Experts and Former Officials Respond to Israeli Claims

May 2, 2018
Updated

On April 30, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented evidence that Iran lied about never having a nuclear weapons program. He also charged that Iran is still working to "expand its nuclear weapons know-how for future use," despite the 2015 nuclear deal. Former U.S. officials and nuclear nonproliferation experts expressed a range of reactions. Netanyahu's briefing was "interesting, and important for building a history of [Iran's] program," said Richard Nephew, the former lead sanctions expert for the U.S. negotiating team under the Obama administration. "But it is not a new revelation, at least in terms of where the program was when we were negotiating," he added. Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state under the Bush administration, had a different view. She argued that Netanyahu's briefing underscored flaws in the 2015 nuclear deal. "When you know that you have a country that has lied repeatedly, why trust them now?" The following are excerpted remarks from experts and former U.S. officials on Israel's allegations. 

 

Obama Administration Officials
 

John Kerry, Former Secretary of State

 

Ernest Moniz, Former Secretary of Energy

“First of all, the announcement by the prime minister, in my view, reinforces the importance of the Iran agreement, but we’ll come back to that. I think it’s also important to emphasize up front, of course we knew they had a weapons program. We said so publicly. The IAEA said so publicly. And the fact that they had a nuclear weapons program up until the 2004 or so timeframe was actually a condition of the negotiation. It’s why we entered that with a ‘don’t trust’ and ‘verify, verify, verify’ attitude.

So, what you have in the JCPOA, as by the way Secretary Mattis said last week, an agreement not based upon trust, but frankly, almost his words, an assumption of cheating, puts in place an unparalleled verification regime, which is exactly what we need now to prevent any new Iranian activity, number one. Number two, a process, going through the international inspectors, a so-called joint commission and ultimately the UN Security Council that will, frankly, hammer Iran if they in fact resume nuclear weapons activity.”

“Well, again, we’ve always said, going back to 2015, that the agreement, by design, as you say, was to keep nuclear weapons verifiably off the table while we pursue all of our available options to address Iran’s other issues, like missiles, Syria, Hezbollah, Yemen, human rights, you name it. There is some of that, in my view, maybe not enough. But the key is that we took nuclear weapons off the table. They remain off the table as long as we have the JCPOA in place.”

“The downside is, number one, we lose this verification regime. Number two, we lose the coherence of the international community. And of course, there is a particular concern about Iran being handed an opportunity of a wedge between us and our European allies. The Europeans are very very clearly in favor of staying in the deal, quite correctly. But frankly, it will be a mess because even as the governments in Europe want to stay in the deal, if so-called secondary sanctions are re-imposed, their own companies will be compelled to maintain connected to the American banking system and therefore to stop business with Iran. So, it will be a violation of the agreement and complete confusion with our allies.”

“I’m afraid the White House has muddied the waters quite often in this deal. Here, as you say, they eventually corrected it, but we all know that a lot of ripples go off and go away from this. I’m not going to talk about motive, but it was clearly an incorrect statement. There is nothing to indicate that Iran has an active program. But I might say this is not the only example. And I would refer to the president’s tweets about repeating an argument, one that’s all too frequently, which is completely incorrect, the idea that after 10 years of the agreement Iran is then free to go and build a nuclear weapons program. Completely false.

First of all, there is of course the commitment in the agreement to not do so. But what I would say, much more importantly, again we are not building this on trust. So, we have a completely unique and unparalleled, intrusive verification regime that was not there before the agreement. That was the most important thing. Iran is not going to – if Iran chose to rebuild a weapons program, I think it’s quite unlikely they would do so through sites to which the IAEA, the inspectors, have routine access. It’s about covert sites. That’s what the agreement gives us and the international inspectors. And not only access to suspect sites, but access within in a fixed time period, which no one else is exposed to.”

May 1, 2018, in an interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell

 

Judy Woodruff: Another deadline looms for the president, this one on May 12. He must decide whether to continue waiving sanctions that had been imposed on Iran, but were lifted as part of the 2015 nuclear deal.

If they are put back in place, that would be a violation of the Obama administration era agreement which froze Iran’s nuclear program. On Monday, one of the deal’s harshest critics, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, alleged that documents stolen by Israel from Tehran show that Iran retains the blueprints for restarting its program.

So where do we stand 10 days from the deadline?

For some answers, we turn to former U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz. He was a key member of the American negotiating team that struck that deal. He is now CEO of the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative. Ernest Moniz, welcome to the program.

