Intelligence and the JCPOA

Feb 8, 2019 | AIJAC staff

U.S. President Donald Trump signs a proclamation declaring his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 8, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Donald Trump signs a proclamation declaring his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 8, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Update from AIJAC


Update 02/19 #02

This Update is devoted to more discussions of the state of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with Iran, in the wake of testimony last week by US intelligence chiefs, disputed by US President Donald Trump, that Iran is complying with the JCPOA and not actively constructing a nuclear weapon. Also relevant are some new claims by Iran’s atomic energy agency head Ali Akbar Salehi that Iran has secret equipment that could enable it to quickly restart the plutonium-producing Arak heavy water reactor, closed in accordance with the JCPOA.

We lead with a general analysis of the state of the JCPOA – including both the intelligence findings and Salehi’s claims – from Fred Fleitz, a former senior US intelligence and national security official. Fleitz argues that nine months after the US Trump Administration pulled out of the JCPOA, this policy looks very successful, not risking war, while leaving Iran increasingly isolated and faced with sanctions that appear to be having dramatic effects. He also takes on those who insist technical Iranian compliance with the JCPOA means the US should not have pulled out, noting both considerable evidence of Iranian cheating and the flaws in the JCPOA which mean that Iran “can advance its nuclear-weapons program without violating the agreement.” For Fleitz’s detailed analysis in full, CLICK HERE.

Next up is an editorial from the Wall Street Journal discussing the implications of Salehi’s claims. The paper notes that, despite the intelligence claims about Iranian compliance, Salehi is either bluffing now, or he lied to Western negotiators and violated the JCPOA from the beginning. Further, the paper notes, the failure to detect this apparent Iranian backtracking raises serious questions about the ability of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to enforce compliance with any of the JCPOA’s terms. To read the rest of the paper’s arguments, CLICK HERE. A more detailed analysis of the implications of Salehi’s claims about the Arak reactor comes from the Institute for Science and International Security.  

In our final article, Arieh Ben Solomon of the JNS.org news agency interviews some noted Iran nuclear experts to get their reactions to the intelligence agency claims. Former UN inspector David Albright says the US intelligence agencies stated the obvious in observing Iran does not currently have a structured nuclear weapons program, but they ignored the more important question of whether Iran is preserving its existing nuclear weapons capabilities for future use. Agreeing that US intelligence claims were misleading and missing key information, and offering further arguments why, is Israeli academic proliferation expert Dr. Emily Landau. For the larger analysis provided by both Albright and Landau, CLICK HERE.

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Nine Months Later, Trump’s Iran-Deal Withdrawal Is a Clear Success


National Review, February 7, 2019

Europe is coming to acknowledge and act on the nuclear threat posed by Tehran. Despite howls of protest by the Left, the foreign-policy establishment, and European leaders, and contrary to misleading assessments by U.S. intelligence agencies, it is now clear that President Trump’s decision last May to withdraw the United States from the controversial 2015 nuclear deal with Iran (the JCPOA) was the right call and is a huge policy success.

Trump’s JCPOA withdrawal did not lead to war with Iran, as many critics predicted. Instead, Iran is far more isolated than it was when President Trump assumed office. The United States has worked to unite its Middle East allies, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia, against Iran and, in Warsaw this month, will co-chair an international conference with Poland on the threat from Iran. Iran’s economy is under unprecedented pressure thanks to reimposed U.S. sanctions, especially oil sanctions, with negative 1.5 percent growth in 2018 and an expected negative 3.6 percent growth in 2019. Iran’s current year-on-year inflation rate through last month was 40 percent.

Some Trump critics predicted that any effort by the president to reimpose U.S. sanctions lifted by the JCPOA would have little effect, since other parties to the agreement — in particular the EU, Germany, France, and the U.K. — would not follow suit. But numerous European companies have resisted pressure from their governments to defy reimposed U.S. sanctions. On January 31, European leaders announced a special finance facility to help European firms skirt U.S. sanctions on Iran, but that initiative is months behind schedule and few experts believe it will work.

Instead, as a result of reimposed U.S. sanctions, European airlines Air France, British Airways, and KLM ended service to Iran last year. European companies Total, Siemens, and Volkswagen also withdrew from Iran, along with U.S. companies GE, Boeing, and Honeywell and the Russian oil firm Lukoil. In November, Germany’s Bundesbank changed its rules so it could reject an Iranian request to withdraw 300 million euros from Hamburg-based trade bank Europäische-Iranische Handelsbank, to protect the central bank’s relationships with institutions in “third countries.” That is, the United States.

