According to a recent German intelligence report, the Iranian regime has repeatedly attempted to cultivate business contacts in highly developed states for the purpose of acquiring equipment and technical knowledge that might be applied to nuclear activities and the development of weapons of mass destruction. The findings were corroborated by separate intelligence reports from the Netherlands and Sweden, with all three highlighting incidents that took place in 2020.
There was only one among scores that have been produced in the years since the Iranian regime signed a nuclear deal with six world powers, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The agreement ostensibly traded sanctions relief for meaningful restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment and associated nuclear activities, but it has always been subject to harsh criticism by opponents of the Iranian regime. That criticism is sure to be inflamed by the recent intelligence reports.
Once again, this is another fact that indicates the JCPOA has never stopped Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and Iran’s regime continues to seek technology for its goal to build a nuclear weapons device and expand its conventional missile arsenal. The latest German report, says Iran and other rogue states “are making efforts to expand their conventional arsenal of weapons through the production or constant modernization of weapons of mass destruction.”
The Swedish report, meanwhile, places explicit emphasis on industrial espionage in the Scandinavian country, where Iran has “mainly targeted… Swedish hi-tech industry and Swedish products, which can be used in nuclear weapons programs.” The report goes on to say that Iran has recently invested “heavy resources” into this activity, implying that the regime’s push for nuclear weapons capability has not diminished but may have actually accelerated since the signing of the JCPOA.
This surely comes as no surprise to the early critics of the deal, who anticipated that it would prompt Iranian authorities to scale back certain nuclear activities that were subject to international scrutiny while stepping up those that would allow the regime to secretly advance its capabilities in other areas. The critics worried that this would create the false appearance of a longer “breakout period” for Iran’s nuclear weapons capability, but would in fact allow the regime to use its newly acquired materials and technical knowledge to sprint toward that capability once the JCPOA’s restrictions were lifted.
Even as European intelligence has highlighted the credibility of this expectation, other recent developments have suggested that the situation may actually be worse than some critics anticipated. As early as January 2019, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran was appearing on state media to boast about how Tehran had deceived the international community into providing full-scale sanctions relief even though the Iranian regime was not fully complying with the terms of the deal.
In what may have been his first public comments to this effect, Ali Akbar Salehi explained that authorities at the Arak heavy water facility had avoided deactivating it core as the agreement required, and had thereby kept open a potential plutonium pathway to a nuclear weapon. Months later, Salehi explained that a “countermeasure” had been put in place at the outset of the agreement to prevent serious obstruction of the more familiar uranium pathway. Soon thereafter, the regime apparently demonstrated the truth of his claim by quickly resuming uranium enrichment to the level of 20 percent fissile purity – the program’s high point established before nuclear negotiations began.
Since then, the impact of Salehi’s countermeasure has been underscored by a further escalation to 60 percent enrichment – a benchmark seemingly achieved overnight in retaliation for an attack on the Natanz nuclear facility. The speed of these undertakings raises serious questions about the extent to which Tehran’s nuclear advancements had been held in check when the JCPOA was in full effect prior to 2019. Had that agreement truly succeed in its goal of extending the Iranian regime’s nuclear breakout time to well over a year, it should not have been possible for Tehran to so rapidly exceed its former development milestones, which by some estimates had already placed the regime only a few months away from nuclear weapons capability.
Of course, the success of the JCPOA’s central goal was always dependent upon the Iranian regime’s compliance. Although the International Atomic Energy Agency was meant to verify that compliance on an ongoing basis, the agreement always included limits on its mandate and its access. If nuclear-related activities had not previously been confirmed at a given site, that site was off limits to snap inspections, and Tehran was granted opportunities to dispute requests for access to sites that came under suspicion later.
Not long after the deal went into effect, the regime demonstrated that it was prepared to exploit such allowances to its fullest extent. Since 2015, at least three sites have come under suspicion of undeclared nuclear activity, and Tehran has obstructed IAEA access while refusing to provide credible information about the site in each case. Eventually, traces of nuclear material were found at all three, but only after authorities demolished buildings and undertook extensive sanitization efforts in an apparent bid to remove evidence of malign activity.
Now, concerns loom over negotiations in Vienna and lead some European policymakers to put pressure on the US to restore the status quo by rushing back to the nuclear deal that it pulled out of in 2018. But those policymakers must understand that there is very little value in that status quo since it allowed the Iranian regime to deceive its foreign adversaries while also pursuing clandestine procurement activities within their territory.
In light of these revelations, there can be no justification for returning to the JCPOA as written. The US, Britain, France, and Germany must all recognize that the prior enforcement mechanisms were not sufficient for dealing with a regime that has no interest in cooperating with its interlocutors or voluntarily restraining its own behavior. At every turn, the leadership of the Iranian regime must be compelled to change that behavior, whether by complying with specified enrichment limits or by accepting snap inspections of all suspected nuclear sites, or by halting its procurement efforts in the West.
Furthermore, as the international community reassesses its approach to the Iranian nuclear issue, it should recognize the opportunity to also compel changes in other areas including its terrorism in Europe and around the globe.
As well as describing procurement activities, the recent intelligence reports emphasize that Iranian intelligence assets are still routinely surveilling expatriate dissidents and anyone deemed a threat to the theocratic regime. Such reports are the cause of particular alarm following the February conviction in a Belgian court for Assadollah Assadi, the Iranian diplomat who led a plot to set off explosives as an expatriate gathering near Paris in 2018. Investigators confirmed that the plot originated in Tehran, and until more pressure is exerted on the regime, the underlying threat is sure to remain.