From the earliest days of the Iranian military nuclear program, it was directed primarily at Israel, which the revolutionary regime in Tehran deems an archenemy to be completely destroyed. Its real intentions notwithstanding, Iran has consistently presented its nuclear program over the years as designed “for peaceful use.” Even when, in the second half of 2002, Iran’s two major projects to obtain fissile materials for nuclear weapons were exposed—the Natanz plant for enriching uranium using centrifuges, and its plans to build a plutogenic reactor as a heavy water production plant—the regime claimed that both facilities were intended for energy production as alternatives to exploiting its oil reserves. Writes Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Raphael Ofek
In 2003, Iran was forced for the first time to present its developed nuclear projects to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and to allow IAEA inspectors access to all its facilities where nuclear activities had been conducted. It also agreed to “voluntarily disable” uranium enrichment at Natanz. Simultaneously, however, Iran was secretly promoting the “Amad Plan”—a highly classified project, headed by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, to develop nuclear weapons.
In early 2006, in defiance of grave findings by IAEA inspectors in Iran that were reflected in the agency’s quarterly reports, the regime decided to renew uranium enrichment in Natanz—albeit at a rate of less than 5%, which is sufficient only to produce nuclear fuel for power reactors. Tensions between Iran and the IAEA increased in the second half of the decade, especially after it was revealed that the regime ad set up an underground uranium enrichment facility at Fordow, a plant originally designed to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. Iran acknowledged the existence of the facility in 2009. In late 2011, it began enriching uranium at a rate of 20% on the pretext that uranium at that enrichment grade was required to produce nuclear fuel for Tehran’s research reactor.
Extensive intelligence activities were conducted by Israel, in cooperation with the West (particularly the US), to expose Iran’s secret nuclear activities. This was not only for the purpose of supplementing the IAEA’s regular monitoring of nuclear facilities under the aegis of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, which were supposedly intended for civilian purposes, but also to present the IAEA with information on Iranian facilities that were operating within a military nuclear program so the IAEA could demand access to them. A vital contribution to this effort was the passing of a stolen Iranian laptop to American intelligence that contained many details about the Amad Plan so it could be passed on to the IAEA. But the most significant intelligence contribution was the smuggling in 2018 of a vast Iranian nuclear archive to Israel by the Mossad (Israel’s intelligence corps). The archive contained evidence that Iran had made great progress in its development of nuclear weapons.
To the regret of the Tehran regime, all elements of its nuclear program were gradually exposed, so it was forced to provide the IAEA with explanations. But those explanations stretched the bounds of plausibility to the breaking point. For example, during a visit of IAEA inspectors to Natanz in 2003, the regime claimed that the facility’s centrifuges were the product of domestic research and development, but it soon became clear that it had acquired both knowledge and components for the centrifuges from Pakistan. Tehran also claimed that the heavy water reactor it had built was based on an Iranian design, but it turned out that the design was created by Russian research institutes.
The Tehran authorities also set about razing facilities revealed by Western intelligence to have been part of its military nuclear program before allowing IAEA inspectors access to the sites. However, despite the razing of the facilities, IAEA soil samples taken from sites were found, following testing at the IAEA laboratory in Austria, to contain small amounts of uranium particles. These findings indicated that nuclear activity had taken place at all the sites.
In the first years of the decade beginning in 2010, contacts began between the P5+1 powers (the US, the UK, France, Russia, China, and Germany), the EU, and Iran with the aim of reaching an agreement that would prevent the Islamic regime from developing nuclear weapons. On July 14, 2015, an agreement was signed by the P5+1 powers, the EU, and Iran on an agreement—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA—designed to limit various components of the Iranian nuclear program according to an agreed-upon timetable. A key actor in advancing this agreement was the administration of President Barack Obama.
Many activities were also carried out against the Iranian nuclear program. They include the computer worm Stuxnet, which debilitated many centrifuges in Natanz in 2010, as well as the killing of several Iranian nuclear scientists. The most recent of them was Fakhrizadeh, the father of Iran’s military nuclear program, who was killed at the end of 2020. Recent attacks have been carried out on Iran’s nuclear facilities at Natanz and Karaj. While these strikes are widely assumed to have been conducted by Israel, the US, or the two in combination, their provenance remains ambiguous.
After Donald Trump was elected president of the US, he decided, partly in response to the revelations contained in the Iranian Nuclear Archive operation, to impose sanctions on Iran that intensified throughout his presidency. Iran, for its part, began to violate the JCPOA agreement step by step as an act of defiance against Trump. In early 2020 it announced that it was no longer bound by the JCPOA restrictions. In 2021, Iran began to enrich uranium to 60%, as well as to produce metallic uranium—clear indications that its goal is to produce nuclear weapons.
Despite Joe Biden’s intention, expressed before he assumed the US presidency, to reach a new settlement with Tehran and the partner EU countries on the nuclear issue as soon as possible, the situation as it has evolved since he took office is vague to the point of indicating a serious crisis. This is due to recent serious steps taken by Tehran that constitute an almost complete abrogation of the nuclear agreement and that greatly advance it toward the status of a nuclear threshold state; the election of arch-conservative Ebrahim Raisi as president of Iran; and the savage rampage of Revolutionary Guards forces in the Persian Gulf, which has made the Persian Gulf a dangerous area in which to sail. As for the US, Biden’s incompetence in the face of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan calls into question his administration’s dealings with Iran.
Media reports, meanwhile, claim that Israel is preparing a military move against the Iranian nuclear program. If true, it is not clear whether Jerusalem would in fact take that step, particularly in view of the fact that Israel’s new government seeks coordination with the Biden administration.
The ambitions of Biden and the EU countries to reach an agreement with Iran are puzzling. The Iranian regime is essentially a criminal gang that seeks to take over its entire environment through violence. The words of those in charge in Tehran cannot be trusted, because they use lies and deceptions as weapons. Does it make sense to do business with these people?
Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Raphael Ofek, a BESA Center Research Associate, is an expert in the field of nuclear physics and technology who served as a senior analyst in the Israeli intelligence community.
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