Ernest Moniz: Thank you.

Judy Woodruff: So, you heard, you’re very familiar with what the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had to say, how he described all these documents, these computer disks that were taken from Iran. What do you make of all that?

Ernest Moniz: Well, first of all, of course, we all knew that Iran had a weapons program.

Our intelligence agencies declared that in 2007. The IAEA, the international inspectors, said they had a structured program. So there was no deception here, in the sense of their having a program.

And I might say just up front that we went into the negotiation, of course, knowing that. And, last week, Secretary Mattis said, “I read the agreement and it sounds like an agreement made for a cheater.”

So this is not on trust. Now, what the prime minister put forward, of course, may have some additional information on people, on places, et cetera, and all of those must be run to the ground, and the JCPOA, the Iran agreement…

Judy Woodruff: Which is the agreement.

Ernest Moniz: The agreement puts in place the process to do that. So, indeed, in my view, the prime minister’s presentation provides more reason why we need, in fact, to stay in the Iran agreement.

Judy Woodruff: So when the prime minister says this is just proof that the Iranians are going to be able to make a bomb once this deal expires, is he not accurate about that?

Ernest Moniz: No, he is not, for a couple of reasons. First of all, you don’t make bombs with papers and C.D.s. You make them with nuclear material. And the agreement didn’t, I might just say, didn’t just freeze the Iranian program, it rolled it back dramatically, to the point where, even if they went full out, no subterfuge whatsoever, it would take them at least a year just to assemble the nuclear material for a bomb.

That’s the first point. The second point may be even more consequential. After — 15 years after the agreement, restrictions on Iran’s peaceful nuclear activities go away, but we are not back to where we are before.

Now we have the world’s most intrusive verification regime, and that’s really central. If you think about it, if Iran wanted a nuclear weapon, they’re not going to do it in the open. They’re going to do it covertly.

The agreement is what gives the international inspectors the tools to go anywhere in Iran and have access.

Judy Woodruff: And that’s — and I wanted to ask you about this so-called sunset clause, which is what happens after the deal expires, in effect, because the argument is by the critics that all bets are off and Iran can go right back to doing what it was doing before. Your point is that they won’t be able to do this.

Ernest Moniz: Correct. There is no sunset in the agreement. What does phase out in various steps, 10 years, 15 years, 20, 25 years, are various specific elements of what they can do. But what remains in place forever is their — first of all, their commitment to not have a nuclear weapon, secondly, their forswearing weaponization activities.

But, most important, they must follow something called the additional protocol. Basically, what that means is, the international inspectors can go to undeclared nuclear sites. And, uniquely, Iran must provide access in a fixed time period.

Judy Woodruff: Let me cite a comment that has been made in the last day or so by the former deputy head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. You know him very well, the IAEA. His name is Ollie Heinonen. I think that’s correct.

Ernest Moniz: I do.

Judy Woodruff: He says some of the images the Israelis have show pieces of equipment directly related to nuclear weapons work that had not been previously disclosed. Is that your understanding?

Ernest Moniz: So, actually, the same gentleman also said, upon seeing the presentation, that he just saw a lot of pictures that he had seen before. So, again, as I said, the full cache of information may certainly contain information on individuals, on equipment, on places that maybe we didn’t know about before.

But, again, we knew they had a weapons program, number one. Number two, we need to run all of those elements he refers to into the ground. Iran is — frankly, is in a tough spot. They have got to explain all of this, and that’s why we need the process that the agreement put in place with the IAEA, with something called the Joint Commission of the Negotiating Countries, and, ultimately, the U.N. Security Council.

Judy Woodruff: Right.

Well, another point that Ollie Heinonen is making, he said, what you’re looking at here, he said, this is much more extensive than what was known before. He said now it’s clear that Iran has new locations that the IAEA definitely has not visited before.

And he’s going to on to say, a country party to this Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty should maintain all this because it violates the spirit of the treaty. In other words, he’s saying there are just some very troubling pieces of information that come from what the Israelis turned up.

Ernest Moniz: Again, I think the Iranians have to be put on the spot to explain why these archives were maintained after they, in the agreement and the supreme leader said, we will never have a nuclear weapon.

Judy Woodruff: What will the consequences be if President Trump goes ahead and the U.S. is withdrawing from that nuclear deal?

Ernest Moniz: I think it would be, frankly, tragic for a couple of reasons.

