As Iran threatens to violate JCPOA, a new report by Harvard experts sheds light on past Iranian deceptions


This week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran would begin openly breaching its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal signed by Iran, the US, UK, Germany, France, China and Russia in 2015.

The US pulled out of the agreement a year ago and has since reimposed strong sanctions on Iran.

On May 8, Rouhani said that “starting today, Iran does not keep its enriched uranium and produced heavy water limited.” He said that European states would “face Iran’s further actions if they cannot fulfil their obligations within the next 60 days.”

Iran’s Supreme National Security Council also reportedly sent a letter to the other remaining JCPOA signatories saying the same thing  – it was no longer committed to restrictions on the storage of enriched uranium and heavy water stocks. It also said Iran could stop observing limits on uranium enrichment at a later stage, which appears to be the “further action” Rouhani mentioned in his statement.

The world thus looks set for a major crisis over this nuclear issue over coming weeks. While Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs Abbas Araghchi told Press TV that Iran has not left the JCPOA, merely flagging that it might, the moves Iran has announced are clear violations of core elements of the agreement.

Under the JCPOA, Iran can only to hold 300 kg. of the low enriched uranium it produces, and must ship any excess it produces over that amount out of the country. It is also only allowed to possess 13 tons of heavy water, used in plutonium-producing reactors. While Iran is currently somewhat under these limits, Iran’s announcement that it is ceasing to observe these limits is an assertion Iran is no longer following core JCPOA provisions.

It would be even more worrying if Iran carried out its threat to stop observing the JCPOA limits on enriching uranium, which says Iran may not enrich uranium to more than 3.67%. Higher levels of enrichment would be a significant step toward producing the highly-enriched uranium that is the core of nuclear bombs.

It is clear that the Iranian announcements are an effort to blackmail the Europeans to find a way for Iran to circumvent US oil and financial sanctions on Iran, as Seth Frantzman explains. The Europeans have responded to the Iranian demands with warnings that they could reapply their own sanctions if Iran goes ahead with its threats.

The US Administration, meanwhile, has called the Iranian threats “nuclear blackmail” and US President Donald Trump has announced new sanctions on Iranian metals, Teheran’s largest non-petroleum-related sources of export revenue.

The US Administration will clearly be using the current crisis to try to convince the other JCPOA signatories, especially US allies in Europe, to join its efforts to pressure Iran to negotiate a better deal, which, in the words of the US State Department special representative for Iran Brian Hook,  would both address the JCPOA’s shortcomings on the nuclear side, and also address Iran’s “missile program, regional aggression, human rights abuses, and the like.”

In making their case, Administration officials will be able to draw on a new report from six Harvard strategic experts based on the Iranian nuclear archives Israel seized last year. Their report strongly calls into question the JCPOA’s ability to address the Iranian nuclear danger in numerous ways, as outlined below.


The New Belfer Center Report

The independent panel of six experts from Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International affairs visited Israel in January 2019 for a briefing on the Iranian nuclear archive Israel removed from Iran a year earlier. Among the scholars were both opponents and proponents of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran(JCPOA).

During the visit they were both briefed by senior Israeli intelligence officers and were given access to several original documents of various types taken from the nuclear archive.

The American experts summarised their conclusions in a report about the archive and the briefing they received on it published in April.

The key points:

  1. The documents prove, beyond a doubt, that Iran’s senior leadership approved a program to manufacture several nuclear weapons called the Amad Project. This was a state-sponsored multi-agency “coherent, organised, top-down program, not a rogue operation”.
    Among the leaders directly involved were current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Minister of Defence Ali Shamkhani, while the supreme leader of Iran, Al Khamenei“was reportedly informed.”
  2. While work on the “Amad project” stopped in 2003, progress towards a nuclear bomb continued. This occurred – and is possibly still happening – either in open research activities that can be explained as being for civil purposes or for non-nuclear military uses, or covertly for activities directly related to nuclear bombs that cannot be explained away as for civilian purposes.
  3. Iran was much farther along in its technical progress towards completion of the weapons program than anyone assumed at the time the JCPOA nuclear deal was signed. In fact, “Iran had made considerable progress on nearly every aspect of developing and manufacturing nuclear weapons” and was in the process of selecting a site for a nuclear test even though this is forbidden under the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty – which Iran has signed, by have yet to ratify.
    Particularly worrying is how ill-informed the assessment of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was concerning Iran’s nuclear program. The report say the archives shows that the “Final Assessment” of Iran’s nuclear program that the IAEA produced on Dec. 2, 2015 as part of implementing the JCPOA was “not correct” with respect to what Iran had achieved in weaponisation and what it had been doing since 2003. This final assessment has in turn been the basis for all subsequent IAEA inspection activities.
    Worse, even today, the location of key equipment and material related to Iran’s nuclear weaponisation efforts remains unknown to the IAEA or international community more generally, despite Iran’s obligations to disclose all such material under the JCPOA.
  4. The archive highlights the failure of the IAEA, and of intelligence communities, including in the US and Israel, to detect and monitor Iran’s secret nuclear facilities and activities.
    Moreover, not only was Teheran active in hiding its forbidden actions from the IAEA inspectors, but there is evidence in the archives that “Iran had penetrated the IAEA” as evidenced by the fact that: “on some occasions [Iran] knew in advance what questions the agency would ask or what sites they would seek to visit.”
  5. At will, Iran can immediately restart its nuclear bomb project, because it “possesses knowledge and capabilities that provide a foundation for reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.”
    This includes personnel and staff still working today on nuclear-related activities (moved from Project AMAD to SPND, a defence body run by Mohsen Fakrizadeh, who led Project AMAD), as well as the equipment and professional material to do so – and there can be low confidence that Iranian weaponization efforts are not occurring covertly today.
  6. While it was known that Iran received assistance from some foreign sources (Pakistani scientist AQ Khan and former Soviet experts), the archive shows that there were more individuals from several nationalities involved in the weapons program. Moreover, in 2003 Iran allocated a budget to buy highly enriched uranium (HEU) from an unknown source. It’s crucial to investigate who was the possible seller in this illegal transaction.
  7. There is a lot that is still unknown. The Israelis estimate that they only possess 20 per cent of the archived material. They also maintain that Iran still needs to account for undeclared uranium that it is hiding. (If such secret Iranian stockpiles of uranium exist, this would be a clear violation of the JCPOA.)
    The IAEA, signatories to the JCPOA and the international community must demand answers from Iran to a long list of questions now rising from the archives, according to the Harvard experts.
    The new findings alarmingly suggest that not only did Iran fail to comply with its JCPOA obligations(maintaining the archives is already a breach of the deal), but also that Teheran does not comply with the safeguard agreements which are the foundations of the entire nuclear non-proliferation regime.
  8. The experts also say this about future negotiations with Iran –
    “if Iran has more capability to weaponize fissile material than was previously understood, the importance of maintaining limits on its ability to produce fissile material is even greater than it was before”.
    And, “if there are further nuclear negotiations with Iran, they will need to be informed by the revelations of the nuclear archive”.

Though the Harvard experts do not say so, these points strongly suggest that the “sunset clauses” in the JCPOA, which will lift almost all restrictions on the Iranian ability to enrich fissile material starting in 2025, are highly dangerous if the goal is to prevent Iran from gaining access to nuclear weapons.