Inside, confidential and off the record
Iran's Nuclear Secrets
Jack Guez /AFP
Reporting from a warehouse.
Iran's Nuclear Secrets Past Is Now Coming Into Focus.
A new report raises
questions about how long the regime has been working on weapons.
Five years ago, as the U.S. was hammering out the final details of the Iran nuclear deal, negotiators relented on a key demand: Iran would not have to account for the possible military dimensions of its past nuclear activities. This bargain was enshrined in a December 2015 report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, which closed the longstanding investigation into Iran's nuclear program.
Now it appears that investigation is reopened. Bloomberg News is reporting that the agency has rebuked Iran for stonewalling inspectors with new questions about Iran's past nuclear-weapon work. The agency says that Iran now possesses 1,021 kilograms of low-enriched uranium, up from 372 kilograms last fall.
This news is disturbing but not unexpected. The Iranian regime had announced that it was turning on its cascades of centrifuges last year during heightened tensions with the U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, and six months later began ratcheting up the secondary sanctions on Iran's oil sector that the 2015 bargain had lifted.
The bigger news is about Iran's past nuclear program. A report from the agency to member states says that Iran “has not provided access to the agency to two locations,”according to Reuters , nor has it “engaged in substantive discussions to clarify agency questions related to possible undeclared nuclear material and nuclear-related activities.”
All of this reads like a replay of the standoffs between Iran and the international community in the 2000s, when weapons inspectors tried to gain access to military installations and other sites. A key difference is that, this time around, the IAEA has a roadmap of Iran's past nuclear weapons work.
In 2018, Israel publicized the findings of a daring raid into a warehouse outside of Tehran that included blueprints, videos and other documents that detailed Iran's past nuclear weapons program. The Israelis have shared the intelligence with the U.S. as well as the IAEA.
“Everything the Israelis found in the nuclear archives prior to 2004 shows Iran had a full- fledged nuclear weapons program,” says Andrea Stricker, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The regime was making progress and “sought to hide and disguise parts of the program from the world.”
These are uncomfortable facts for proponents of the 2015 nuclear deal. President Barack Obama's former deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, for example, is focusing instead on Iran's tripled uranium stockpile, blaming Trump's decision to exit the deal for Iran's recent breakout.
That's an easy story to tell. But the IAEA's renewed questions about Iran's past work on building a nuclear weapons muddy the narrative. Why did the Obama administration give Iran a pass for its history of deception and defiance of the IAEA? If Iran truly had given up its ambitions to build a weapon, why would it take such pains to preserve its plans and blueprints in a warehouse?
These are important questions both for Trump, who has said he hopes to renegotiate a better nuclear deal, and for Democratic presidential candidates, who have pledged to re-enter the old one. Whoever wins the election in November, he should make sure the next nuclear deal with Iran requires the regime to fully account for its secret nuclear history.
Eli Lake/Bloomberg/March 4, 2020