Breaking Up and Reorienting Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Program

October 29, 2018

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear


David Albright, Olli Heinonen, and Andrea Stricker


Institute for Science and International Security

New documentation seized by Israel from the Iranian “Nuclear Archive” shows that in mid-2003, Iran was making decisions about how to decentralize and disperse the elements of its nuclear weaponization program, the AMAD program and its subsidiary Project 110, which included nuclear warhead development. The archive shows that the AMAD program intended to build five nuclear warhead systems for missile delivery and possible use in preparation for an underground nuclear test; an actual test would require a decision to proceed. The program was also partially designed to have its own independent uranium mining, conversion, and enrichment resources. The documentation indicates that Iran’s nuclear weaponization efforts did not stop after 2003, following a so-called “halt order.”

To conduct this assessment of the evolution of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the Institute obtained vital archive documentation from the media and during interviews with senior Israeli intelligence officials familiar with the archive. In this report, we assess and compare new information with other public documents and information. The archive documentation shows that rather than halting its nuclear weaponization work, Iran was carrying out an elaborate effort to break the AMAD program into covert and overt parts, where the overt parts would be centered at research institutes and universities, and any effort that could not be plausibly denied as civilian in nature was left as a covert activity. The weaponization program carried on in a more research-oriented fashion after 2003, aimed at eliminating scientific and engineering bottlenecks in developing nuclear weapons, increasing know-how about them, and maintaining valuable expertise. A key criterion for whether a program could be considered covert or overt was whether it involved handling of nuclear material leaving traces of radioactive contamination, presumably that which could be detected by international nuclear inspectors or foreign intelligence services. In addition, work was judged on whether it could be explained as a peaceful application, e.g. it allowed Iran to disguise a nuclear weapons effort as a carefully sculpted civilian nuclear activity or non-nuclear military activity. Iran also focused on the portability of sensitive work, or ease of moving it quickly if needed. The most recent name of the nuclear weapons program that evolved from the AMAD program is known by the acronym SPND (Sazman-e Pazhouhesh-haye Novin-e Defa’ei), or Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research, in English, according to Israel and reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The United States incorrectly assessed with high confidence in a 2007 declassified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that “in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” Based on the information in the archives, Iran’s nuclear weapons program continued after 2003 in this more limited, dispersed fashion. Moreover, the 2007 NIE also incorrectly asserted that Iran had not re-started its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007, albeit with only moderate confidence. It should be noted that the term “moderate confidence” demonstrates the limitations of intelligence information. However, there is no evidence that the program was ever fully halted, even up to today.

The information in the archive evaluated so far does not answer the question of what the current status of Iran’s nuclear weapons program is. The archive’s existence and its careful maintenance strongly support that Iran at least wants to remain ready to build nuclear weapons, despite the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It is sobering that the question of whether Iran’s nuclear weapons program was truly halted was not settled by the time the JCPOA was implemented in early 2016. At the time, most deal advocates argued that the “absence of evidence is evidence of absence,” or even that intelligence communities had a sound enough understanding of how far Iran had gone in nuclear weapons development, so it did not matter that a full IAEA accounting and investigation would not be done. This was a mistake, as the archives are now revealing – the United States overstated the fulsomeness of what it knew at the time of the conclusion of the JCPOA. Today, there is only partial implementation of the key verification arrangements in the JCPOA aimed at limiting Iran’s nuclear weapons work, and progress on this issue is expected to remain slow at best. Moreover, the IAEA, under its safeguards agreement with Iran, has remained, inter alia, due to the lack of support from the P5+1 and its own governing bodies, unable to access relevant military sites or personnel associated with potential on-going or past nuclear weapons work. Almost three years after the implementation of the JCPOA, and with its fate at issue, there is insufficient information to settle the question of the status of Iran’s on-going work on nuclear weapons. This together with the sunset provisions in the JCPOA, and lack of any credible verification of the status and monitoring of its ballistic and cruise missile program, have kept open a pathway for Iran’s nuclear weapons capability.


Read the full report at the Institute for Science and International Security.