Before the U.S. withdrawal, JCPOA critics made strong arguments about the accord’s weaknesses, especially Iran’s refusal to allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors access to military sites. The lone exception is the Parchin military base, self-inspected by Iranians. There the IAEA obtained evidence of covert nuclear-weapons work. There were other credible reports of Iranian cheating before the U.S. withdrawal, including several from German intelligence agencies. Senators Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio, and David Perdue raised Iranian noncompliance and cheating on the JCPOA in a July 2017 letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

JCPOA supporters rejected those criticisms, noting that the IAEA repeatedly declared Iran to be in compliance with the nuclear agreement. However, they refused to admit that the IAEA reached its compliance findings by claiming that Iranian violations were not “material breaches” and by not asking to inspect Iranian military facilities (which Tehran has declared off limits) even though they are the likely locations of covert nuclear-weapons work.

Iran’s heavy water reactor at Arak: New claims Iran secretly acquired banned equipment to keep the reactor functional in violation of JCPOA

A disturbing report concerning the Arak reactor arose late last month when Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s nuclear agency, claimed that Iran did violate the JCPOA by disabling the reactor and filling it with cement, and that Iran secretly acquired banned equipment to keep the reactor functional. If true, this would mean Iran fooled the JCPOA parties and IAEA inspectors on a major compliance issue. The IAEA has not commented publicly on the matter.

At last week’s worldwide-threat briefing to the Senate Intelligence Committee, the U.S. intelligence community reported that Iran is technically complying with the JCPOA, a finding that reflects both the IC’s history of liberal bias on assessments of weapons of mass destruction (as seen after the Iraq War as well) and the failure of the Trump administration to take steps to clean out key intelligence offices that were stacked with analysts who favored Obama-administration policies during the last administration. At National Review Online in 2015, I wrote about a CIA official who tried to pressure me to support the agency’s pro-Obama line on Iran’s nuclear program even though I had left the CIA and was working for the House Intelligence Committee staff.

JCPOA backers also prefer not to discuss the fact that Tehran can advance its nuclear-weapons program without violating the agreement, since the accord allows Iran to improve its capability to make nuclear-weapons fuel — that its, to enrich uranium with over 5,000 centrifuges and develop advanced centrifuges. Moreover, although the agreement required Iran to disable its Arak heavy-water reactor (a source of plutonium), which was under construction, under the JCPOA a new heavy-water reactor will be built that will be capable of producing one-fourth of a weapon’s worth of plutonium per year. That arrangement will enable Iran not only to gain knowledge on how to build and operate heavy-water reactors but also to have access to plutonium, the ideal fuel for nuclear weapons.

Since the U.S. withdrawal, evidence of the JCPOA’s weaknesses and of Iranian cheating has grown stark. “Despite getting out of the Iran nuclear deal, despite the sanctions, we have little doubt that Iran’s leadership is still strategically committed to achieving deliverable nuclear weapons,” national-security adviser John Bolton told Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month.

Other new evidence of the JCPOA’s weakness and Iranian cheating includes the Iran “nuclear archive,” a huge cache of Iranian documents on its nuclear-weapons program. Stolen by Israeli intelligence in early 2018, they show that in 2015, in a declaration of its nuclear-weapons-related activities (the declaration was a prerequisite for Iran to receive sanctions relief under the JCPOA), Iran lied to the IAEA. The documents indicate that Iran was planning to construct five nuclear-missile warheads and constructed a secret underground tunnel complex at the Parchin military base, where it was developing nuclear-weapon components. “With current level of inspections, Iran could have an active nuclear weapons program today and IAEA would not know,” The Institute for Science and International Security said on January 14, in a tweet about the significance of the Iran nuclear archive documents. “That is one reason why Israel’s recent actions to seize a portion of the archive and expose a secret nuclear-related warehouse are so important.”

At the U.N. General Assembly in September 2018, Netanyahu said that the nuclear-archive documents also revealed the existence of a secret atomic warehouse, in the Turquzabad district of Tehran, that may have contained 300 tons of equipment and 15 kilograms of radioactive material. Netanyahu said that Iran began to empty out the Tehran nuclear warehouse shortly after Israel’s acquisition of the archive documents went public in April 2018. JCPOA supporters assert that IAEA verification of the nuclear accord is thorough, but the IAEA declined to ask Iran for access to inspect this site, even though Israel had quietly informed IAEA officials about it.

Not surprisingly, U.S. intelligence officials also ignored this development during last week’s worldwide-threat briefing, probably because it contradicts their corporate line that Iran is complying with the JCPOA. Iranian behavior has been so bad over the last year that Europe, whose leaders have condemned Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA and reimpose sanctions, has been forced to consider placing new sanctions on Iran. On January 9, in response to a wave of terrorist attacks in Europe by Iranian assassination squads, the European Union imposed its first sanctions against Iran since the JCPOA was agreed to in 2015. The new sanctions were an acknowledgment by Europe that the JCPOA failed to achieve one of its primary purposes: ending Iran’s malign behavior.

