Julien Borger — The Guardian May 1, 2018
If the reports are true, it was the heist of the century. Israeli spies are said to have broken into a secret Tehran warehouse in January, stolen a half-tonne of documents and somehow spirited them back to Israel the same night.
That version of events, recounted in the New York Times, raises important questions about the documents presented by Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday as proof of Iranian dishonesty about its nuclear weapons programme.
For example, why were the presumed crown jewels of Iranian national security not better guarded? Was there a struggle to get into the warehouse, an “inside man”, or was there just a padlock?
And why – amid all those documents – were the Israelis not able to find substantive new information that had not been presented by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2011?
“There was nothing there. There was nothing that the IAEA did not know, and all the theatrics and circa-2004 PowerPoint were a bit silly,” said Alexandra Bell, a former state department expert, now senior policy director at the Centre for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
At least some of the unanswered questions may yet be resolved when Israel shares the trove with other governments and the IAEA, but by then Netanyahu’s multimedia show-and-tell is likely to have had its intended effect: to provide political cover for US withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.
Donald Trump is threatening to stop issuing presidential waivers on nuclear-related sanctions when the next tranche is due on 12 May, which would mark an abrogation of the agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), even if Trump does not formally announce withdrawal.
That would open a rift with Washington’s European allies France, the UK and Germany, who are also party to the JCPOA and remain its strong supporters. London and Paris issued statements on Tuesday stressing that they have been aware of Iranians’ past weapons design work for many years, and it was precisely that awareness that drove their negotiating positions in the two years of talks leading up the deal.
Despite such adamant opposition from key allies to Trump’s threatened violation of the deal, the White House seized on Netanyahu’s documents. In its eagerness to embrace the message the press secretary, Sarah Sanders, put out a statement that claimed: “Iran has a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons programme.”
A few hours later, the claim was quietly put in the past tense, stating instead that Iran had such a programme.
That assumption underpinned the JCPOA. So far, nothing from the Israeli document trove represents a direct violation of the deal or contradicts the IAEA’s judgment in December 2015 that there had been no evidence of Iranian work on nuclear weapons design after 2009.
In its only response to the Netanyahu’s presentation so far, the IAEA simply restated the formal findings of its director general, Yukiya Amano, in 2015, that there appeared to have been a “coordinated effort” in Iran on weapons development up to 2003.
After that, there were more dispersed “feasibility and scientific studies” until 2009, and that were “no credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device after 2009”.