Netanyahu and Iran’s Atomic Archive: What’s New and What’s Not

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presents material on Iranian nuclear weapons development during a press conference in Tel Aviv, Monday, April 30 2018.

AP / Sebastian Scheiner

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presents material on Iranian nuclear weapons development during a press conference in Tel Aviv, Monday, April 30 2018.

Among the new bits: Tehran's nuclear planners envisioned an arsenal so small as to make Kim Jong Un giggle.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is nothing if not a showman. No world leader makes more effective use of props and visual aids, from the literal red line he drew on a cartoon bomb diagram at the United Nations in 2012 to the fragment of an Iranian drone he brandished at the Munich Security Conference this February. Few are so comfortable delivering public remarks in English, never mind someone who is not even a native speaker. Love him or hate him, the man has talent.

But speaking on Monday in a televised address from the Kirya—Israel’s Ministry of Defense—Bibi outdid himself. “Tonight,” he declared, “we’re going to show you something that the world has never seen before.” Striding across a stage, he revealed a collection of papers and CD-ROMs, representing a cache of documents recently snatched out of Iran by Israeli intelligence.

The Prime Minister then proceeded to walk his audience through the contents of what he called Iran’s “atomic archive.” Using a slideshow to make the case that “Iran lied” about never having pursued nuclear weapons, he appealed to President Trump to “do the right thing” about the “terrible deal” concluded with Iran in 2015 to constrain its nuclear program.

As Bibi knows, Trump must decide this May 12 whether to continue to waive sanctions against Iran, in keeping with the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or “Iran deal.” Failing to renew the waivers would effectively withdraw United States from the agreement, with unpredictable consequences.

Show, don’t tell

We can be sure that the President, well-known to be a visual learner, appreciated Bibi’s style of presentation. Unfortunately, Netanyahu showed very little that we haven’t already been told.

Indeed, if the “atomic archive” holds nothing more damning than the contents of Monday’s presentation, then it should increase our confidence that Iran’s weaponization work remains on ice. Nearly every point in his presentation corresponded to intelligence findings made public years ago, first in the “Key Judgments” of a 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, and later in a detailed annex to a 2011 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, with the delicate title, “Possible Military Dimensions to Iran’s Nuclear Programme.”

“This is an original Iranian spreadsheet from the archives of Project Amad,” said Netanyahu, referring to Iran’s weapon-design project, which was suspended in the fall of 2003 and hidden away. “Look at what we have here. Yellowcake [uranium] production, centrifuge enrichment process, warhead project, simulation project, and [nuclear] test. And indeed, when we analyzed what’s in these archives, we found that Project Amad had the all the five elements, the five key elements, of a nuclear weapons program. I want to take them one by one.”

And so he did, showing off interesting images and videos corresponding to each point. But in most respects, the 2011 IAEA report was even more detailed. It named and described the “AMAD Plan,” including documents on the chemical processing and enrichment of uranium, the development of a warhead design, modeling and simulation, studies to prepare for nuclear testing, and other areas besides—every point Bibi discussed, and quite a bit more. Much of the annex was derived from “the alleged studies,” a collection of intelligence gathered in 2005.

Did Iranian officials lie about the country’s past efforts to develop nuclear weapons, as Bibi maintains? You bet. Did we need his presentation to reach that conclusion? Absolutely not.

Still the best deal in town

It may seem curious, but Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons, and its past attempt to do so, are precisely why the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Russia, and China struck a bargain with Iran. What Iran had been up to was only too well understood. So if Iran’s leaders wanted relief from sanctions, they would have to accept unusually strict limits and monitoring on their civilian nuclear program. That’s the essence of the deal that Netanyahu and Trump both loathe so much.

Contrary to claims that the deal required Iran to “come clean” and be truthful about its past weapons research, it required only that Iran implement an agreement with the IAEA, facilitating its investigation into Iran’s past activities—which is what happened. Everyone involved understood that Iran’s leaders were lying to save face. After more than a decade of denials, they would not undergo the humiliation of a public admission to the contrary. It’s absurd to imagine otherwise.

To some, Iran’s regime is so pernicious that keeping the strongest possible sanctions going for as long as possible may seem more important than convincing Tehran not to indulge its nuclear ambitions. But this argument is rarely voiced openly, and is doubtful on the merits. Every other threat that Iran poses—terrorism, subversion, and missile proliferation—would only be abetted by its possession of nuclear weapons.

The unambitious arsenal

Perhaps only by accident, Bibi Netanyahu did place some fascinating new bits of information on the public record. Showing images of documents without visible dates, he described the AMAD Plan’s vision for a nuclear arsenal. It was to have consisted of five nuclear devices suitable for ballistic missile delivery. Each was to have a yield of 10 kilotons, small by nuclear standards.

This is a remarkably miniscule, unambitious arsenal. It would make Kim Jong Un giggle. Only one country is known to have created anything like it: South Africa, which built a handful of very basic nuclear weapons in the 1980s, and then decided to dismantle them. Only later, after the end of Apartheid, did the new government reveal the story. According to a South African nuclear official, Waldo Stumpf, the idea was to keep the bombs secret; only if the country were threatened with invasion would it hint at its capability, or conduct a nuclear test to reveal it.

Did a similar idea motivate Iran’s AMAD Plan? We don’t know. Not enough information has entered the public record. But it is worth asking whether this project amounted to a crash program to create a secret, fairly rudimentary nuclear capability, only to be revealed in an emergency.

According to the 2011 IAEA report, the AMAD Plan was not organized until some point in the late 1990s or early 2000s; most of its work appears to have been conducted “during 2002 and 2003.”

It was also in January 2002 that President George W. Bush’s delivered his famous “Axis of Evil” speech, lumping Iran in with Iraq and North Korea as mortal threats to the “peace of the world.” It would be a twist worthy of O. Henry if that speech, pointing to the threat of weapons of mass destruction, convinced the Iranian regime to reach for nuclear weapons as quickly as it could. If an appropriately sanitized version of the “atomic archive” ever becomes public, perhaps it will be possible to reach firmer conclusions.

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