Israel has been releasing more details on the thousands if Iranian documents Israeli agents seized and transported from Iran to Israel earlier this year. The continuing release of details is the result of ongoing work to translate the many documents and decipher the many technical documents. Then there is the need to keep quiet about Israeli intelligence contacts and capabilities inside Iran. But as it becomes safer to discuss that, the Israelis are doing too. This is part of a plan to expose weaknesses of the Iranian religious dictatorship to an increasingly angry (at the dictatorship) Iranian people.
On May 1st Israel went public about the January 31 Mossad operation that got half a ton of top-secret Iranian nuclear weapons program documents out of Iran and back to Israel in less than 24 hours. Israel quickly sent a senior intel official to the United States to brief the American president about the operation and arrange for the Americans to get details as quickly as the documents could be translated. That process is still underway. Although Israel has many intel specialists who can read Farsi (the Iranian language) the extent of the nuclear archive and its degree of technical detail required an extensive number of documents to be translated (to Hebrew and English) so more technical experts could examine the archive and determine the scientific implications. The Americans received a steady flow of the translated documents and by March the U.S. decided that Iran had violated the 2015 treaty it had signed, pledging to halt all work on the nuclear weapons program Iran always insisted never existed. Israel went public with the Mossad operation in May in part to make it politically and diplomatically easier for the U.S. to withdraw from the 2015 treaty. The other five nations that signed the 2015 treaty have, so far, refused to consider Iran in violation of the treaty terms. Despite that intel and military officials in some of these five nations disagree with the decision by their political leaders and continue to brief their bosses as more details come out. Unless some of these other five nations hold Iran accountable there will be no action from the UN which, by terms of the treaty, can still inspect some Iranian facilities.
Israel still has eyes in Iran (not to mention their own spy satellites) and regularly reports to the IAEA (the UN nuclear weapons inspection agency) details of how Iran is trying to disperse nuclear material and weapons related equipment detailed in the Mossad documents. Israel also suspects that Iran already has all the components for several weapons, but none of these bomb designs have been tested yet.
Since May more details have been released, apparently, as many as Mossad feels can be safely revealed without exposing intel techniques and sources in Iran that the Iranians don’t know about. Early on it was revealed that Mossad discovered the location of the warehouse containing the Iranian nuclear archive in early 2016 and by 2017 had put into motion a plan to get into the warehouse and copy key documents and get the information back to Israel. As soon as the warehouse was found it was put under an increasing degree of surveillance in an effort to find out exactly what was in there (32 massive safes and it took a while to find out which one contained the nuclear documents). While this was going on conditions were changing in Iran. There were more public demonstrations against corruption and government incompetence. The extent of these new attitudes became clear after news of the Mossad operation were made public. Most Iranians didn’t care about the document theft. No Iranians were injured in the operation to the average Iranian it was another example of their governments’ incompetence.
Once inside the Mossad agents found far more documents than expected in the “nuclear safe” and were ordered to take 55,000 pages of paper documents and 183 CDs of containing over 50,000 files full of more data (including photos, engineering plans and so on) and get it back to Israel. The extent of the nuclear archive and the fact that many items appeared recent indicated that there was more in that safe than anyone expected. The extent of the information Mossad was able to obtain about the warehouse and the fact that the two Mossad vehicles carrying the documents were able to make it 500 kilometers to the Azerbaijan border without getting caught made it clear that attitudes had changed in Iran. The police discovered the warehouse break-in shortly after the Mossad agents and their two vehicles left. Iran then alerted over 12,000 security personnel to quietly chase down the perpetrators. The Iranians did not know the Israelis were headed for Azerbaijan, where a plane was waiting to get the documents back to Israel immediately.
