Spies steal secrets. Sometimes, those secrets must be carefully studied and analyzed by experts to turn them into products useful to policymakers.
The spies I’ll be talking about here worked for the Mossad. The expert who has painstakingly transformed the secrets they collected into actionable intelligence is David Albright. And the policymaker who should be revising his policies in response to a clearer picture of reality is President Joe Biden.
The story begins on a cold night in January 2018, when Israeli agents stealthily broke into a warehouse in southern Tehran where Iran’s rulers had stored an archive of their nuclear weapons program.
In an interview broadcast on Israeli television last week, former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen revealed new details of the operation. Planning required two years and included the construction of a replica of the warehouse. Twenty agents were trained for the mission. None of them were Israelis. They had less than seven hours to carry out their risky mission.
“In the morning, trucks, guards and workers arrive, and there’s a crowd and you can’t just jump over fences and break through walls,” said Cohen. “Only when they broke into the formidable safes and began to go through the images and Farsi descriptions did we realize that we had what we wanted on the Iranian military nuclear program.”
The agents quickly spirited the materials—more than 55,000 pages of documentation and nearly 200 computer disks—out of the country. None of the agents was captured but, Cohen said, some had to be rescued from Iran.
Three months later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a press conference. He said the materials proved that Tehran had a “program to design, build and test nuclear weapons … to use at a time of its choice to develop nuclear weapons.”
That meant that the nuclear deal President Barack Obama had concluded in 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was predicated on lies told by Iran’s rulers, and that the JCPOA did not, as claimed, block their path to a nuclear weapons capability.
Proponents of the JCPOA insisted there was nothing earth-shattering in the materials, and that Obama had concluded as good a deal as could be expected. President Trump, long mistrustful of the deal, soon formally withdrew.
David Albright, a physicist and the founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, also known as “the good ISIS,” persuaded the Israeli government to allow him access to the materials. Since then, he and his team have conducted a comprehensive forensic analysis.
The result is a new book: “Iran’s Perilous Pursuit of Nuclear Weapons,” co-authored with Sarah Burkhard. In it, Albright points out that the very “existence and maintenance of a secret archive containing nuclear weapon design and manufacturing data is not compatible with Iran’s legally binding nuclear non-proliferation commitments” under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the fundamental international agreement for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.
Albright notes that by “secretly storing and curating an extensive archive focused on developing and building missile-deliverable nuclear weapons,” Iran’s rulers also violated their “JCPOA pledge that ‘under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.’”
The Islamic Republic’s secret nuclear weapons development program, the Amad Plan, was suspended in 2003, after the U.S. military toppled regimes in both Afghanistan and Iraq, causing Iran’s rulers to fear they might be next. But that was a “tactical retreat, not an abandonment” of the regime’s “nuclear weapons ambitions or activities,” writes Albright.
“The post-Amad goals are among the most critical revelations of the archive,” he continues. Over the past decade, an Iranian Ministry of Defense entity known as SPND has been responsible for developing various nuclear capabilities. “Iran’s lack of cooperation with the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] up until today has increased concerns that a subset of SPND’s activities have remained focused on preserving or carrying forward the activities of the Amad Plan.”
The archive also reveals that Iran’s rulers have “a host of undeclared nuclear sites and activities, all previously dedicated to a covert, and illegal, nuclear weapons program.” What activities are taking place at those sites now is unknown because IAEA inspectors have been barred from visiting most of them.
Under the flawed JCPOA, the IAEA also is not permitted to inspect military facilities where nuclear weapons research has been conducted in the past and may be ongoing in the present.
Albright deduces that Iran’s rulers currently have “a robust capability to make weapon-grade uranium, a capability that will eventually grow more than ten-fold” as restrictions in the JCPOA “sunset”—expire according to calendar dates and regardless of Tehran’s conduct.
“At a minimum, Iran has a coordinated set of activities related to building a nuclear weapon,” writes Albright. “At worst, the weaponization team has already conducted a cold test, fulfilled its post-Amad goal of building an industrial prototype, and is regularly practicing and improving their nuclear weaponization craft under various covers or in clandestine locations.”
Which leads to this conclusion: “A reinstated JCPOA combined with less than vigorous IAEA verification of Iran’s military sites, of the type that existed from 2015 until 2018, appears particularly unstable and dangerous.”
Spies risked their lives to steal secrets from an Islamist police state. An esteemed American expert has detailed what those secrets reveal. President Joe Biden can adjust his policies to reflect the reality that has been exposed.
Or he can gift militant theocrats whose rallying cry is “Death to America!” billions of dollars and let them develop a nuclear weapons capability over the years ahead. That is almost certain to lead to runaway nuclear proliferation and devastating conflicts. This should not be a tough call.
Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), and a columnist for “The Washington Times.”