Why the Biden Administration Shouldn’t Rush Into a New Iran Deal

A new book highlights the true nature of Iran’s nuclear program.

Iranian elections will take place on June 18. Because those elections are likely to usher in an even more hardline government—current President Hassan Rouhani is what passes for a “moderate”—the Biden administration has worked feverishly to conclude a pre-election re-entry into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal, fearing that Iran’s next leader may be less amenable. Team Biden’s haste—an EU envoy suggests that a deal could be reached when the next round of talks starts next week—has alarmed even JCPOA advocates. But a new book by nuclear weapons expert David Albright should set off further alarm bells for those inside a U.S. government hoping to patch things up with the Islamic Republic.

On the night of January 31, 2018, Israeli agents mustered in Tehran to break into Iran’s collected archive of its nuclear program, compiled in the wake of the JCPOA’s signing. Over the night and into the dawn, they neutralized the alarm system in the warehouse in the Tehran suburb of Shorabad, entered the safes located inside, and collected a half-ton of material. In total, the agents smuggled away, per Albright’s new book, Iran’s Perilous Pursuit of Nuclear Weapons, “over 55,000 pages of documentation … contained in over 100 binders of three types: black, green, and red. The black ones were the most numerous, containing AMAD Plan [Iran’s nuclear weapons program through 2003] technical and project management documents. The green files, numbering somewhat over a dozen, held documents on AMAD’s infrastructure. The red ones, which were the fewest in number, contained documents describing Iran’s deceptions of the IAEA.” They also took 183 computer disks.

Israeli officials briefed reporters on the operation and the stash, and they shared documents with some. Among those briefed was Albright, a physicist and founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, who eventually badgered the Israeli government into sharing the original cache. His book is the result. But why does it matter? After all, the narrative is well-known: Iran had an active nuclear weapons program until 2003, but per the CIA, decided not to restart it—at least not in its original form—working instead on component parts of the nuclear weapons process. In 2015, according to the Obama administration, Tehran decided to shelve even those more limited activities and ink the JCPOA with the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, China and Russia. Then Donald Trump upended it all and pulled out.

Albright’s analysis of the Shorabad documents reveals that narrative to be mostly untrue, or at best misleading, except for the U.S. withdrawal from the deal.

There are many surprises in Albright’s analysis, but he summarizes them as follows: “[At the] end of the AMAD plan in 2003 they had a [nuclear bomb] design that was the diameter of a car tire. It was designed small enough to fit on their ballistic missiles. The bottom line is, they know more about making nuclear weapons than was known before the discovery of the archive, and they could make them quicker than was known before the discovery of the archive.”

Other critical revelations include the fact that Iran has almost two dozen sites linked to its nuclear weapons program, of which the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has visited only three; that Iran’s nuclear weapons design is indigenous, not lifted from a Chinese or European model (unlike Pakistan, South Africa, or others); and most frighteningly, that Iran has or is very close to having the ability to load its nuclear payload onto a medium-range ballistic missile that can hit Israel and southern Europe. Finally, the documents shed light on how the Islamic Republic continued its program well after 2003 and after the signing of the JCPOA, moving from design testing to virtual testing focused not on so-called “breakout” but on a weapons on-demand program that allows Tehran a nuclear weapons option at a time of its choosing. 

In addition, the documents reveal the critical importance of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohnsen Fakhrizadeh, who was killed in an attack ascribed to the Mossad last year. Fakhrizadeh was a Revolutionary Guard officer who planned and managed the nuclear weapons program from the 1990s, reporting to the supreme leader. And when the AMAD program “ended,” it was he who transitioned it to the so-called SPND (the Farsi acronym for the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research) program, aimed at advancing nuclear research and better concealing Iran’s efforts from the world.

The bottom line, according to Albright and his co-author Sarah Burkhardt, is that “the archive has revealed a host of undeclared nuclear sites and activities, all previously dedicated to a covert, and illegal, nuclear weapons program.”

So what should be done? Presumably, the Israeli government has shared not simply its conclusions but also the original documents with the Biden administration and the U.S. intelligence community. If that has happened, however, it has had no demonstrable impact on the negotiations to reenter the JCPOA.

Remember, key concerns with the JCPOA include that it permits Iran to retain its nuclear centrifuges, imposes no limits on nuclear research, includes sunset provisions that will permit Iran as soon as 2025 to begin operating more advanced centrifuges, the expiration of most all limitations on enrichment by 2030, and the complete absence of any restrictions on advanced missile research. In short, critical research on nuclear weapons and miniaturization have continued since the signing of the JCPOA, yet the Biden administration seeks to return to the deal as if the nuclear archive revelations never happened. Worse yet, the one key tool in the arsenal of the JCPOA signatories—IAEA inspections—will continue to be stymied. “Too often,” Albright writes, “the interests of preserving the JCPOA were placed above the IAEA’s duty to reach a final conclusion about the completeness of Iran’s nuclear declaration and the peaceful nature of its nuclear program.”

What needs to happen is a rethinking of the terms of the JCPOA—and not after using U.S. leverage to reseal the old deal, but before that leverage is lost. The JCPOA was about limiting enrichment, but Iran’s nuclear program is about much, much more than simply fissile material. The IAEA must be allowed access to all the sites revealed in the nuclear archive, including the many it has never visited, and must be allowed to interview the scientists known to work at those sites. Iran must disclose its computer coding that has allowed it to progress without nuclear testing. And the question of delivery vehicles must be addressed before Iran is once again relieved of sanctions and given billions in cash.

How bad is the Biden race to rejoin? So bad that Iran’s escalation of aggression on all fronts—via the Houthis in Yemen and Iran’s proxies in Iraq, not to speak of Hamas’ war on Israel—has been tuned out by the administration’s negotiators in Vienna. So bad that former Iranian hostage and Washington Post writer Jason Rezaian, an ardent supporter of the JCPOA, wrote in the last week of May, “As someone who has believed, and continues to believe, in the value of diplomatic engagement to resolve the complex geopolitical issues with Iran, in this instance, I think it’s time to slow down.”

Rezaian notes that the manipulation of Iran’s elections have only eroded what was already shaky support for the regime inside the country, and that Team Biden must also take that fact into account: “The Biden administration has promised a “longer and stronger” deal. It’s a worthy goal that won’t be reached by shortcuts. Slowing down to better understand the playing field after Iran’s elections could help.”

Between the revelations in the Albright book and the concerns of even JCPOA supporters that the president’s nuclear negotiators have lost the plot, the message is clear. The only doubt is whether anyone in the administration will hear it.

Danielle Pletka is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.