannot be left to Israel to attack,” he responded, explaining that the US is skeptical that Israel can end the Iranian nuclear threat, since Israel lacks bunker busters, which can penetrate the Islamic Republic’s underground facilities, such as Fordow.
He added that if Trump were to shift to “extremely threatening statements” against Iran, as he did in the case of North Korea, those threats might also change Tehran’s behavior.
The key to deterring Iran, according to Albright, is to strike the right balance between being firm and vague. “There must be a firm commitment by the US to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. What that means should be left vague, including what it means to get a nuclear weapon,” so that the Islamic Republic will worry about the US attacking, long before it gets a weapon ready to be used.