Israel’s theft of Iran’s nuclear archives from a secret bunker in the country’s capital was hailed this week as a “stunning achievement” that underscores Israel’s importance to America’s own national security.
“Israel is the only country in the Middle East that has our back and is able to penetrate hard targets like Iran,” said Josh Block, CEO and president of the Israel Project, a nonprofit, non-governmental organization that provides information to the media and policymakers.
David Makovsky, an expert on the Middle East, characterized the theft as a “stunning achievement.”
“That they could walk into a warehouse inside Tehran and have access to the most sensitive material of the state — I wonder if it will lead to a purge in Iran’s security system,” said Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This is clearly an achievement on the level of Stuxnet [the 2010 cyberattack against Iran’s nuclear program]. If it had been written by a Hollywood writer, it would have been sent back as unrealistic.”
The theft of the nuclear blueprints — which weighed a half-ton and included 55,000 pages of records, another 55,000 files on 183 CDs, photos and videos — was revealed in dramatic fashion by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a prime-time Israeli telecast Monday night that was seen around the world. He disclosed that the Iranian documents showed that Iran had been working to develop ballistic missiles capable of holding five warheads each with 10 kiloton TNT yields.
“That’s like five Hiroshima bombs to be put on ballistic missiles,” Netanyahu said.
The takeaway from all of the documents is open to interpretation. Those who opposed the 2015 Iran deal assert the findings prove Iran lied in the past, lies now and cannot be trusted in the future. Supporters of the agreement say it is a given that Iran lied about their nuclear program but that no new information has surfaced to suggest Tehran is not abiding by the substance of the deal now.
Netanyahu’s presentation, according to media reports, was designed to “support” President Donald Trump in the belief he has already decided to withdraw the U.S. by May 12 from the Iran nuclear agreement. “People who are derisive about what Israel has done say it is old news because the files are from 2003,” Makovsky observed. “But access to these documents gives an idea of how Iran obscures going forward. I have to believe there is value here in what Israel found. And it should serve as a warning that if Israel could get inside a warehouse in Tehran, you can run but you can’t hide.”
On the other hand, Shoshana Bryen, senior director of the Jewish Policy Center, said everyone knew Iran was lying when it repeatedly insisted that it had no ambitions to build a nuclear weapon when it signed the pact.
“You knew they weren’t telling the truth, so none of this is new,” she said. “He [Netanyahu] laid it out in a way that makes clear how difficult it would be if people agreed to try to fix the deal. It’s not the kind of thing you can paper over; it’s fundamentally flawed. And once you know they lied, why take their word for anything else?”
[The Iranians have repeatedly said they would not agree to “fix” the agreement and would be prepared to immediately resume their nuclear weapons program should the United States withdraw from the deal.]
While agreeing that it was widely believed Iran “was cheating and was after nuclear weapons,” Ilan Berman said the Israeli theft now provides “archival documentary evidence that it is true in terms of software and classified memos; now we have the proof to confirm our assumptions.”
The Israeli action also demonstrates, said Berman, senior vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, that the “current status quo is not sustainable. … International monitoring is imperfect and the Iranians can cheat if they want. We have already missed a tremendous amount. … I think the [Netanyahu] presentation was effective precisely because it conveyed the message that it is not possible to fix the deal. It is a broken deal, which does not account for the fact that the Iranians are lying and cheating.”
Berman noted that the Europeans acknowledge the deal’s flaws “but believe they can make it tougher. We are saying that what was just discovered is that the original deal is so flawed that Iranians are OK with it because we can’t see what they are doing militarily. Any new proposal will be so strict the Iranians will reject it.”
Michael Koplow, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, questioned why the deal allowed the Iranians to enrich uranium “even to a low level if they were intent on truly eliminating their [nuclear] weapons program. That was a problem with the deal from the beginning.”
“My strong hunch is that Trump has decided he is going to have the U.S. back away from the deal,” he said. “The question then is what the European countries, Russia and China will decide to do. I don’t think they will walk away as readily as the U.S.”
Another flaw in the deal is that it does not put a stop to Iran’s quest for hegemony in the region, said Daniel Mariaschin, CEO and executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International.
“There was a headlong desire to conclude a nuclear agreement and in doing it a number of important provisions were completely left out,” he said. “While they have everyone swearing to their compliance [with the agreement], they are creating havoc in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon. … They are using the nuclear agreement as a fig leaf for their behavior. Iran’s behavior in the Middle East … is a threat to Europe and to the West more broadly that must be addressed going forward.”
The Iranians are following the North Korean playbook, said Berman.
“The North Koreans promised a whole bunch of things and did not abide by them,” he explained, referring to its nuclear program. “But they received economic benefits as a result of their promises. This is an important teachable moment for the White House. Let’s hope that the North Koreans have turned over a new leaf. North Korea says it is looking for a nuclear deal like the Iranians got. The big lesson learned here is that the Iran deal is terribly deficient because it doesn’t irreversibly denuclearize. If that is what Trump wants to accomplish with North Korea, this is not the model to follow.”
Berman said what happened with the Iran deal “makes the president more skeptical about how solid any agreement made with a rogue state will be. It makes him more realistic about what can be achieved, and the inspections and verifications have to be more robust than before.
“The IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency, an autonomous international organization within the United Nations charged with monitoring Iran’s compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal] needs a more robust mandate so it can see whatever it wants.”
To Elliot Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations who served in foreign policy positions for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, the stolen documents “show that the claims made by [then-Secretary of State] John Kerry and others in the previous administration that we have perfect knowledge of the Iranian nuclear program is false. There is plenty still to discover, and it is striking that we did not discover it but that Israel did. It is an important reminder that the Iranians have been lying about their nuclear program forever.
“Kerry promised 24-7 inspections and that is not true – and there have been zero inspections of [Iranian] military sites,” he added. “It is generally a reminder of how terrific the Mossad [Israel’s national intelligence agency] is, how much the Iranians lie and the need for really tough verification.”
Abrams added that should President Donald Trump decide by May 12 to keep the U.S. within the Iranian nuclear agreement, “you will see a significant increase in investment in Iran that has not yet taken place. If he [Trump] gets out and sanctions are imposed now and later, no businessman will invest in Iran — it would be too risky and we want it to be risky. The Iranian economy is under enormous stress and we want to increase it. The way to do that is to get out of [the deal] and try to negotiate a better deal.”
Noting that Trump is expected to meet in the coming weeks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the hope of negotiating a denuclearization agreement with North Korea, Middle East analyst Aaron David Miller said he would like to see Trump sit down with Iranian leaders to work out a new nuclear weapons agreement.
“He [Kim] probably has more blood on his hands than any Iranian leader,” said Miller, Middle East program director at the Wilson Center. “If the Iranian deal is fundamentally flawed, why not sit with the Iranians to see how to fix it. … Walking away is not going to be good for us.”