Less than a month after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's 2012 warning to the UN General Assembly that Iran was 70 percent of the way to completing its "plans to build a nuclear weapon", Israel's intelligence service believed that Iran was "not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons".
A secret cable obtained by Al Jazeera's Investigative Unit reveals that Mossad sent a top-secret cable to South Africa on October 22, 2012, that laid out a "bottom line" assessment of Iran's nuclear work.
It appears to contradict the picture painted by Netanyahu of Tehran racing towards acquisition of a nuclear bomb.
Writing that Iran had not begun the work needed to build any kind of nuclear weapon, the Mossad cable said the Islamic Republic's scientists are "working to close gaps in areas that appear legitimate such as enrichment reactors".
Such activities, however, "will reduce the time required to produce weapons from the time the instruction is actually given".
That view tracks with the 2012 US National Intelligence estimate, which found no evidence that Iran had thus far taken a decision to use its nuclear infrastructure to build a weapon, or that it had revived efforts to research warhead design that the US said had been shelved in 2003.
Netanyahu plans to address the US Congress on March 3 and warn against the nuclear compromise currently being negotiated between Tehran and world powers.
Media reports and public comments by senior current and former officials have frequently indicated dissent from within Israel's security services over Netanyahu's alarmist messaging on Iran.
However, the document leaked to Al Jazeera makes clear that the Mossad's formal assessment of Iran's nuclear capacity and intentions differs from the scenario outlined by the prime minister at the UN.
The cable was relayed to South Africa's State Security Agency (SSA) shortly after the September 2012 address in which Netanyahu had displayed a cartoonish diagram of a bomb with a fuse, marked with a 70 percent line and another "red line" at 90 percent.
The markers represented progress milestones in Iran's uranium enrichment work. He argued that medium-enriched uranium (which Iran had begun producing, saying it was needed to fuel a research reactor producing isotopes to fight cancer) took Iran 70 percent of the distance to enriching weapons-grade material.
The Israeli prime minister told the UN General Assembly that "by next spring, by most at next summer at current enrichment rates [Iran] will have finished the medium enrichment and move on to the final stage", in which he said they would enrich uranium to weapons grade.
'Not the right way'
Earlier in 2012, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan had hinted at a disagreement with Netanyahu. In an interview in March, he warned of overstating the danger of Iran's nuclear activities and of putting Israel on a path to war with Iran.
Clayton Swisher, Al Jazeera's Director of Investigations, discusses The Spy Cables
The spy chief said it would be a "stupid idea" to attack Iran before other options were considered. "An attack on Iran before you are exploring all other approaches is not the right way," Dagan had said.
His comments would likely have been informed by his former agency's analysis reflected in the document obtained by Al Jazeera.
It reveals that in October 2012, Israel's foreign intelligence service estimated that Iran had 100 kilogrammes of uranium enriched to a level of 20 percent.
Iran expanded that stockpile over the following year, but then agreed to neutralise or destroy that material under an agreement with the US, Britain, China, Russia, France and Germany - the so-called P5+1 group.
Reports of discord between Netanyahu and the Mossad over Iran surfaced again last month amid reports - later denied - that the Israeli intelligence service had warned Washington that new US sanctions would sabotage nuclear negotiations between Iran and world powers.
Iran and the P5+1 are currently pursuing a framework pact for a permanent deal by the end of March, and a full technical agreement by the end of June. Iran insists its nuclear work is entirely for peaceful purposes; the premise of the nuclear deal currently being negotiated is to strengthen verifiable safeguards against weaponisation of nuclear material.
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Date 22 October 2012
Report no. 9342
Subject: Iran/Nuclear/Program status
1. Iran’s enrichment abilities continue to improve. The quantity of material enriched to 20& is not increasing at this stage as some is being converted to nuclear fuel for TRR. In addition, Iran is making great efforts to activate the IR40 reactor (which is expected to produce military-grade plutonium) as quickly as possible. We assess that this will not happen before mid-2014.
2. Enrichment: Activity at the Kashan and QOM sites has expanded to a limited extent only, apparently because of a lack of available centrifuges, but there has been a significant increase in the rate and efficiency of enrichment-approximately 230 kg uranium is enriched to 5% per month, and approximately 12 kg is enriched to 20% per month.
3. Iran has thus far accumulated about 5.500 kg of uranium enriched to 5% 9after about 1.500 kg were allocated for enrichment to 20%) and about 100 kg enriched to 20% (after 75 – 100 kg were converted into nuclear fuel for TRR).
