Uncovering Iran’s nuclear ambitions

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: tensions with Iran.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Iran announced last week it had breached the 2015 nuclear accord that limited its quantity of enriched uranium. President Trump pulled the United States out of that accord last year. He and others, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu, insisted Iran had already broken its side of the bargain.

REICHARD: A surprise discovery last year seemed to confirm that. WORLD senior editor Mindy Belz wrote about it in the latest edition of WORLD Magazine. She joins us now to talk about it.

Good morning, Mindy!

MINDY BELZ, REPORTER: Good morning. Mary.

REICHARD: Let’s start with the Iran Nuclear Archive. Tell us what it is and how we acquired it.

BELZ: In January of last year, that’s 2018, Israeli agents broke into a warehouse in Iran after watching it for a long time, we learned, and they discovered inside tons, literally of records documenting Iran’s nuclear program. These were records that had not been reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency as they should have been. Records that under the terms of a UN Security Council resolution and the 2015 nuclear deal and the nuclear nonproliferation treaty that keeps us all safe from atomic bombs. These were records that should have been accounted for and should have been destroyed. The Israelis found out about it. They broke into this warehouse in the dead of night, pretty dramatic, and they stole about 20 percent of the archive. That was more than 55,000 pages of material and about 180 CDs showing us a lot of things about Iran’s nuclear program we wouldn’t have known otherwise.

REICHARD: And not a lot of coverage of that in the media, as far as I know. President Trump had long threatened to pull the U.S. out of the 2015 nuclear accord. But finding the Iran Nuclear Archive pushed him to do it. Why did the rest of the world downplay this trove of information?

BELZ: Well that’s right. Just days after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally briefed Trump on the archive, Trump ended U.S. participation in the accord. But the Europeans and of course Iran had political and economic reasons for remaining in the deal, wanting to salvage it. And so to accept the evidence in the archive would undermine that. And so they have a instead sort of tried to ignore it. The IAEA, the inspection agency, has not processed data from the Iran nuclear archive. They’ve never asked Iranian officials to secure the warehouse to inspect the rest of its contents. And to date, the agency has not even used any of the information that Israel has now made public. So it’s kind of odd. And former inspectors that I spoke to told me that this is really outside of normal protocol, that the usual procedure upon discovery of new material would be to investigate what it shows about Iran’s nuclear capability.

REICHARD: But former IAEA inspectors view this information quite differently. Tell us what they say about it.

BELZ: Yeah. So in contrast to the official response, um, the experts are coming forward to expose and to detail for the rest of us what are the concerns that we should have. One of them that I spoke to is uh, actually the former second in command at the IAEA and was the deputy director general in charge of nuclear inspect inspections. His name is Ali Hienonen. And he told me that he kept waiting, hoping that the agency would follow standard procedure.

And when it didn’t, he gave a public presentation of his assessment of the findings in May of this year, which coincidentally is just before we began seeing this latest escalation in tensions and attacks by Iran in the Gulf of Oman and Strait of Hormuz. The experts concerns in a nutshell are these: that the archive shows Iran with a much greater capacity for producing a nuclear weapon even as far back as 2002. Second that Iran had sites it had not disclosed. And third, and most importantly, that Iran actually is capable of producing fissile material for one nuclear device in six to eight months.

REICHARD: Six to eight months? That’s not very long.

BELZ: That’s right, Mary. And with the news this month that Iran is again, both stockpiling additional uranium and enriching uranium, that clock is ticking. We think we have a crisis now, but by Christmas we could have a much more serious crisis.

REICHARD: And yet, despite Iran’s now admitted violations of the agreement, some of the experts you spoke to still think the U.S. decision to pull out was a mistake. Why is that?

BELZ: Well, clearly the agreement was flawed and they say it should be renegotiated. But they also say that President Trump essentially traded away perhaps the best way of bringing Iran again to the table. After all these are nuclear weapons we’re talking about. We don’t have a lot of margin here. And that he could pressure for renewed inspections, inspections of the new sites. But by being the first to walk away, he basically ended his chances of doing that. I think it helps to understand the intricacies of the nuclear enrichment process. And we get into that in the story in WORLD Magazine. Because what we see is that the components that go into building a nuclear weapons program can be dispersed and hidden. They can be camouflaged has other things. And the archive teaches us this. In other words, we don’t know what we don’t know. And the nuclear deal at least provided some sort of base structure for knowing more.

REICHARD: Mindy Belz covers international affairs as WORLD’s senior editor. Mindy, thanks so much for joining us today.

BELZ: You’re welcome, Mary.

(AP Photo/Ronald Zak) The Iranian flag waves outside of the UN building that hosts the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, office inside in Vienna, Austria, Wednesday, July 10, 2019. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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