One, it will take away the process that we need right now, in fact, to explore these — the information in the Israeli information. Two, it will drive a wedge between the United States and our allies in Europe. And it will be very, very messy, because, on the one hand the European governments, U.K., France, Germany, have all made it clear, while Iran is in compliance, we should be working with them to keep them in compliance.

At the same time, their own companies will be subject to sanctions from the United States, and this is a very, very poor…

Judy Woodruff: These are private companies doing business in Iran.

Ernest Moniz: Private companies doing business in Iran, exactly.

Judy Woodruff: So I’m asking you, because we just saw in Washington last week President Macron of France, Chancellor Merkel of Germany were here both talking to the president. It seems that they are — it’s been reported they are working on some sort of fallback plan if the U.S. does pull out. So that’s a possibility.

Ernest Moniz: I think the president put forward a bunch of desires in terms of the European actions with the United States. Most of them, the Europeans, I think, are quite prepared to go with us on. And, very importantly — and I think it was shown in the joint strikes in Syria with the U.K. and France, that they want to work with us in pushing back on Iran. But they don’t want to violate the agreement.

Judy Woodruff: Very, very quickly, totally different subject — similar subject, but a different part of the world, North Korea. You follow these nuclear developments around the world. Is it your — do you believe that the North Koreans may be ready to denuclearize, as they are suggesting to some negotiators?

Ernest Moniz: They may. They have made statements about having the deterrent complete and now focusing on the economy. I think we have to play it out. But it’s the same as Iran. Don’t trust and verify, verify, verify. And for North Korea, that will be, I might say, even a greater challenge, the verification, than it is with Iran.

Judy Woodruff: Ernest Moniz, former U.S. Secretary of Energy, thank you very much.

May 2, 2018, in an interview with Judy Woodruff on PBS NewsHour

 

Brian McKeon, Former National Security Council Chief of Staff

“Well there’s a lot of detail in there and there may be some new detailed information about the program that we didn’t know, but the big picture, that they had a nuclear weapons program, is not new. Our own intelligence community issued a National Intelligence Estimate a decade ago saying they had a program. It stopped in 2003. The International Atomic Energy Agency, as part of the Iran nuclear deal, issued a report two and half years ago, going into great detail about the program and reaching the same conclusions that it had largely stopped in 2003 and it had many of the same details that were highlighted in the prime minister’s speech.”

May 1, 2018, in an interview on MSNBC

 

Richard Nephew, Former Lead Sanctions Expert for the U.S.-Iran Negotiating Team and Former Director for Iran on the National Security Staff

“Interesting, and important for building a history of [Iran’s] program. But it is not a new revelation, at least in terms of where the program was when we were negotiating.”

“To put it another way it is why we negotiated the JCPOA.”

May 2, 2018, according to the Washington Post

 

Ilan Goldenberg, Former Iran Team Chief in the Office of the Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy

 

Dan Shapiro, Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel

 

Robert Einhorn, Former State Department Special Advisor for Non-proliferation and Arms Control 

"Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s dramatic April 30 presentation on Israel’s acquisition of Iran’s nuclear weapons development archives was intended not to strengthen the Iran nuclear deal but to drive the last nail into its coffin. But in the now-unlikely event that President Trump were to decide to waive sanctions again before May 12 and keep the nuclear deal alive, the Israeli intelligence coup could be used effectively to help remedy what Trump has regarded as the critical flaws of the deal (known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA)."

"So the Israeli intelligence coup did not change our fundamental understanding of Iran’s past nuclear weapons efforts or its determination to keep its future options open. But the sheer volume, specificity, and apparent authenticity of the archived documents obtained by the Israelis will substantially reinforce that understanding—confirming the judgment that Iran once actively pursued nuclear weapons and showing it later went to great lengths to safeguard and preserve its nuclear weapons-related documents for possible future use.

However, Netanyahu goes beyond the assertion that Iran was keeping its future nuclear weapons options open. He essentially makes the case that the preservation of the weapons development documentation is proof that Iran has already decided to resurrect its program and acquire nuclear weapons. Why, he asks, would Iran “hide and meticulously catalogue” its incriminating records “if not to use them at a later date”?

But that is a weak link in the prime minister’s case. True, the weapons development materials were archived at the direction of then-Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani in the 2003 period. But that directive as well as subsequent Iranian efforts to keep the records intact and secret, including their movement to a new location in 2017, were consistent with the explanation that, while Iran was determined to maintain a potential option for the future, it had not made a decision to exercise that option.

