Mossad’s stunning op in Iran overshadows the actual intelligence it stole

Most of the info revealed during Netanyahu’s dramatic presentation was already public knowledge, and was key in shaping the nuclear deal’s inspections regime

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech on files obtained by Israel he says proves Iran lied about its nuclear program, at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, on April 30, 2018. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech on files obtained by Israel he says proves Iran lied about its nuclear program, at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, on April 30, 2018. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

While revealing a truly impressive intelligence coup by the Mossad, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday night did not present evidence that Iran had violated the 2015 nuclear deal, nor did the material shed dramatically new light on the Islamic Republic’s pre-agreement atomic program.

Indeed, as Netanyahu noted, Iranian officials lie when they say their country never planned to manufacture nuclear weapons and put them on ballistic missiles. They did, and probably still do.

But the information proving their deception, while perhaps not widely known, was well-documented and made publicly available in its entirety — not by Israel, but by the International Atomic Energy Agency watchdog — back in 2011.

The details about Iran’s AMAD nuclear weapons program, the identity of project leader Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Tehran’s plans to put a nuclear warhead on a Shahab-3 ballistic missile, the suspicion that efforts to create an atomic bomb continued after AMAD was formally shuttered in 2003 — all “revealed” by Netanyahu on Monday night — can be found in the heavily footnoted IAEA report from nearly seven years ago.

The main difference, perhaps, is that the IAEA’s 25-page, abbreviation-filled document lacks the panache of Netanyahu’s exhibition.

The alleged location of a warehouse in southern Tehran where Iran kept documents on its nuclear weapons program, until Israel’s Mossad stole them. (Google Earth)

“We didn’t really get any new information [from Netanyahu] per se,” said Emily Landau, a senior researcher at the influential Institute for National Security Studies think tank and a staunch critic of the Iran nuclear deal.

However, it’s unclear if the prime minister’s intention was to reveal new secrets or whether his dramatic presentation was more of a public relations effort, a reminder of Iran’s duplicity meant to influence US President Donald Trump, who next month will decide the fate of the nuclear deal.

To Landau, Netanyahu’s Monday night revelation is further proof that the “nuclear deal is a sham” and was “built on a false pretense of Iranian innocence.”

As the prime minister put it, “The nuclear deal is based on lies. It’s based on Iranian lies and Iranian deception.”

The prime minister literally and in dramatic fashion unveiled the results of the daring Mossad operation, whipping black sheets off a bookshelf full of binders apparently containing 55,000 pages of physical documents and a display board of 183 CDs holding another 55,000 digital files, which Netanyahu said contained years’ worth of “incriminating” information on Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.

Pointing to the shelves of binders and rows of CDs, Netanyahu said: “Everything you’re about to see is an exact copy of the original Iranian material. You may want to know where are the originals? Well, I can say they’re now in a very safe place.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showcases material he says was obtained by Israeli intelligence from Iran’s nuclear weapons archive, in Tel Aviv on April 30, 2018 (Amos Ben-Gershom (GPO)

While the IAEA in 2011 exposed much of the same information the prime minister did on Monday, it did so based on far less documentation. The agency reported that it had gathered “over a thousand pages,” compared to the more than 100,000 pages collected by the Mossad.

According to the prime minister, those documents had been stored inside a number of safes in a “dilapidated warehouse” in southern Tehran until they were stolen by Mossad and smuggled back to Tel Aviv. A senior Israeli official later told The New York Times that the operation had taken place in one night in January.

“Few Iranians knew where [the archive] was, very few — and also a few Israelis,” Netanyahu said. “A few weeks ago, in a great intelligence achievement, Israel obtained half a ton of material that was inside these vaults.”

Over the course of about 15 minutes, the prime minister described the contents of those approximately 110,000 documents, which he said included detailed accounts of Iran’s efforts to construct five 10-kiloton nuclear warheads — slightly less powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima — and put them on ballistic missiles.

One apparently new piece of information that came out of Netanyahu’s presentation was schematics for the nuclear warhead that Iran allegedly planned to attach to a Shahab-3 missile. The actual design is nearly indistinguishable from the conceptual model made by an Israeli researcher two years ago. The 2011 IAEA report also identified the Shahab-3 as Iran’s chosen delivery system for a nuclear bomb.

