Israel’s Teheran heist behind Trump-Putin agreement on Syria?

Photographs that Israeli officials said were stolen from Iran’s nuclear archive, and which were provided by the Israeli government, appear to show a giant metal chamber in a building at the Parchin military site built to conduct high-explosive expe
Photographs that Israeli officials said were stolen from Iran’s nuclear archive, and which were provided by the Israeli government, appear to show a giant metal chamber in a building at the Parchin military site built to conduct high-explosive experiments. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Mossad’s theft of Iranian nuke archive meant to derail JCPOA

US President Donald Trump said at this week’s joint press conference in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin: “We both would like to do certain things with Syria having to do with the safety of Israel. Russia and the United States will work jointly.”

Mr Putin added that all conditions were in place for effective cooperation on Syria, mentioning specifically an armistice agreement with Israel that establishes a demilitarised zone on Israel’s borders.

This consensus could in part have been brought about by pressure resulting from exclusive disclosures provided by Israel’s intelligence agency to three American journalists on the dramatic way in which the Mossad stole Iran’s secret nuclear archive six months ago.

The revelations and timing of their publication – just before the summit – appear to be part of a campaign to advance some of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strategic goals.

At 10.30pm on Jan 31, Mossad agents started their mission to steal Iran’s nuclear secrets. They knew they had to stick to the schedule they had practised for months.

Their lives depended on it.

In less than eight hours after they began cracking dozens of safes, the morning shift guards would arrive at the old warehouse in Teheran’s Shorabad district. If they sounded the alarm, that would trigger a manhunt by tens of thousands of Iranian soldiers, policemen and intelligence agents to prevent the Israeli spies from smuggling their finds out of the country. Anyone caught would face torture and death.

Therefore the agents had orders to leave the site within 6 hours and 29 minutes – before 5am – to get a headstart in any chase – enough time to capture important secrets about Iran’s nuclear programme.

These are some of the details Israel’s intelligence agencies leaked, reported by The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, which shed new light on one of Israel’s most dramatic foreign intelligence missions.

The very meeting between Mossad officials and the US reporters, held at the initiative of the Israelis, was unusual. Israel’s spies are known for being extremely secretive. In divulging precious details, the intelligence officers pursued a higher objective.

As in most cases when it volunteers information, intriguing bits of knowledge are supposed to serve as a bait to reporters, to compel them to write things Israel actually wants the world to know. This time, it was the content of Iran’s secret vaults.

The first strategic goal of Israel appears to be the annulment of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear agreement which the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – the US, Britain, France, China and Russia – in addition to Germany signed with Iran in 2015. Mr Netanyahu views it as a fatal error.

It may prevent Teheran from building one nuclear bomb now, but will pave the way for it to build many nuclear bombs in the long run, Mr Netanyahu said recently. The US withdrew from the agreement in May, but European nations are trying to keep it alive. The booty from Iran is supposed to make them reassess their stance.

Israel claims it has acquired Iran’s secret nuclear archive, founded after the JCPOA was signed in 2015. The Israelis said Teheran, beginning that year, began to collect all the documents, photos, data carriers and laboratory records from the Amad project – Iran’s clandestine nuclear programme – in one place.

The Mossad assumes that the ayatollahs strove to prevent incriminating material from falling into the hands of inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency. More importantly, they sought to preserve critical knowledge about the construction of nuclear bombs, to use it at a time of their choosing.

For this purpose, they selected the inconspicuous Teheran warehouse, but the regime miscalculated the depth of Israel’s reach. The Mossad monitored the warehouse for about a year, observing the guards and analysing the alarm systems.

Its spies found out exactly what information was stored in which of the 32 safes inside the building.

Mossad chief Yossi Cohen decided not to copy the files but to steal them – to save time and help convince other states of the authenticity of Israel’s findings.

On Jan 31, electronics experts hijacked the alarm and security cameras on-site. Then, two dozen agents melted the doors of the safes and got away with hundreds of files containing 50,000 pages of secret documents and 163 CDs with videos, photos, plans.

Many of the details the raid showed were already known. But the Mossad also presented new photos and documents, indicating that Iran was far more advanced in its efforts to build a nuclear bomb than previously thought.

It showed documents proving that Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, thought to be a pragmatist, was part of the Council for Advanced Technologies that created the Amad project, painting him as an insider of Iran’s nuclear efforts. The documents also suggest that Amad was never truly aborted in 2003, only renamed.

Photographs show a test chamber from Parchin for testing the ignition of nuclear warheads. The finds also document many other parts of the nuclear programme Iran never acknowledged and was forbidden to pursue.

The mere fact that the Iranians withheld information from the Atomic Energy Authority and continued to preserve forbidden knowledge is – in Israeli eyes – a breach of the JCPOA. They hope this will strengthen Mr Netanyahu’s demand for Europe to renegotiate the agreement.

Israel’s second strategic goal is to discredit the Iranians and influence the results of the summit.

Russia and the US planned to discuss the future of Syria in Helsinki. Israel needs the support of both superpowers to keep Iran off its northern border. Iran, one of the main allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad, is building up its military in Syria to threaten Israel directly. Releasing compromising information about Iran’s breach of the JCPOA was Israel’s attempt to help keep its arch-enemy as far from its borders as possible.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 19, 2018, with the headline 'Israel’s Teheran heist behind Trump-Putin agreement on Syria?'. Print Edition | Subscribe