When the United States and allies struck a landmark nuclear accord with Iran in 2015, a key selling point was that it blocks Iran’s paths to building an atomic bomb. But U.S. President Donald Trump has denounced the deal, and in May 2018 he followed through on a campaign promise to pull the United States out. His administration argues the agreement allows Iran to bide its time, preserving illicit nuclear know-how until provisions of the deal sunset. “What you have,” asserts a senior administration official, is “the perfect storm for proliferation breakout.”
Hoping to derail that ambition, the departments of state and the treasury on 22 March announced sanctions on 31 entities and individuals linked to a military institute—known as the Organization for Defense Innovation and Research, or SPND—that U.S. officials allege is maintaining nuclear weapons expertise under the guise of civilian R&D. The sanctions restrict opportunities for the targeted scientists to conduct research abroad and participate in international conferences, and they would penalize any U.S. person or foreign financial institution that knowingly facilitates a “significant transaction.” And they are a shot across the bow of all scientists in Iran contemplating working with SPND. “Any association, they should understand, with SPND or its subordinate groups makes them radioactive,” the administration official says.
The list of researchers and institutes subject to the new sanctions appears to have been compiled, in part, from a trove of materials—some 55,000 pages of documents and 183 CDs—on Iran’s nuclear efforts up until 2003 that Israel says its spies spirited out of Tehran. The archive, seized during a daring nighttime heist in January 2018, is said to be from the now-defunct program, code-named Amad, to develop nuclear weapons.
Iran has dismissed the documents as forgeries. But, “They do appear to be authentic,” says Andrea Stricker, a senior policy analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security, a nuclear nonproliferation think tank in Washington, D.C., that has analyzed some of the documents.