The audience for Netanyahu’s prime-time address, which was delivered in English, did not seem to be the journalists in the conference room in the army’s Tel Aviv headquarters, or Israeli television viewers at home, but Trump in the White House.

Netanyahu has called on the US president to “nix it or fix it” — to either back out of the deal and impose new, heavy sanctions on the Islamic Republic, or to work with the other signatories to the agreement to address the aspects that Israel finds unpalatable.

These mostly deal with the agreement’s “sunset clauses,” which remove restrictions on Iran’s enrichment efforts after a certain number of years, and some of the oversight mechanisms, which are seen as being overly lax and could allow Iran to cheat.

In this photo released by the semi-official Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), an Iranian Shahab-3 missile is launched during military maneuvers outside the city of Qom, Iran, Tuesday, June 28, 2011 (photo credit: AP/ISNA, Ruhollah Vahdati)
An Iranian Shahab-3 missile launched during military exercises outside the city of Qom, Iran, in June 2011. (AP/ISNA/Ruhollah Vahdati)

In addition to its problems with the deal itself, Israel takes issue with two central matters that are not addressed by it: Iran’s ballistic missile program and its support for terrorist groups around the Middle East.

The other signatories to the agreement have been working to convince Trump to keep the US from backing out of it, and Netanyahu’s presentation is unlikely to sway them.

Following the address, supporters of the pact pointed to the Iranian lies presented by Netanyahu as precisely the reason behind the agreement. Tehran cannot be trusted to not develop atomic weapons, and therefore the external monitoring mechanisms put in place by the deal are what’s necessary to ensure that Iran is not building a bomb.

“The deal was put in place exactly because there was no trust between the parties, otherwise we would not have required a nuclear deal to be put in place,” the European Union said in a statement.

The nuclear deal is “not based on assumptions of good faith or trust — it is based on concrete commitments, verification mechanisms and a very strict monitoring of facts, done by the IAEA,” the EU said.

Iran’s lies about Project AMAD and its nuclear weapons development work were “all known and built into the assumptions of the deal, as was the expectation that Iran would lie about it,” said Dan Shapiro, the US ambassador to Israel under president Barack Obama — one of the architects of the deal — in a tweet after Netanyahu’s speech.

Following the announcement, some have argued that Iran’s ongoing efforts to conceal the documents represent a violation of one of the main aspects of the deal.

The very first paragraph of the agreement includes the pledge by Iran that “under no circumstances” will it “ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.” This is subject to no sunset clause and is meant to be true forever.

Critics of the Iran deal argue that carefully maintaining and moving the contents of this “atomic archive” is itself evidence that Iran is still seeking nuclear weapons.

Schematics for a nuclear warhead, which were reportedly stolen by Israel’s Mossad, from a warehouse in southern Tehran and presented to the world by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on April 30, 2018. (Prime Minister’s Office)

However, that accusation stems from either naivete or an impossible standard. Taking the argument — that keeping data about the construction of a nuclear weapon is a breach of the deal — to its extreme, one wonders whether Iranian scientists were expected to forget their knowledge about atomic bomb making lest they be in violation of the deal.

Israel’s newly acquired half-ton of Iranian nuclear plans show the Islamic Republic lied and continues to lie about its desire to obtain an atomic bomb — but that was already well established. The trove also undoubtedly provides vastly more information about the specific, technical details of its weapons programs than was known before — if nothing else, this is a potentially massive score for historians and nuclear scientists.

The revelation of the Mossad’s operation in Iran can also be seen as a display of force directed at the Islamic Republic, an embarrassing and public reminder of the far reach of Israel’s intelligence services.

For Israel, this might be of value especially now, in light of its long-simmering fight against Iranian entrenchment in Syria, which is threatening to boil over following a number of high-profile airstrikes against Iranian targets in the country, many of which have been attributed to the Jewish state.

Defense analyst David Makovsky from the Washington Institute of Near East Policy said the operation was “an intel achievement no less than Stuxnet,” the computer virus that attacked Iran’s centrifuges, which is widely believed to have been a joint Israeli-American cyber operation.

Alas, Netanyahu did not share the specifics of the Mossad’s heist. Who cracked the safes? How do you transport a half-ton of paper documents in one night without anyone noticing? Why not move the files from the CDs to far more portable flash media?

We’ll have to wait for the movie to find out.

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