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President Donald Trump scrapped the nuclear deal with Iran and continued to risk war with Iran based on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim to have proven definitively that Iran was determined to manufacture nuclear weapons. Netanyahu not only spun Trump but much of the corporate media as well, duping them with the public unveiling of what he claimed was the entire secret Iranian “nuclear archive.”
In early April 2018, Netanyahu briefed Trump privately on the supposed Iranian nuclear archive and secured his promise to leave the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). That April 30, Netanyahu took the briefing to the public in a characteristically dramatic live performance in which he claimed Israel’s Mossad intelligence services had stolen Iran’s entire nuclear archive from Tehran. “You may well know that Iran’s leaders repeatedly deny ever pursuing nuclear weapons…” Netanyahu declared. “Well, tonight, I’m here to tell you one thing: Iran lied. Big time.”
However, an investigation of the supposed Iranian nuclear documents by The Grayzone reveals them to be the product of an Israeli disinformation operation that helped trigger the most serious threat of war since the conflict with Iran began nearly four decades ago. This investigation found multiple indications that the story of Mossad’s heist of 50,000 pages of secret nuclear files from Tehran was very likely an elaborate fiction and that the documents were fabricated by the Mossad itself.
According to the official Israeli version of events, the Iranians had gathered the nuclear documents from various locations and moved them to what Netanyahu himself described as “a dilapidated warehouse” in southern Tehran. Even assuming that Iran had secret documents demonstrating the development of nuclear weapons, the claim that top secret documents would be held in a nondescript and unguarded warehouse in Central Tehran is so unlikely that it should have raised immediate alarm bells about the story’s legitimacy.
Even more problematic was the claim by a Mossad official to Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman that Mossad knew not only in what warehouse its commandos would find the documents but precisely which safes to break into with a blowtorch. The official told Bergman the Mossad team had been guided by an intelligence asset to the few safes in the warehouse contained the binders with the most important documents. Netanyahu bragged publicly that “very few” Iranians knew the location of the archive; the Mossad official told Bergman “only a handful of people” knew.
But two former senior CIA official, both of whom had served as the agency’s top Middle East analyst, dismissed Netanyahu’s claims as lacking credibility in responses to a query from The Grayzone.
According to Paul Pillar, who was National Intelligence Officer for the region from 2001 to 2005, “Any source on the inside of the Iranian national security apparatus would be extremely valuable in Israeli eyes, and Israeli deliberations about the handling of that source’s information presumably would be biased in favor long-term protection of the source.” The Israeli story of how its spies located the documents “does seem fishy,” Pillar said, especially considering Israel’s obvious effort to derive maximum “political-diplomatic mileage” out of the “supposed revelation” of such a well-placed source.
Graham Fuller, a 27-year veteran of the CIA who served as National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia as well as Vice-Chairman of the National Intelligence Council, offered a similar assessment of the Israeli claim. “If the Israelis had such a sensitive source in Tehran,” Fuller commented, “they would not want to risk him.” Fuller concluded that the Israelis’ claim that they had accurate knowledge of which safes to crack is “dubious, and the whole thing may be somewhat fabricated.”
No proof of authenticity
Netanyahu’s April 30 slide show presented a series of purported Iranian documents containing sensational revelations that he pointed to as proof of his insistence that Iran had lied about its interest in manufacturing nuclear weapons. The visual aides included a file supposedly dating back to early 2000 or before that detailed various ways to achieve a plan to build five nuclear weapons by mid-2003.
Another document that generated widespread media interest was an alleged report on a discussion among leading Iranian scientists of a purported mid-2003 decision by Iran’s Defense Minister to separate an existing secret nuclear weapons program into overt and covert parts.
Left out of the media coverage of these “nuclear archive” documents was a simple fact that was highly inconvenient to Netanyahu: nothing about them offered a scintilla of evidence that they were genuine. For example, not one contained the official markings of the relevant Iranian agency.
Tariq Rauf, who was head of the Verification and Security Policy Coordination Office at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from 2001 to 2011, told The Grayzone that these markings were practically ubiquitous on official Iranian files.
“Iran is a highly bureaucratized system,” Rauf explained. “Hence, one would expect a proper book-keeping system that would record incoming correspondence, with date received, action officer, department, circulation to additional relevant officials, proper letterhead, etc.”
But as Rauf noted, the “nuclear archive” documents that were published by the Washington Post bore no such evidence of Iranian government origin. Nor did they contain other markings to indicate their creation under the auspices of an Iranian government agency.
What those documents do have in common is the mark of a rubber stamp for a filing system showing numbers for a “record”, a “file” and a “ledger binder” — like the black binders that Netanyahu flashed to the cameras during his slideshow. But these could have easily been created by the Mossad and stamped on to the documents along with the appropriate Persian numbers.
Forensic confirmation of the documents’ authenticity would have required access to the original documents. But as Netanyahu noted in his April 30, 2018 slide show, the “original Iranian materials” were kept “in a very safe place” – implying that no one would be allowed to have any such access.
Withholding access to outside experts
In fact, even the most pro-Israeli visitors to Tel Aviv have been denied access to the original documents. David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security and Olli Heinonen of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies – both stalwart defenders of the official Israeli line on Iranian nuclear policy – reported in October 2018 that they had been given only a “slide deck” showing reproductions or excerpts of the documents.
