by David Albright with Sarah Burkhard (Institute for Science and International Security Press, 539 pp., $63.98)
In 2018 the Israeli secret service, the Mossad, conducted a clandestine operation to seize an enormous archive containing the record of Iran’s nuclear activities and ambitions. It was an extraordinarily complex undertaking. For one thing, the location of the archive, indeed, its very existence, was a closely held secret of the Iranian government. For another thing, its sheer physical dimensions presented an enormous challenge. The archive was housed inside thirty-two heavy-duty fireproof vaults divided between two shipping containers in a Tehran warehouse. In an operation involving hundreds of planning and support personnel, a team of Mossad agents placed the warehouse under surveillance, defeated its security systems, gained access to the warehouse and the shipping containers, managed to cut into six of the thirty-two safes, and spirited their contents to Israel.
An arresting new book, Iran’s Perilous Pursuit of Nuclear Weapons, by the physicist David Albright, head of the indispensable Institute for Science and International Security, with co-author Sarah Burkhard, tells part of this story. But it also does much more. Albright enjoyed access to the archive itself, received briefings about its contents from Israeli specialists, and subjected those contents to the close analysis for which his institute is renowned.
The documents present in remarkable detail Iran’s crash program, under the codename “Amad Plan,” to build five deliverable nuclear weapons roughly in the period 1999 to 2003. The archive reveals all of its facets, including the plan’s “scope, secret facilities, equipment, personnel, theoretical calculations, results of scores of tests, progress reports, and minutes of meetings involving senior personnel.” The files also contain designs, charts, blueprints, videos, PowerPoint presentations, and many photos of nuclear activities, equipment, and personnel (a good number of which are reprinted in the book).
The Amad Plan rested on three pillars: first, production of enriched uranium to form the core of a nuclear weapon; second, design and manufacturing of a nuclear explosive device; and third, integration of that device with a missile capable of carrying it to a target. With the help of ex-Soviet nuclear weapons experts and North Korean missile specialists, Iran made considerable progress toward its goal. Albright and Burkhard’s book provides chapter and verse, with in-depth discussion of Iran’s high-explosive chambers for testing detonation systems, the plants for the manufacture and assembly of nuclear warheads, and the facilities to develop and manufacture nuclear weapon subcomponents.
Among the plan’s accomplishments: by the close of 2003, it “arrived at a final rather mature, design of a warhead—one that was 55 centimeters in diameter and required less than 25 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium. The diameter was small enough for the warhead to fit inside the nose cone of the re-entry vehicle of the Shahab-3 ballistic missile.”
The one area where Iran fell short was in obtaining sufficient enriched uranium for the explosive core of the bomb. This it sought both abroad and domestically. The foreign purchases appear to have come to naught, although Iran might have obtained some enriched uranium from stocks in Kazakhstan. Albright and Burkhard also raise the possibility that the Iranians fell victim to a scam and paid for foreign uranium that they never received.
Domestic production became the avenue of choice. In 1999 Iran embarked on two parallel tracks: laser enrichment and gas-centrifuge enrichment. It sought to put in place a complete fuel cycle to make weapons-grade uranium, beginning with uranium mining, conversion of mined uranium into uranium hexafluoride gas, enrichment of the uranium to weapons-grade, and ending with the fabrication of weapons-grade uranium into metal warhead components. Ultimately, Iran settled on gas-centrifuge enrichment and set in motion intensive activities in this realm that continue to the present day and are now accelerating.
Losing the Scent
Although some of the material presented is technical in nature and may not be of interest to the average reader, the book does allow for general conclusions of interest to all at a moment when Iran is poised to break out and build a deliverable nuclear bomb within months.
First, the archive casts a harsh light on the highly controversial National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) issued by the U.S. intelligence community in 2007. The NIE began its “key judgments” with a startling opening sentence: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” This single pronouncement landed like a bombshell on Washington and capitals around the world. Among other things, it fatally undercut the Bush Administration’s attempt to impose, together with American allies, tougher sanctions on Iran. After all, if there were no Iranian nuclear weapons program in progress, what would be the point?
To be sure, American intelligence was not entirely off base in pointing to a halt in Iran’s nuclear weapons activities in 2003. Iran’s nuclear program dates back as far as the Shah. By the late 1990s, it was in full swing. However, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, undertaken to rid the world of Saddam Hussein’s alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, seems to have terrified the Iranian leadership. Sometime in the second half of 2003 it dramatically scaled back its illicit nuclear efforts. But as the nuclear archive documents reveal—and what the U.S. intelligence community missed or, at best, deemphasized with exquisitely hedged language—it did not completely end them.
Here the NIE was particularly misleading. A footnote appended to its lead sentence opened a gaping loophole: “For the purposes of this Estimate,” it read, “by ‘nuclear weapons program’ we mean Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment” (emphasis added).
Yet it was precisely that “declared civil work” that formed the backbone of Iran’s continuing illicit activities, which as the nuclear archive shows continued in civilian guise and also in covert locations. For example, the Gchine uranium mine operated under a cover as part of Iran’s “peaceful” nuclear energy program. The archive makes it apparent that this was, in Albright and Burkhard’s words, a “false narrative constructed by Iran’s leaders after 2003.” Gchine’s limited output, note the authors, was “suitable for a nuclear weapons program, but woefully inadequate for a civilian nuclear power program.” The 2007 NIE, wrapped in qualifications and caveats, left the public with a deeply misleading impression.
The Long March
Without a scintilla of plausibility, Iran has maintained that the fifty-five thousand pages of seized documents are all forgeries. That is unsurprising, because to accept their validity would put Iran in an untenable position. The archive is a record, a roadmap, and a blueprint of all the science and engineering required to build a nuclear weapon. It is itself a precious nuclear resource, the very possession of which—no less the secret possession of which—puts Iran in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of which it was an original signatory, as well as of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the so-called “Iran deal,” it concluded with the Obama Administration in 2015.
The nuclear archive also makes plain what has long been obvious to those with eyes to see: namely, that the oral fatwa that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued in 2003 against the development of nuclear weapons, so often bruited about by Iran and its Western apologists, was a sham. A vast covert plan of Manhattan Project scale had been under way for precisely that objective.
To date that objective has not yet been achieved, thanks in no small part to Western technology transfer restrictions, economic sanctions, and sabotage. But with Iran now enriching uranium to 60 percent, the day is fast approaching when it will be.
Sabotage has no doubt slowed the Iranian program; the authors spend some time examining the consequences of the Israeli practice of assassinating key figures. Extraordinary pressure from without might delay it even further. As the nuclear archive shows, that is exactly what happened in 2003, after George W. Bush included Iran in the “axis of evil” and went to war with Iraq.
But short of war, the threat of war, or crippling sanctions that threaten the very survival of the regime, Iran has demonstrated the will and the wherewithal to continue marching forward. Whether it rejoins the JCPOA, as the Biden Administration is pushing for in negotiations under way in Vienna, or stays out of it, may well be irrelevant at this late hour. For as the evidence presented in the book drives home, Iran’s ayatollahs are implacably committed to acquiring deliverable nuclear weapons and for decades have been sedulously advancing along that path.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.
Image: Tasnim News Agency, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46186250
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