Perhaps somewhere in that massive trove of purloined files investigators will find a smoking gun indicating that Iran had decided to break out and produce nuclear weapons and is just waiting for when (not if) the time is right. But at least so far, no such smoking gun has been found.

It also seems a stretch for Netanyahu to argue that the existence of the secret archives constitutes a violation of the JCPOA because the nuclear deal required Iran to “come clean” on its past activities. The lawyers will evaluate this and other legal matters raised by the prime minister’s presentation, but there doesn’t appear to be anything in the JCPOA that would require its parties to “fess up” about past activities—in contrast to the clear violation that would be committed by continuing such activities after the deal had entered into force.

But while the revelation of the archived documents does not tell us anything fundamentally new about Iranian behavior and does not provide legal grounds for charging Iran with a violation and terminating the JCPOA, it does provide a stronger basis for addressing the issues that President Trump regards as the deal’s key deficiencies.

If the authenticity and credibility of the archived documents stand up to scrutiny, Iran’s reputation will be damaged. While close observers of the Iran nuclear issue, especially in the West, believe that Iran did have a nuclear weapons program, many countries and their publics have remained skeptical and have tended to take at face value Iran’s repeated and vociferous denials."

May 4, 2018, for the Brookings Institute 

 

Bush Administration Officials
 

Condoleezza Rice, Former Secretary of State

“I haven’t read the entire dossier, but I think it confirms and reconfirms what we’ve known, which is that the Iranians were lying about their nuclear weapons program for decades. It says to me, that the 2015 nuclear deal, the real issue is verification. When you know that you have a country that has lied repeatedly, why trust them now?

So, my concern about the nuclear deal had been the verification regime. If anything, this just makes it even more clear that you can’t have a verification regime that gives the Iranians weeks to clean-up a site before you can go inside.”

“Well I actually think if we pull out now it’s not going to be the disaster that everybody is talking about. I would not have signed this deal. I don’t think it was a very good deal. I think we were in a hurry to get a deal and we left a lot on the table. As you said, they got a lot upfront.

The allies love this deal, and I certainly hope that in their meeting with President Trump that Macron and Merkel talk about ways to improve the deal if we're going to stay in it.

But if we get out of this deal, it's going to be just fine. The Iranians, I think, will try and stay in because they do want that investment eventually to start flowing. And by the way, the reason the investment isn’t flowing is we still have sanctions on Iran because of terrorism. And that makes companies very wary of going into Iran and finding out all of the sudden that they were funding the IRGC."

“I would probably have stayed in for alliance management purposes, but I have no argument. If the president decides to pull out of the deal, I have no argument with that."

May 1, 2018, in an interview on Fox and Friends

 

Michael Hayden, Former CIA Director

"We created a national intelligence estimate in 2007 that said that the Iranians had stopped the weaponization part of their program -- missiles still going on, centrifuges still spinning -- but the actual building of the weapon, that they had stopped in 2003. And I’m fond of saying, we based that not on absence of evidence but on evidence of absence.

Now we went on to say some dual use stuff, some research went on. They were hedging their bets. They wanted to keep their options open. But we went in and told President (George W.) Bush and Vice President (Dick) Cheney and that was the heavy lift. They're still bad folks. They're still heading in a bad direction, but our intelligence estimate now is they've stopped this particular activity.”

“Credit to the Israeli intelligence service for getting this trove of documents and digital records. But I think all it does is give more detail to the plotline that well knew, that we all agreed existed.”

“To the best of my knowledge – out of government, not getting the briefings – I think this is fundamentally old news.”

“With all due respect to the prime minister, you know I realize he is not an intelligence source, but we have certain labels, certain caveats we give to some sources, and for some sources who actually report good information, we also have to point out so that you understand the motivation of the source, we believed his remarks were designed to influence as well as to inform. And I think that might apply to what the prime minister said yesterday.”

May 1, 2018, in an interview on CNN’s “New Day”

 

Richard N. Haas, Former Director of Policy Planning at the State Department 

 

Experts
 

David Albright, Founder and President of the non-profit Institute for Science and International Security
Former UN Weapons Inspector

 

“My experience involved in the uncovering of other nuclear weapons programs is the hoarding of documents to this extent would essentially say to you that they are hiding a nuclear weapons program.”

“You can argue that this is now the chance to really nail Iran on its violations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and to get them to reveal the program, get rid of it, and allow long-term monitoring of the facilities and people that were involved in the program.