When a team of six specialists from Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs visited Israel in January 2019 for briefings on the archive, they too were offered only a cursory browse of the supposedly original documents. Harvard Professor Matthew Bunn recalled in an interview with this writer that the team had been shown one of the binders containing what were said to be original documents relating to Iran’s relations with the IAEA and had “paged through a bit of it.”
But they were shown no documents on Iran nuclear weapons work. As Bunn admitted, “We weren’t attempting to do any forensic analysis of these documents.”
Typically, it would be the job of the U.S. government and the IAEA to authenticate the documents. Oddly, the Belfer Center delegation reported that the U.S. government and the IAEA had each received only copies of the entire archive, not the original files. And the Israelis were in no hurry to provide the genuine articles: the IAEA did not receive a complete set of documents until November 2019, according to Bunn.
By then, Netanyahu had not only already accomplished the demolition of the Iran nuclear deal; he and Trump’s ferociously hawkish CIA-director Mike Pompeo had maneuvered the president into a policy of imminent confrontation with Tehran.
The second coming of fake missile drawings
Among the documents Netanyahu flashed on the screen in his April 30, 2018 slide show was a schematic drawing of the missile reentry vehicle of an Iranian Shahab-3 missile, showing what was obviously supposed to represent a nuclear weapon inside.
This drawing was part of a set of eighteen technical drawings of the Shahab-3 reentry vehicle. These were found in a collection of documents secured over the course of several years between the Bush II and Obama administrations by an Iranian spy working for Germany’s BND intelligence service. Or so the Israeli official story went.
In 2013, however, a former senior German Foreign Office official named Karsten Voigt revealed to this writer that the documents had been initially provided to German intelligence by a member of the Mujaheddin E-Khalq (MEK).
The MEK is an exiled Iranian armed opposition organization that had operated under Saddam Hussein’s regime as a proxy against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. It went on to cooperate with the Israeli Mossad beginning in the 1990s, and enjoys a close relationship with Saudi Arabia as well. Today, numerous former US officials are on the MEK’s payroll, acting as de facto lobbyists for regime change in Iran.
Voigt recalled how senior BND officials warned him they did not consider the MEK source or the materials he provided to be credible. They were worried that the Bush administration intended to use the dodgy documents to justify an attack on Iran, just as it exploited the tall tales collected from Iraqi defector codenamed “Curveball” to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
As this writer first reported in 2010, the appearance of the “dunce-cap” shape of the Shahab-3 reentry vehicle in the drawings was a tell-tale sign that the documents were fabricated. Whoever drew those schematic images in 2003 was clearly under the false impression that Iran was relying on the Shahab-3 as its main deterrent force. After all, Iran had announced publicly in 2001 that the Shahab-3 was going into “serial production” and in 2003 that it was “operational.”
But those official claims by Iran were a ruse aimed primarily at deceiving Israel, which had threatened air attacks on Iran’s nuclear and missile programs. In fact, Iran’s Defense Ministry was aware that the Shahab-3 did not have sufficient range to reach Israel.
According to Michael Elleman, the author of the most definitive account of the Iranian missile program, as early as 2000, Iran’s Defense Ministry had begun developing an improved version of the Shahab-3 with a reentry vehicle boasting a far more aerodynamic “triconic baby bottle” shape – not the “dunce-cap” of the original.
As Elleman told this writer, however, foreign intelligence agencies remained unaware of the new and improved Shahab missile with a very different shape until it took its first flight test in August 2004. Among the agencies kept in the dark about the new design was Israel’s Mossad. That explains why the false documents on redesigning the Shahab-3 – the earliest dates of which were in 2002, according to an unpublished internal IAEA document – showed a reentry vehicle design that Iran had already discarded.
The role of the MEK in passing the massive tranche of supposed secret Iranian nuclear documents to the BND and its hand-in-glove relationship with the Mossad leaves little room for doubt that the documents introduced to Western intelligence 2004 were, in fact, created by the Mossad.
For the Mossad, the MEK was a convenient unit for outsourcing negative press about Iran which it did not want attributed directly to Israeli intelligence. To enhance the MEK’S credibility in the eyes foreign media and intelligence agencies, Mossad passed the coordinates of Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility to the MEK in 2002. Later, it provided to the MEK personal information such as the passport number and home telephone number of Iranian physics professor Mohsen Fakhrizadh, whose name appeared in the nuclear documents, according to the co-authors of a best-selling Israeli book on the Mossad’s covert operations.
By trotting out the same discredited technical drawing depicting the wrong Iranian missile reentry vehicle – a trick he had previously deployed to create the original case for accusing Iran of covert nuclear weapons development – the Israeli prime minister showed how confident he was in his ability to hoodwink Washington and the Western corporate media.
Netanyahu’s multiple levels of deception have been remarkably successful, despite having relied on crude stunts that any diligent news organization should have seen through. Through his manipulation of foreign governments and media, he has been able to maneuver Donald Trump and the United States into a dangerous process of confrontation that has brought the US to the precipice of military conflict with Iran.
Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist who has covered national security policy since 2005 and was the recipient of Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 2012. His most recent book is The CIA Insider’s Guide to the Iran Crisis co-authored with John Kiriakou, just published in February.