After infiltrating a Tehran warehouse two years ago, agents from Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, seized a massive collection of old plans, blueprints, electronic files and documents related to Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Material from this hidden archive demonstrated how the Islamic Republic had achieved far more in the area of nuclear weapons development, particularly the process of weaponization, than previously thought.
The extent of its progress has worrying implications as the regime scales back its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). As Iran reduces the amount of time required for it to build nuclear weapons, US and allied governments should urgently push the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to fully characterize and account for Iran’s nuclear weapons activities.
The cache of top secret documents from Iran’s clandestine archive show the Islamic Republic had a structured, full pace effort called the Amad Plan, which sought by mid-2003 to make five nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. As international inspectors encroached in 2003, the regime decided to disperse the most damning of its illicit activities and experiments to non-civilian sites.
Materials from the archive add significantly to a previous body of evidence gathered by the IAEA and governments about covert weaponization-related experiments and processes in Iran.
The Israeli government released archival materials to private research institutes, whose assessments provide a public accounting of Iran’s weaponization prowess, and therefore, its abbreviated timeline to a nuclear weapon. Iran previously denied that it ever had a nuclear weaponization program, but the archive’s materials show these claims to be a clear exercise in disinformation.
Iran in fact had a weaponization program, which it called the Amad Plan’s “Project 110.” This included high explosives manufacture and testing; nuclear weapons design; production of a shock wave generator to initiate nuclear explosions; work on a neutron source for the warhead core; and creation of other necessary nuclear weapons components. The archive also provided locations of previously unknown sites.
Nuclear weaponization is an obscure and complicated procedure. It draws on physics, chemistry, metallurgy, engineering and other applications to assemble weapons-grade fissile material inside a warhead and create its explosive capability. To calculate how long it would take Tehran to produce a functional nuclear weapon, it is essential to evaluate the success of its weaponization efforts.
The length of time required for a country to produce just the fissile material for an atomic weapon – in this case, highly enriched uranium – has become known as its “breakout time.” However, a holistic assessment of breakout time ought to include the critical step of weaponizing this fissile material. This kind of comprehensive estimate helps governments to develop better responses and countering actions.
Prior to the nuclear deal, governments and independent experts generously estimated that Iran would need up to a year or more to make a warhead after it produced the requisite weapon-grade material.
Now, the nuclear archive’s contents make clear that Iran’s weaponization timeline may be much shorter – as little as a few months. Moreover, Iran’s recent actions have compressed the timeline for it to produce enough fissile material, from seven to 12 months to just four or five months. The weaponization clock, contrary to previous beliefs, does not add on much more.
The IAEA has never got to the bottom of Iran’s past nuclear weapons work, and the JCPOA required only a perfunctory IAEA investigation before the deal’s parties would allow it to go into effect.
Predictably, Iran stonewalled and provided incomplete or false answers to the IAEA’s queries. Even though the contents of the nuclear archive have shown that prior investigations were deficient, the IAEA has been hesitant to push for complete answers out of concern that this would further weaken the deal.
As Iran works to reduce its breakout time, governments should urge the IAEA to hasten and deepen its probe into the nuclear archive. This will entail investigating the full range of Iran’s past nuclear weapons work, including, for example, visiting the people, sites and equipment named in the archive or elsewhere. The IAEA will also need to review paper and electronic documentation in-country that may corroborate the archive and other materials. It will also be necessary to visit and inspect research institutions and restricted-access sites, as well as follow any new information where it leads.
Iran, as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, is subject to comprehensive safeguards. This gives the IAEA a mandate and a duty to establish the absence of work on nuclear weapons within Iran’s territory.
With the JCPOA’s future unclear and a replacement nuclear deal seemingly far off, it is more crucial than ever to account for what the regime achieved in the area of weaponization and under the Amad Plan more broadly. The risks are too great to ignore.
Andrea Stricker is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies where she conducts research on nonproliferation, Iran, North Korea, and other security policy topics. She is an expert on nuclear weapons proliferation and illicit procurement networks. She tweets @StrickerNonpro.