Iran’s recently tested Hoveizeh cruise missile: New sanctions being considered in response to its recent tests of nuclear-capable missiles

On January 25, French officials spoke of the possibility of imposing new sanctions against Iran in response to its recent tests of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. Other EU countries reportedly are considering similar sanctions. Iran unveiled its latest missile — the Hoveizeh cruise missile, with a range of 1,300 kilometers — on February 2. Not only does the JCPOA lack provisions for limiting Iran’s missile program, but during the talks that led to the nuclear pact, previous U.N. missile sanctions on Iran were weakened.

Several reports over the past few months have circulated that Iran has begun nuclear activities, such as expanding uranium mining and production, that push the envelope of what is permitted under the JCPOA. An Iranian official recently said Iran is planning to resume enrichment of uranium to 20 percent uranium-235, an effort that would be a direct violation of the JCPOA.

Getting a comprehensive agreement on the threat from Iran with full buy-in from America’s regional allies is the Trump administration’s ultimate goal. While this may be too far a reach in the short to medium term, because of resistance by Iranian leaders and the current refusal of other JCPOA parties to abandon the agreement, reimposed U.S. sanctions against Iran, to limit the revenues it can spend on belligerent activities and to deny Tehran access to nuclear and missile technology, are an important short-term goal, already showing success, that will bolster regional and international security.

Events of the last nine months more than vindicate President Trump’s controversial decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. Making this decision despite strong condemnations of it by the foreign-policy establishment, the press, Democrats, and European leaders and despite resistance from the U.S. intelligence community and some of his former cabinet members was an act of presidential leadership that now allows the United States and the world to focus on the full set of threats posed by Iran without being handcuffed by President Obama’s deeply flawed Iran nuclear agreement

Fred Fleitz, president of the Center for Security Policy, served in 2018 as deputy assistant to the president and to the chief of staff of the National Security Council. He previously held national-security jobs with the CIA, the DIA, the Department of State, and the House Intelligence Committee staff.


Editorial: Iran’s Clarifying Candor

A top official admits the country was always preparing to break out.

Wall Street Journal, Feb. 6, 2019

Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi at the headquarters of Iran’s atomic energy agency in Tehran, Iran, Sept. 11, 2018. (PHOTO: VAHID SALEMI/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told Congress last week that America’s spooks believe Iran is still complying with Barack Obama’s nuclear deal. This may be technically true, but now comes the head of Tehran’s nuclear agency to say Iran has been preparing to break out from the start.

“We knew that [the Westerners] would ultimately renege on their promises,” said Ali Akbar Salehi in an Iranian television interview last month. “Not only did we avoid destroying the bridges that we had built, but we also built new bridges that would enable us to go back faster if needed.” By “bridges” Mr. Salehi seems to be referring to the regime’s technological progress toward a nuclear weapon that it could return to developing when it wants.

This Iranian thinking is on display at the Arak nuclear facility, long a concern for the West because its reactor had been designed to produce weapons-grade plutonium. Under the 2015 deal, Tehran was required to destroy part of the reactor to prevent the production of enough plutonium for a nuclear weapon.

In 2016 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that the regime followed through, filling specialized tubes with cement. This rendered the reactor’s central component, the “calandria,” unusable. But Mr. Salehi now admits that the regime purchased replacements parts: “We did not tell them that we had other tubes. Otherwise, they would have told us to pour cement into those tubes as well. Now we have the same tubes.”

Either Mr. Salehi is bluffing now, or Iran lied to former Secretary of State John Kerry and the other Western negotiators. Where did Iran purchase the tubes, and where are they now? Has the regime built a replacement calandria already—or even a new reactor?

Mr. Salehi’s big reveal also raises an important question about the enforceability of future agreements with Tehran. The nuclear deal granted the IAEA more access to Iranian nuclear activities, and proponents rely on IAEA reports regarding Tehran’s compliance. Yet now it appears the agency wasn’t aware of Iranian efforts to backtrack on “compliance” that the IAEA already had certified. What else doesn’t the IAEA know, and why doesn’t it know it?

In speaking so freely now about the regime’s deception, Mr. Salehi may be trying to intimidate Europe to continue supporting the deal by threatening that Tehran could break out at any time. But Mr. Salehi’s candor is clarifying. Washington and Europe should take him at his word and work together to negotiate a better nuclear deal that truly contains Iran’s nuclear ambitions.


Has the US intelligence community misread Iran’s nuclear program?

