Watchdog should inspect, possibly destroy Iran’s nuclear archive, ex-deputy says

Almost all of secret documents remain in Tehran warehouse, Olli Heinonen says in Jerusalem lecture, warning that regime’s nuclear scientists are ‘the best of the best’

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

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)
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)

A former deputy at the International Atomic Energy Agency urged the organization Thursday to demand the right to visit, inspect and possibly destroy the remaining parts of Iran’s secret nuclear archive, which Israel had revealed last year

Olli Heinonen, who played a key role at the IAEA almost two decades ago, also said Tehran’s nuclear scientists could today produce enough fissile material for an atomic bomb within six to eight months, though it was unclear how long it would take them to actually build such a device.

According to Heinonen, a former IAEA deputy director-general for safeguards, much of a nuclear archive broken into by Israeli Mossad agents last year had remained in Iran, with only one fifth of it being smuggled to Israel.

In April 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented what he said where 100,000 documents on 55,000 pages on 183 CDs, which the Mossad had removed from an unmarked Tehran warehouse and which proved that the Islamic Republic had actively worked on building a nuclear weapon.

“There is another 80 percent that stayed behind,” he said during an hour-long lecture at a Jerusalem think tank.

Heinonen, who met Netanyahu later on Thursday, had been given access to some of the documents Israel obtained, and said the info, combined with official IAEA reports, signaled that Iran’s nuclear weapons program “proceeded substantially further than what was stated by Iran and concluded by the IAEA in its latest assessment in December 2015.”

“There was a cohesive plan to manufacture nuclear weapons, and when and after the plan was halted, the IAEA was not provided, as was stated by Iran, with a full disclosure of the past nuclear program,” the Finnish-born scientist said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meets with Olli Heinonen, the former deputy head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, at his office in Jerusalem on June 6, 2019. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Tehran’s plan to produce weapons-grade fissile matter is incompatible with the supposed peaceful scope and purpose of its nuclear program, said Heinonen, who today serves senior adviser on science and nonproliferation at the Washington, DC-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which opposed the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers.

The IAEA “has been deceived as late as 2015,” he said, adding that there are “strong indications” that Iran is in breach of its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as well as of other nonproliferation agreements, Heinonen posited.

Heinonen called on the world’s nuclear watchdog to insist on seeing and possible destroying the remaining parts of the archive, which Netanyahu brandished as proof that Iran planned on restarting its program.

“What should be done? First of all, the IAEA should go visit these places,” he said, referring to the warehouse in Tehran’s Turquzabad district.

Just as it did in 2002, when a hitherto secret uranium enrichment facility in Natanz was revealed, the agency should send a letter to the Iranian government asking for explanations and access.

“It might also be advisable at this point in time to freeze the remaining documents,” he said of the nuclear warehouse. “Put it under IAEA seal, until investigations are over and understanding about the purpose and the scope these documents has been established.”

“And then perhaps destroy them, remove them,” he added, pointing to several countries where that had been done in the past.

A warehouse in Shorabad, south Tehran, where Mossad agents discovered and extracted tens of thousands of secret files pertaining to Iran’s nuclear weapons program (Prime Minister’s Office)

Earlier this year, IAEA inspectors reportedly visited the Tehran nuclear archive multiple times, though the agency did not confirm these visits.

Asked if the Iranians were likely to admit international inspectors into the Tehran warehouse, Heinonen said that the regime in 2002 did grant the IAEA access to Natanz, though only six months after the site’s uranium enrichment facility was revealed.

“We should ask the Iranians,” he said. “Let’s try to find out what is there… It has to be done in a technical way and an open mind,” he added, stressing that the request should not be framed as an effort to “expose Iranian misdoing, but just to tell the facts.”

Heinonen also said that he brought up the secret nuclear warehouse with Iranian officials on the sidelines of last year’s United Nations General Assembly. “They said the PMD [Possible Military Dimension] file is closed; there’s no way to go back,” he recalled.

According to clause 14 of JCPOA, Iran was required to “address past and present issues of concern relating to its nuclear program.”

Less than a year to a bomb

Addressing foreign diplomats at the right-leaning Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Heinonen also clarified comments about Iran’s current ability to build a nuclear weapon, which had been misreported by Israeli media this week.

The Islamic Republic is “capable to produce fissile material for one nuclear device in six to eight months,” he said. “That’s not the same as manufacturing a device.”

In this frame grab from Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting, IRIB, state-run TV, three versions of domestically-built centrifuges are shown in a live TV program from Natanz, an Iranian uranium enrichment plant, in Iran, June 6, 2018. (IRIB via AP)

Iran today owns 15,000 advanced centrifuges, which can produce weapons-grade uranium very quickly, he said.

“How would they get there? It’s very simple. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist at all,” he said. The regime would start operating a few thousand centrifuges, and then “gradually increase the pressure” on the international community, he said.

On Wednesday, Israeli news outlets reported, based on an Army Radio report, that Heinonen said that, according to his personal, “perhaps back-of-the-envelope” calculation, Iran could produce a nuclear weapons in six to eight months, “if they put in their maximum effort.”

During Thursday’s lecture, he said it was impossible to estimate how long it would take from having enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb to actually building such a weapon, but “it should not take more than a year.”

Part of getting a precise answer to that question was to inspect nuclear sites in Iran, he said.

“What happened to those facilities there in Parchin, which were actually designed to manufacture nuclear weapons and high explosive components?” he said. “Are they still there? Or are they somewhere else?”

Iran’s nuclear scientists are exceedingly savvy and have “been working with this for a couple of decades,” Heinonen said. “And they are talented engineers. They have enormous resources. They went to the best universities in the world. And when you look at the technicians who work in those facilities, they are very different from those I have seen who work in other manufacturing industries, producing tanks or cars. They are the best of the best.”

Iranian nuclear negotiator Javad Vaeedi and then-deputy Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Olli Heinonen, after talks in Tehran, July 12, 2007. (photo credit: AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

On May 15, Iran announced it was stepping up its uranium enrichment program in response to the United States’ decision the year before to drop out of the 2015 nuclear deal and impose heavy economic sanctions on Iran and the countries and groups that do business with it. Last week, the IAEA said Iran was staying within the limitations set by the 2015 nuclear accord, though its stockpiles of low-enriched uranium and heavy water were growing.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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