Israel Exposes Iran Nuclear Lies and Limits of U.S. Intelligence

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(Bloomberg) -- Since Iran and six world powers reached an agreement to pause Iran's enrichment of uranium and allow weapons inspectors into declared facilities, Israel's prime minister has argued the deal would give Iran a glide path to a nuclear weapon. On Monday he announced that he had proof.

If the West can verify the new Israeli intelligence that Iran had preserved its design and research work into a nuclear weapon, that's a big deal — particularly now in light of the May 12 deadline that President Donald Trump has imposed on U.S. negotiations with Europe to come up with fixes to strengthen the nuclear bargain. The trove of data would be a blow not only to Iran's credibility but also to the reputation of American intelligence gathering.

As negotiations with Iran came to a close in summer 2015, John Kerry, then secretary of state, assured reporters that American intelligence agencies had "absolute knowledge" about Iran's past efforts to build a nuclear weapon.

It was a strange remark. As the intelligence assessments before the 2003 Iraq War showed, intelligence is never absolute. What's more, the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, still had its own outstanding questions for Iran. Indeed, that agency could not give Iran a clean bill of health on the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program nearly six months later.

Now Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is claiming that his country's spies have purloined a warehouse full of videos, files, blueprints and designs for nuclear weapons compiled between 1999 and 2003. If verified, the new Israeli intelligence would show there were many details the U.S. didn't know back in 2015.

Much of the case against Iran then was murky. In the George W. Bush administration, for example, U.S. intelligence agencies relied on data from a stolen laptop to prove Iran was building a weapon. Weapons inspectors had found traces of highly enriched uranium on Iranian equipment as well. But the best argument for why Iran was building a weapon was that it endured rounds of international sanctions and censure to build uranium enrichment facilities hidden from the IAEA. If all the mullahs wanted was nuclear power, why build a centrifuge cascade deep inside a mountain?

The Israeli intelligence haul would provide far more specifics about Iran's weapons program than have previously been known to Western intelligence agencies. For example, Netanyahu on Monday showed slides of warhead designs, a map of potential test sites and other details that had previously been inferred, but not verified by Western intelligence. Some intelligence analysts had assessed that Iran had done warhead design work, but the Israelis now claim to have the proof.

David Albright, the president and founder of the Institute for Science and International Security, told me Monday that the new intelligence, if verified, would fill many of the holes in the West's knowledge of Iran's weapons program.

But Albright said it does more than that. If verified, the intelligence also reveals Iran's intention to eventually build a nuclear weapon. "The most significant thing is that this is a warehoused collection intended to be used later for reconstitution," Albright said. "They could have destroyed these documents. But these were being carefully protected and hidden with the intention to reuse them when they launch their weapons program."  

Beyond the fate of the nuclear deal, the Israeli intelligence also presents a crisis for the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a member. If verified, it shows that Iran has systematically lied to weapons inspectors for nearly 20 years. If Iran doesn't pay a price for its deception, then what is to stop future rogues from following the Iran model?

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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