One year and three months before President Donald J. Trump announced the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, Israel conducted a high-risk operation inside Iran, bearing a strong resemblance to thrillers like James Bond or Mission Impossible.
Under the cover of darkness, Mossad agents moved in on an inconspicuous warehouse in a commercial district of Tehran, where they suspected Iran kept its highly confidential files on past nuclear activities.
According to The New York Times, Israeli agents had been observing the facility for some time and had planned the operation to the last detail. They watched every move of the workers inside the warehouse and obtained detailed information about the security measures and the alarm system.
Knowing that the Iranian guards of the warehouse would arrive in the early morning hours, a handful of Mossad agents moved in swiftly during the night of January 31, 2018, deactivated the alarm system, and stole much of the country’s secret nuclear archive, documenting years of Iranian work on atomic weapons. The Israeli spies then left the country with the stolen information via an obscure route before anyone in Iran discovered the break-in.
The Big Reveal
It was not until late April of that year, that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the results of the secret raid public. In a speech, he claimed that the stolen documents, videos and photographs showed that Iran had lied about its past nuclear activities. Netanyahu used the information as proof that Iran could not be trusted and claimed that the information obtained showed that the Iranians had been pursuing a nuclear weapons program as far back as 2003.
“Iran is brazenly lying,” Netanyahu said. “The nuclear deal is based on lies.”
Just eight days later, on May 8, in a fateful statement, Trump announced the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.
“It was a profoundly bad idea to withdraw, especially considering that the Trump administration had no realistic strategy to achieve a better deal,” Barbara Slavin, director at the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, told Metropole. “The consequences have been negative for Iran, the US and the region,” she said. “More tension, more misery for ordinary Iranians, a restarted nuclear program and a deeper Iranian mistrust that will be very hard to overcome.”
Indeed, in reacting to the US withdrawal, Iran began to take incremental steps in violation of the accord. According to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has since continued to increase its stockpiles of low-enriched uranium by half from 1,020.9 kilograms in February 2020 to 1,571.6 kilograms in May 2020, according to the IAEA’s latest confidential report, seen by Metropole. This means that Iran has more nuclear material to build a bomb, but still needs to enrich it further to build a nuclear weapon.
Yet, given Iran’s continued engagement and cooperation with the IAEA, the remaining parties to the nuclear deal — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — still want to keep the landmark agreement alive and avoid reinstating UN sanctions against Iran.
But this has become increasingly difficult since the US has been keeping up its policy of “maximum pressure” and has threatened to extend the UN arms embargo and trigger the so-called snapback provision that would allow it to re-impose all sanctions. And this is where the stolen intelligence comes in. Israel shared the trove not only with the US, but also with the IAEA.
Enter the Experts
Nuclear experts at the agency went about checking the evidence – not easy since Iran has consistently denied the IAEA inspectors access to the locations where the stolen information suggests past nuclear activity has taken place.
Then in March and June of this year, the IAEA issued two confidential reports painting a picture of Iran stonewalling the agency. The issue is of importance to the IAEA since not declaring this information and blocking access is in violation of Iran’s obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), including the treaty’s Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol.
IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi highlighted this point in his statement to the Board of Governors in June: “I note with serious concern that, for over four months, Iran has denied us access to two locations,” he said, and that, for almost a year, it has not engaged in substantive discussions to clarify our questions related to possible undeclared nuclear material and nuclear-related activities.”
The Board of Governors even went so far as to adopt a resolution at its June board meeting, the first such rebuke in eight years, slamming Iran and calling on it to “fully cooperate with the agency … without any further delay, including by providing prompt access to the locations specified by the Agency.”
But Iran is distancing itself from the incident, essentially arguing that the stolen Israeli intelligence is “fabricated information.” Tehran also maintains that the investigation into its past nuclear program was explicitly closed in 2015 by the IAEA.
For the US, Iran’s stonewalling now provides further ammunition for its own argument that the Iran nuclear deal should be
terminated once and for all. Washington also seems to be using the stolen intelligence to increase pressure on the European partners to act, and to build the case for re-instating UN sanctions via the IAEA Board of Governors.
“Iran has not only continued its nuclear escalation and extortion, but it has also stonewalled the IAEA,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “These actions are unacceptable and underscore the continued threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program to international peace and security.”
This view has some supporters, including Andrea Stricker and Jacob Nagel, fellows at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. In a recent article for US magazine Newsweek, they argued that the IAEA should soon call for another Board of Governors meeting to refer the case to the UN Security Council “to consider the re-imposition of international sanctions against Iran.” This, however, would almost certainly mark the ultimate death of the Iran nuclear deal.
Other experts disagree, including Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova from the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, who told Metropole that it is better “to buy more time and avoid escalation, as long as Iran cooperates on all other verification measures.”
Meanwhile, dangerous actions by Iranian and Israeli intelligence bodies continue to add fuel to the fire.
In May, Israel reported an attempted major cyberattack on its water system that most experts trace to Iran. In addition, since the end of June, shadowy incidents of sabotage and arson have taken place at several Iranian nuclear power plants. Given Mossad’s history in Iran, many believe Israel was behind the July 2 fire at the Natanz nuclear site.
“It is entirely possible that Israel is behind the Natanz attack, as well as a series of explosions at other locations in Iran,” Mukhatzhanova told Metropole magazine. “They see that Iran’s capability has grown since the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal, so they likely decided to act to damage that capability.”
As a result, the IAEA – which is under severe pressure to maintain its credibility as a technical, non-political body – is now caught in the middle of a dangerous standoff between archenemies Iran and Israel, as well as their respective supporters. The next level of escalation seems almost inevitable and a cinematic happy end increasingly unlikely.