U.S. President Donald Trump seems to think so, as do certain longtime analysts.


JNS.org, February 7, 2019

FBI Director Chris Wray, CIA Director Gina Haspel, DNI Dan Coats, and NSA Director Paul Nakasone. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump clashed with the intelligence community last week over the threats posed by Iran and North Korea, a position that has some U.S. and Israeli experts nodding in agreement.

Former weapons’ inspector David Albright, founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, told JNS that the U.S. intelligence community in essence told us that “Iran does not have a structured nuclear-weapons program—something we all know.”

However, he said, the intelligence community “punted on the more important questions of whether Iran is preserving capabilities to make nuclear weapons, e.g., the Atomic Archive, or working on certain activities to overcome bottlenecks in their nuclear-weapons program.”

Trump criticized the U.S. intelligence community in a Jan. 30 Tweet: “The Intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran. They are wrong!” He also stated, “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!”

This was after the heads of the U.S. intelligence community told the Senate that the threat from North Korea is unlikely to be resolved, and that Iran was acting according to the nuclear deal, positions that contradict Trump’s view, Reuters reported.

Emily Landau, director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, told JNS that on Iran, the assessment’s key sentence—“We continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device”—is laconic, misleading and missing key information.

First, what does it mean that Iran is not working on “key nuclear weapons-development activities?” asked Landau rhetorically.“It is indeed working on advanced centrifuge R&D under the terms of the deal,” she said. “Moreover, it is testing missiles that can carry nuclear warheads.”

“Both activities are key to having a nuclear-weapons capability, and Iran can work on them without violating the JCPOA,” she pointed out.

Israel academic expert Dr. Emily Landau: “What about the information in the Iranian nuclear archives,  which the IAEA has not even begun to examine through inspections?”

Interestingly enough, Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi recently admitted what Iran did regarding the Arak facility—that they poured cement into certain tubes while not disclosing the existence of other tubes they had already purchased.

Second, continued Landau, “what about all the information contained in the Iran nuclear archives that the IAEA has not even begun to check through inspections? How can the assessment be so sure about its conclusions when this information is not taken into account?”

“Finally, while the assessment does not say so explicitly, it implies, especially when taken together with its 2018 assessment, that if Iran is more or less upholding the terms of the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action], then the Iran nuclear threat has been dealt with effectively.”

But compliance with the JCPOA is not the barometer for assessing Iranian intentions or ambitions, she added. Indeed, the reason that Iran has an interest in sticking to the deal is because it has major benefits for the regime, such as: “It gives Iran significant sanctions relief in return for minimal nuclear concessions.”

In other words, it enables Iran to keep its nuclear infrastructure, which is in line with its continued nuclear ambitions.

Nuances between North Korean, Iranian nuclear ambitions

On North Korea, the assessment notes all of the steps that have been taken over the past year in the direction of reducing tensions regarding its nuclear program, but then concludes that North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons, which it deems essential for regime survival.“It is true that North Korea will most likely not give up the capabilities that it paid such a high price to secure,” predicted Landau.

Still, regarding North Korea, even though steps have been taken, explained the Israeli expert, “they are brushed aside because of continued nuclear ambitions.

But for Iran, which clearly continues to harbor nuclear ambitions, the assessment regards compliance with the terms of the JCPOA as evidence of lack of nuclear ambitions.”These are very problematic conclusions—both for not recognizing the danger that Iran continues to pose in the nuclear realm and not giving enough credit to the significant reduction in American-North Korean tensions over the past year.

Albright said that “the archive makes clear Iran intended to continue its nuclear-weapons program after ending the AMAD program [that attempted to build nuclear warheads] in 2003.”

He went on to ask: “What does the Intelligence community think of that? How does it know that certain activities do not continue today, particularly given the IAEA has not visited many of the sites mentioned in the archives?”

A report by the Institute for Science and International Security in October 2018 and authored by Albright, Olli Heinonen and Andrea Stricker, stated the new documentation seized covertly by Israel from Iran’s nuclear archive “shows that in mid-2003, Iran was making decisions about how to decentralize and disperse the elements of its nuclear weaponization program, the AMAD program and its subsidiary Project 110, which included nuclear warhead development.

“The archive documentation shows that rather than halting its nuclear weaponization work, Iran was carrying out an elaborate effort to break the AMAD program into covert and overt parts, where the overt parts would be centered at research institutes and universities, and any effort that could not be plausibly denied as civilian in nature was left as a covert activity,” the report continued.

So, posed Albright, how does the intelligence community “view Iran’s ongoing development of missiles that would be capable of delivering nuclear weapons? Several pieces of the assessment puzzle just weren’t there.”

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