A group of experienced and respected nuclear experts from Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs travelled earlier this year to Israel to examine the trove of documents on Iran’s nuclear program that had been obtained via a clandestine operation. They recently published their assessment of that material in the report The Iran Nuclear Archive: Impressions and Implications, which provides a valuable fact check on claims that were made when the archive was first revealed a year ago by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Although the authors of the Belfer Center report chose not to promote a policy conclusion, we believe a policy conclusion is in fact warranted by their review: The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is needed both to ensure continuing thorough international verification of Iran’s nuclear activities, including any new information on the specifics of past Iranian nuclear weapons activities, and, vitally, to provide the tools to dissuade Iran from resuming a clandestine program that could provide weapons-usable fissile material.
The archive confirms the well-known fact that Iran had a “structured program” for nuclear weapons development through 2003, with some additional activities continuing for several years thereafter. Obviously, this was clearly understood by the Obama Administration and informed the pursuit of an international agreement to stop Iran’s march to the bomb by curbing fissile material production, the essential ingredients of a nuclear weapon. The detailed negotiations led by the United States resulted in the conclusion of the JCPOA in the summer of 2015.
The emphasis on fissile materials in the JCPOA is manifest through its significant restrictions on Iranian nuclear activity for fifteen years, and specifically a minimum “breakout time” of one year for at least ten years. The breakout time is defined as the time required to accumulate a bomb’s worth of nuclear weapons material even in the easily detected case of an all-out sprint to the bomb. When calculating the breakout timeline, no credit is taken for the additional effort needed to make a nuclear weapon – and the archive shows the wisdom of the negotiating focus on fissile materials accumulation.
Read the full report at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.