Bret Stephens: What was Iran hiding in Turquz Abad?

(Ronald Zak | AP Photo) Iran's Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, Gharib Abadi speaks to the media after the IAEA board of governors meeting at the International Center in Vienna, Austria, Wednesday, July 10, 2019.

Reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency don’t usually make for riveting reading, so you may have missed last Friday’s latest, soporifically headlined “Verification and monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in light of United Nations Security Council resolution 2231 (2015).”

Don’t be fooled. Buried in the report are two oblique sentences hinting at a mystery about which you may soon hear a great deal.

“Ongoing interactions between the Agency and Iran relating to Iran’s implementation of its Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol require full and timely cooperation by Iran,” the report says. “The Agency continues to pursue this objective with Iran.”

That’s an exquisite way of saying that Iran is stonewalling the agency. The question is, over what?

Last September, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly that Iran had a “secret atomic warehouse for storing massive amounts of equipment and material from Iran’s secret nuclear weapons program.” Those amounts added up to an estimated 300 tons of stuff, including about 30 pounds of radioactive material. He then urged IAEA chief Yukiya Amano to “inspect this atomic warehouse immediately.”

The warehouse, which Iran said was a carpet-cleaning facility, is on the outskirts of Tehran in a village called Turquz Abad. Commercial satellite photography purchased by the Washington-based, nonpartisan Institute for Science and International Security shows the site being gradually emptied of multiple large containers between July and September of 2018, following Israel’s heist earlier that year of a huge cache of Iranian nuclear documents.

As for the IAEA, the agency only got around to inspecting the site earlier this year, long after the suspicious materials had vanished, and Amano died in July. But nuclear inspectors were nonetheless able to detect radioactive particles, corroborating Israeli claims about the purpose of the warehouse. On Monday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Iran is now refusing to answer the agency’s questions about just what material was stored at the warehouse — and, more importantly, where it might be now.

So what’s new?

Some defenders of the 2015 nuclear deal are prone to answer: Not a lot. Traces of radioactive material may be the residue of Iran’s old nuclear-weapons program, which is generally thought to have been shuttered around 2003. Tehran has always been notoriously recalcitrant when it comes to responding to the IAEA. And after the Iraq WMD debacle, it’s wise to avoid drawing stark conclusions from incomplete and possibly false nuclear evidence.

Then again, the history of nuclear inspections has more false negatives than it does false positives, including the agency’s past failures to find Iran’s secret nuclear facilities in Natanz and Arak. Its unwillingness to follow up promptly and effectively on Israel’s allegations about Turquz Abad, along with its reluctance to disclose what it found, inspire little confidence in the quality of its inspections and even less in its willingness to call out cheating.

As for Iran, hiding nuclear materials is a violation of its basic reporting obligations to the IAEA. It’s also further evidence that Tehran was in violation of the nuclear deal from the moment it was signed. “If Iranians aren’t cooperating, it tells you that potentially they are hiding more,” notes the Institute for Science and International Security president, David Albright, adding that the Turquz Abad findings are “a big deal.”

Especially this week. On Wednesday, Iran indicated that it would take further incremental steps to openly breach the nuclear deal, partly as an effort to get Europe to extend an economic lifeline, and partly as an opening gambit in a new round of negotiations with the United States — something Donald Trump keeps saying he’s open to.

That is bound to spark fears in Jerusalem that the administration will pull the same 180-degree policy turn with Iran as it did with North Korea, sharply constraining Israel’s potential military options while negotiations take place. So it’s notable that Netanyahu made a snap decision to meet Thursday with new the U.S. defense secretary, Mark Esper, in London to discuss “Israel’s security needs.”

That could be a political stunt connected to Israel’s upcoming elections. Or it might concern Israel’s expanding bombing campaign against Iranian military targets in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Or, more likely, both.

But the question of what Iran might have been storing in that warehouse, where it is now, what else it might be hiding, and what that all suggests about Iran’s “breakout time” — that is, the speed with which it could race to a bomb — is sure to be under discussion. Netanyahu has been thwarted before, both by his own generals and the Obama administration, from conducting a strike on Iran’s nuclear sites. Yet the desire on his part is clearly there, the diplomatic window is still open, and Israel’s air force is more capable now than it was in 2012. Nobody should rule out the possibility of an Israeli surprise.

Many readers of this column, Iran watchers and proliferation experts especially, no doubt fear the possibility. If they’re serious about averting it, they could play a helpful part by demanding more credible inspections and honest reporting from the IAEA, starting with a thorough accounting for what went mysteriously missing from Turquz Abad.