Proponents of the deal dismissed Israel’s findings. Steven Simon, senior director for the Middle East and North Africa on the National Security Council under President Barack Obama, called the archive a “nuclear nothingburger,” full of old documents on a weapons program Iran had shut down. Iran’s leaders declared the find a fraud.
European leaders and the IAEA itself, working to save the nuclear deal, downplayed or ignored outright the documents, desperate to preserve a status quo with Iran that the United States and Israel seemed bent on wrecking.
According to IAEA reports published since last year, the inspection agency hasn’t processed data from the Iran Nuclear Archive and has never asked Iranian officials for permission to inspect the rest of it. To date the agency has not used Israel’s findings—which are startling—to probe the extent of Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
For former IAEA inspectors who can speak without political consequences, finding the archive was like discovering missing puzzle pieces, or landing on a paved road with a map in what had been a fogged-in landscape lacking compass points. Key experts who have visited Iran’s declared nuclear sites and worked with its government records say the archive is authentic, not an Israeli hoax. They also say it shows that Iran—contrary to those insisting Iran’s nuclear pursuits are for peaceful energy purposes—has been much further along in developing nuclear weapons than was previously known.
The Iranian cache contains names of people who worked on a nuclear weapons program, where they worked, and what equipment they used. It includes designs for warheads and notes on neutron research to create a nuclear explosion. Perhaps most telling, the archive includes “deception folders”—documents that actually enumerate the lies Iranian officials told IAEA officials as an effort to preserve consistency.
Robert Kelley, a nuclear engineer and former IAEA inspector, after reviewing the documents last year, said, “The papers show these guys were working on nuclear bombs.”
Olli Heinonen, a former IAEA deputy director general, delivered a more stark assessment last month in Jerusalem: “Iran is capable of producing fissile material for one nuclear device in six to eight months,” he said.
Based on his monthslong review of the archive, Heinonen told a gathering of experts and government officials, “We can speculate … it should not take more than a year for Iran to develop a fully functional nuclear missile.” Israel and the Gulf states, he said, “have a reason to worry.”
Heinonen was senior research officer at a reactor lab in Finland before joining the IAEA in Vienna, where he served 27 years. His Department of Safeguards, which he headed from 2005 to 2009, carries out all inspections tied to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. Long before the JCPOA, it maintained a legally binding agreement with Iran to report nuclear activity.
Heinonen has visited all the declared nuclear sites in Iran, some of them multiple times. He also was a key figure in the discovery of A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear physicist who for decades ran a black market in nuclear weapons technology, selling to Iran and North Korea the know-how that’s allowed them to become the threats they are today.
Before reaching conclusions about the Iran Nuclear Archive, Heinonen said he spent months doing “a deep dive” into the documents. “This was information I had not seen before,” he said. At IAEA, he said, the inspectors had “bits and pieces of information” about a military dimension to Iran’s nuclear program, “but not the kind of comprehensive view the archive gives you.”