So, you can — and having the nuclear deal in place is good. But, on the other hand, because this archive seems to be kept to use in the future, it actually is a little chilling about the sunsets that we face in the Iran nuclear deal. They look a little more deadly.”

“If this audience essentially was won for this, for Netanyahu, I think he’s trying to convince Iran to walk away from the deal and hand him a more substantive nuclear reason to do so.

So I think, whether he succeeds in that, I don’t know. I think President Trump has also said that he’s open to fix the deal. And his negotiators are working probably as we speak to fix the deal as he’s outlined.

And this revelation by Israel today doesn’t eliminate the fixes that can be done. I would argue it could strengthen the ability to fix this deal. But, again, we will have to see.”

April 30, 2018, in an interview with William Brangham on PBS “NewsHour”

 

Olli Heinonen, Senior Advisor on Science and Nonproliferation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies
Former Deputy Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

"Certainly if this is what they [Israelis] say it is, this is quite a jackpot."

“There were some pictures that were quite familiar to me."

“But at the same time, there was also new information."

"They must have manufactured pieces of equipment in Iran. Where are those pieces? Who is keeping them?”

—May 1, 2018, to NPR

 

“They [Iranians] were supposed to tell everything to the IAEA.”

“Now I have to raise the question: did they really comply with these requirements? The IAEA has to go back to see how far they really got in this program and was it really stopped.”

—May 1, 2018, to Reuters

 

 

Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association

"Even if the documents assembled by Israel are genuine, they do not appear to reveal that prohibited nuclear weapons research and design activities continued in an organized fashion beyond 2003. Furthermore, contrary to Netanyahu’s assertion that Iran must “come clean” about its nuclear past, there is no such requirement for it to do so.

Instead, it is essential to ensure that Iran is no longer engaged in nuclear weapons research and design activities, that there is robust monitoring of Iran’s ongoing nuclear activities, and that Iran’s nuclear program is constrained in ways that prevent it from being able to quickly amass enough weapon-grade material for even one nuclear bomb."

May 2, 2018, in an article for USIP's Iran Primer 

 

Ali Vaez, Iran Project Director at International Crisis Group

 

Suzanne Maloney, Deputy Director of the Foreign Policy Program at The Brookings Institution

"Despite the prime minister’s breathless pronouncement, the cache of Iranian documents has thus far divulged little more than what we already widely knew—that Iran’s nuclear program was never intended for the generation of civilian energy for peaceful purposes, as Tehran claimed, but rather for the pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability. That should come as no surprise to all but the most naïve consumers of Iran’s persistent denials. In fact, the wide recognition of the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program precipitated unprecedented international sanctions and ultimately the nuclear accord."

― May 2, 2018, in a blog post

 

Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies

 

Joe Cirincione, President of Plougshares Fund
Former professional staff on the U.S. House of Representatives Committees on Armed Services and Government Operations

“In the White House press ceremony yesterday, he said the deal expires in seven years. No, it does not. He said Iran would then be free to develop a nuclear weapon. No, it would not. This clearly shows three things going on here. One, this is old information that is being used to feed a judgment about the nature of the deal. Two, they are saying that Iran lied about its program. It’s true, they did. All nuclear armed states lie about their programs. Three, what it doesn’t offer is what do you do instead?”

“It is pretty clear that the president of the United States is ready to knock down this deal. Knock down the agreement stopping Iran from getting a bomb. But there’s no plan for what to do next. And that’s what worries everyone.”

May 1, 2018, in an interview on MSNBC

 

Mark Fitzpatrick, Executive Director of International Institute for Strategic Studies-Americas

"There's nothing new in the material that Netanyahu revealed yesterday. All of it was information that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) already had and has already commented on.”

"The Iranians had a nuclear weapons program. We knew this.”

"The argument is posed in a way that ascribes motives that we don't know. It's been clear for many years that Iran had a nuclear hedging strategy, and that they have long wanted an option to produce a nuclear weapon. When they agreed to the [nuclear] deal in 2015, they postponed any day in which they would be able to pursue that option, but they never gave up the option. That's why Israel has never liked this deal -- because Iran has a nuclear hedging strategy."

May 2, 2018, according to CNN

 

 

Click here for information about Prime Minister Netanyahu's revelations about Iran's nuclear program. 

Click here for Iranian reactions to Netanyahu's charges. 

Click here for Europe's reactions to Israel's claims. 

Click here for the U.S. response to Israeli allegations. 

Click here for the IAEA's statement and report about Iran's nuclear activities.

 

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