The operation in general and the escape was made possible by the widespread corruption in Iran and popular anger at an Iranian religious dictatorship that seemed to care more about destroying Israel than improving the lives of Iranians. When news of the Mossad operation were made public by the Israelis at the end of April the public opinion polls in Iran showed that most Iranians didn’t care and those that paid any attention to the matter felt it was just another example of how incompetent their government was and why change was needed. The Iranian government was justifiably concerned that publicizing these documents, as Israel began doing in May, would lead to the cancellation of the 2015 treaty that lifted sanctions on Iran. The American president did just that on May 12th and the continued disclosures make it more obvious that Iran carried out a massive scam to hide what it was doing. The stolen documents show that the nuclear program did exist and was underway disguised as many different scientific research projects.
The stolen documents detail how Iran had an active nuclear weapons program called AMAD from 1998 until 2003 but suspended it in early 2003 when the Saddam government was overthrown. The Iranian nuclear program was expensive and existed mainly because Saddam had convinced Iran that the Iraqi nuclear program was continuing in secret (because of UN sanctions). Once Saddam was out of power, and especially after he was captured and eventually admitted that the Iraqi nuclear program didn’t really exist. Saddam kept enough of the defunct nuclear program around to scare the Iranians. Once Saddam was out of power the Iranian government found their program hard to justify.
That cancellation of the AMAD program was never completed because by the end of 2003 Iran changed its mind and converted AMAD into the stealthier SFAND program. This was a major deception because part of this AMAD/SFAND conversion involved going public with most aspects of the AMAD program that could be passed off as non-weapons related nuclear research. The weapons aspects went deep undercover and often literally deep underground. Iran (unofficially) and many Western politicians and intel officials (officially) insist that the archive only shows that the Iranians were trying to preserve the work they had done during the AMAD program and SDAND was merely an effort to keep AMAD updated. Israel disagrees and as more documents are translated and scrutinized the Israelis appear to be right.
Iran always insisted that it never had a nuclear weapons program even though the Israelis had uncovered much evidence that the program existed and the attitude of most Iranians was that the program existed and why not because Iran had long been the regional superpower and should have nukes. But since the 2015 treaty went into effect the promised economic improvements for most Iranians have not happened and at the end of 2017 that triggered widespread public protests against the religious dictatorship. The Shia clerics who run the government have been arguing openly about how to deal with these problems and now the hardline Shia clerics, who insist that destroying Israel be the main priority of Iran, are humiliated by the nuclear documents theft going public. Some of the hardliners want to do whatever it takes to strike back at Israel but most Iranians see Israel as an unofficial ally in the popular effort to get rid of the religious dictatorship in Iran. This is nothing new. In the wake of the American-British invasion of Iraq in 2003, and quick (three weeks) overthrow of the Saddam Hussein government, many Iranians openly called for the Americans to come invade Iran and get rid of the religious dictatorship that had been ruling Iran since the 1980s on the promise they would one day “get Saddam” for invading Iran in 1980 and starting a war that neither side was able to win. That counted as an Iranian defeat to most Iranians and to make matters worse the chaos of the war allowed Shia clerics to take, and keep, control of the government. Before that Israel and Iran were allies and a growing number of Iranians see that as a better arrangement than the current one. All this gives little comfort, and not many options, for the Iranian leadership.
That also means less of everything, including military power and the ability to keep secrets. The IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) and police discovered this as they investigated the Israeli theft of the Iranian nuclear weapons archive earlier this year. Officially Iran denies this document theft ever happened. In reality, the government and IRGC leaders were furious and demanded answers. The investigation found or rediscovered, that many Iranians are willing to take a bribe to provide information to just about anyone (including Israeli secret agents) and cooperate in other ways. For example, the Israelis had to discover exactly what types of safes were in the warehouse so they could gather personnel and tools needed to break in the one holding the nuclear documents. The Israelis had to know which of the 32 massive safes they had to get into and how long that would take. Details of the warehouse security system had to be determined so it could be disabled. This Israeli document heist was an operation the Iranians never considered possible. Now Iran had to review security measures used for many other secretive facilities. The Israelis demonstrated that the archive heist was not an exceptional undertaking. It could happen again and, given the current widespread anger towards the government, it would probably be easier and cheaper.