Netanyahu's Reveal of Iranian Nuclear Archive Damaged Israel, Senior Intelligence Officials Say

Netanyahu's associates denied at the time that damage had been done, but sources familiar with the events are concerned ■ PM's Office slams 'ridiculous' claim, saying Trump noted the reveal when exiting the Iran deal

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech on Iran's nuclear program in Tel Aviv, April 30, 2018.
Ofer Vaknin

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s revelation that Israel broke into an Iranian archive of nuclear-related documents a year ago has damaged the state, senior intelligence officials said.

Netanyahu’s office, however, calls this argument “ridiculous,” saying that subsequent actions by U.S. President Donald Trump helped prove the move correct.

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“Revealing the nuclear archive gave Israel enormous strategic advantages and was noted by Trump when he withdrew from the nuclear agreement and declared sanctions on Iran,” Netanyahu’s office said. “Only recently the United States placed sanctions on the leaders of the nuclear program."

About a year ago, Netanyahu presented documents showing that Iran had sought to develop a nuclear weapon, despite its denials.

In a speech delivered against a background of shelves packed with binders, dozens of compact discs and a safe, the prime minister said that in 2017 Iran moved the documents to a secret site that looked like “a dilapidated warehouse” on the outskirts of Tehran. The goal was to hide evidence of a military nuclear program.

“Few Iranians knew where it was, very few, and also a few Israelis,” Netanyahu said, adding: “A few weeks ago, in a great intelligence achievement, Israel obtained half a ton of the material inside these vaults. And here’s what we got. Fifty-five thousand pages. Another 55,000 files on 183 CDs. Everything you’re about to see is an exact copy of the original Iranian material.”

Netanyahu called the Israeli operation one of the most important intelligence achievements in the country's history.

A senior Israeli official told The New York Times that the secret site had been under Israeli surveillance since February 2016. The official said Mossad agents broke into the site in January 2018 and smuggled the documents to Israel that night.

That month, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen visited Washington and briefed Trump on the operation. According to the official, the unveiling of the documents was delayed because time was needed to translate the Persian and provide analysis.

In response to criticism for discussing the operation publicly, Netanyahu’s associates said that no intelligence damage had been done because the Iranians had discovered the breach within hours and even launched a manhunt to find the agents while they were still in Iran.

But intelligence sources familiar with the events say that the exposure of the operation indeed caused damage.

The documents that Netanyahu revealed predate the signing of the Iranian nuclear deal in 2015. The International Atomic Energy Agency has already announced that Iran had a military nuclear program at that time. After the documents were revealed, the agency’s director general, Yukiya Amano, said there was no reliable evidence that Iranian efforts to develop a nuclear weapon continued after 2009.

Although Netanyahu did not present proof that Iran had violated the nuclear deal, he said the documents indicated that the deal was based on deception by Tehran and that the Iranians had preserved their nuclear knowledge for future use.

He said the agreement paved the way for Iran to build a complete arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Trump later declared that Netanyahu’s speech proved that his criticism of the nuclear deal was justified, and a few days later he announced Washington’s withdrawal from the agreement.