The Atomic Archives and the Future of the JCPOA

By Ian Stewart and Emma Scott

On 30 April, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, gave a presentation in which he outlined what he claimed was a vast cache of nuclear weapons design information collected by Israeli intelligence in a raid on an ‘atomic archive’ in Iran. The video of Netanyahu’s presentation is embedded below. The US Secretary of State later also issued a statement about the matter.

Key Points:

  • The archive if real shows Iran keeping the nuclear weapons option open;
  • The presentation didn’t reveal anything about Iran’s past not already known, although the underlying documents might;
  • The presentation was clearly timed to influence President Trump on recertification of the JCPOA on 12 May;
  • It’s unlikely to sway European thinking unless something more comes to light.

The presentation (click here) fuelled an already fiery debate about the future of the nuclear deal with Iran. Some use the accusations to make the case for US withdrawal from the nuclear deal. Others claim the accusations highlight the need for the nuclear deal to ensure Iran cannot obtain nuclear weapons. Almost everyone believes the presentation and alleged new material simply highlight what was already known: that Iran had a secret nuclear weapons programme at some point in the past. If, on the other hand, the archive does in fact prove to be authentic, it will show that Iran was keeping the nuclear weapons option open.

The announcement of the materials comes at a particularly sensitive time. On 12 May, President Trump must again decide whether to certify Iran pursuant to section 1245 of the National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA), which basically waives some of the US unilateral sanctions on Iran. In October, President Trump decertified the deal under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) citing US national security interests. In January, despite waiving the sanctions for a third time, said he would withdraw the US from the agreement unless the other parties to it, including the Europeans, agreed to strengthen its provisions in certain areas. Specifically, President Trump demanded that Iran allow immediate inspections at all sites requested by international inspectors, called on the deal to ensure that Iran never even comes close to possessing a nuclear weapon, called for provisions that have no expiration dates, and for US legislation explicitly linking Iran’s long-range missile and nuclear weapons programs.

Within this context, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s objectives, in view of the timing of the presentation, were doubtless intended to influence President Trump into withdrawing from the deal. His announcement, whether or not the so-called atomic archive contains anything new, will make implementation of the agreement much more complex.

Some of the complications include:

  • Determining whether the archive materials are authentic: Israel has said it will give the materials to the IAEA. The IAEA may then ask to visit the alleged site of the archive in Iran. It seems unlikely that Iran would immediately allow access unless the remaining materials have been removed from the facility. Even if they have, there is always a chance that the IAEA will detect particles of uranium or other materials if they had at any point been stored at a nuclear site, which would help to substantiate the authenticity of the materials Israel now holds.
  • If the archive contains new material as Israel claims, the IAEA’s task of reaching a ‘broader conclusion’ about the nature of Iran’s nuclear program during the first decade of the deal will be next to impossible. By default, a situation would then arise in which nuclear restrictions begin to be eased without the IAEA being able to confirm that all nuclear materials and activity in the country are peaceful in nature. Politically, this now seems untenable.
  • The archive materials may point to new sites in Iran at which nuclear activity is alleged to have been undertaken. Some of these sites may be military-related. The IAEA would have little choice but to request access, but Iran, however, has stated it will not allow access to military sites. An impasse could result.
  • Should the archive material contain information on clandestine nuclear cooperation with other countries, the IAEA would have to investigate. Iran is thought to have received some weaponisation information from the AQ Khan network and there have been occasional accusations so far unsubstantiated about limited nuclear weapons cooperation between Iran and DPRK. The archive material might well provide further information on either connection or on further, hitherto unknown, foreign cooperation. The IAEA would have therefore have to investigate.

What happens next?

Despite all of these points, the nuclear deal is still a solid mechanism to ensure that Iran cannot obtain nuclear weapons, at least in the medium term. The nuclear deal does have limitations, both in terms of the sunset clauses and the lack of clear provisions on missiles. The question for the international community, therefore, is whether to end the nuclear deal now or to use the time that provides to secure a more thorough accommodation with Iran. Parties to the nuclear deal other than the US appear to favour the latter course. The archived material is unlikely to sway the Europeans, who rhetorically at least, remain committed to the deal. President Trump will make his decision on 12 May.