4. Besides enrichment, the atomic energy organisation of Iran (AEOI) is focusing its efforts on completing the construction of the IR40 heavy water reactor in Arak, and putting it into service during 2014. Industrial production of dummy fuel for the reactor and preparations to produce nuclear fuel have begun.
5. We understand that Iran continues to improve its enrichment abilities, and is even liable to advance them significantly when the advanced IR2M or IR4 centrifuges, currently being run in in the pilot facility in Natanz, are put into service.
6. Even though Iran has accumulated enough 5% enriched uranium for several bombs, and has enriched some of it to 20%, it does not appear to be ready to enrich it to higher levels. It is allocating some of it to produce nuclear fuel for the TRR, and the amount of 20% enriched uranium is therefore not increasing.
7. We understand that Iran is making efforts to put the IR40 into operation as quickly as possible. We assess that this will not happen enough military-grade plutonium for one bomb per year, but in the absence of a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant (unknown in Iran), this pollution will not be able to be used for weapons.
8. In the area of nuclear weapons, there is continued R&D activity at SPND, under the iranian Defence Ministry, which we understand is intended for accumulating knowhow and creating an organisation framework it will be able to make use of to produce nuclear fuel, when the order is given.
9. Bottom line: Though Iran at this stage is not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons, it is working to close gaps in areas that appear legitimate such as enrichment, reactors, which will reduce the time required to produce weapons from the time the instruction is actually given.
Uranium enrichment track
10. Expansion of activity at the Nantez and QOM sites has been limited (apparently due to a lack of available centrifuges), but enrichment activity continues to expand:
A. In Iran, there are currently 10.500 centrifuges operating, as follows:
(1). About 9.000 centrifuges operate at three enrichment units in a bunker in Natanz and enrich to 5%.
(2). About 700 centrifuges operate in the above-ground pilot facility in Natanz, of which about 350 enrich to 20% and about 350 advanced centrifuges are currently running and being fed with depleted uranium.
(3). About 700 centrifuges operate in QOM and rich to 20%.
B. In addition, there are another 1.000 centrifuges installed that have not been put into operation in the fourth unit in Natanz and other cascades in QOM.
C. In Natanz: In recent months, installation has begun of centrifuges at the site. In addition, there has been an increase in enrichment to a low level, from about 170 kg a month in february to about 230 kg a month in may. This is apparently a result of stabilisation of enrichment in the third unit.
D. In QOM: No new centrifuges have been put into operation at the site since january 2012 (about 700 enriching centrifuges). Apparently installation of centrifuges at the site has been completed (about 2.800 centrifuges).
11. Iran now has about 5.500 kg of material enriched to 5% (after about 1.500 kg was allocated for 20% enrichment) and about 100 kg of material enriched to 20% (after about 75-100 kg of uranium enriched to 20% was converted into nuclear fuel to operate the research reactor in Tehran), produced at a rate of about 12 kg a month (similar to the rate of use currently made of the material to produce nuclear fuel).
12. R&D of advanced centrifuges: There has been an advanced in the stabilisation of model IR-2M, which is expected to improve the enrichment ability of the iranian centrifuges threefold. This is after it has been operated in the R&D cascade in the pilot facility in Natanz, where it appears that IR-2M is more ready than the IR-4 to start industrial production.
13. Along with the enrichment, AEOI is focusing its efforts on completing the building of the heavy water reactor in Arak (IR40) and activating it during 2014. In this context:
A. In april 2012, industrial production was begun of dummy fuel, intended for testing the reactor without a nuclear reactor. Its completion will allow Iran to start testing the reactor in 2013.
B. Iran is preparing to increase the rate of production of power required to produce nuclear fuel (UO2) and in february 2012 production of pellets began (the first stage of producing nuclear fuel). However, it seems that special equipment is missing which is necessary for beginning operation of the production line.
14. When the reactor begins operating, production of plutonium will begin at a quantity sufficient to produce one bomb a year, but there will be no use for the weapons as long as there is no nuclear fuel reprocessing plant.
15. Until 2003, there was a set nuclear program in Iran for R&D of nuclear weapons under the iranian Defence Ministry, which was called the Amad Plan. The plan was reduced following exposure of the nuclear program and concern about military attack.
16. In 2011, many scientists from the Amad Program formed an organisation called SPND, also under the auspices of the Defence Ministry. At the head of the organisation is Mohsen Fakhrizader, former head of Amad.
17. The organisation was established for the purposes of preserving the technological ability and the joint organisational framework of iranian scientists in the area of R&D of nuclear weapons, and for the purposes of retaining the skills of the scientists. This is allow renewal of the activity necessary to produce weapons immediately when the iranian leadership decides to do so.
18. Kind regards.