AnalysisDid Netanyahu's presentation deliver the goods?

PM’s Iran revelations unlikely to diminish global support for nuclear accord

Defenders of the deal say the Mossad’s impressive catch confirms what was already known: Iran had a secret nuclear weapons program. Signatories other than the US will be unmoved

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech on files obtained by Israel he says prove Iran lied about its nuclear program, at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, on April 30, 2018. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech on files obtained by Israel he says prove Iran lied about its nuclear program, at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, on April 30, 2018. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

Just in time for the 8 p.m. evening news, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday presented the nation — and the world — with an impressive achievement by Israel’s Mossad spy agency. Agents were able to obtain more than 100,000 files from Iran’s own archive filled with top-secret information about the regime’s past illicit nuclear weapons program.

Four hours earlier, his office heralded a statement on a “significant development regarding the nuclear agreement with Iran.” Netanyahu would deliver his speech at the Kirya, the Tel Aviv headquarter of Israel’s defense establishment, and not, as he usually does, at his Jerusalem office. His aides promised stunning revelations that would change the way the world looks at the Iran deal.

“Tonight, we’re going to show you something that the world has never seen before,” Netanyahu said at the beginning of his presentation. “Tonight, we are going to reveal new and conclusive proof of the secret nuclear weapons program that Iran has been hiding for years from the international community in its secret atomic archive.”

But did his 20-minute presentation deliver the goods?

“The information in the documents Netanyahu revealed is not new,” tweeted Dan Shapiro, who was US ambassador to Israel under president Barack Obama and is a supporter of the deal. “It confirms what we have long known. Iran had a nuclear weapons program, froze but preserved it in 2003, and continues to preserve it to restart at a time of its choosing.”

Many analysts concurred, noting that the International Atomic Energy Agency acknowledged as much years ago.

Even some Israeli officials staunchly opposed to the deal expressed a certain level of disappointment in private conversations with Netanyahu’s much-hyped presentation, having expected tangible proof that Iran is violating the accord’s terms.

Citing original Iranian documents, Netanyahu showed that Iran lied about never having had a nuclear weapons program. He also presented evidence that Iran, even after the 2015 landmark deal with six world powers, is seeking to expand its nuclear knowhow for future use. But none of this surprised the experts.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech on files obtained by Israel he says proves Iran lied about its nuclear program, at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, on April 30, 2018. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

According to the deal, Iran was obligated to come clean about its past but failed to do so, the prime minister showed. That is, strictly speaking, a violation of the deal. A grave violation, in Netanyahu’s view, but marginalized as a technicality by others. European officials, reacting to the speech, were unmoved. Unsurprisingly, so too was Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Netanyahu presented no real smoking gun regarding the period since the deal was finalized. He did not prove that Iran is violating the operative terms of the pact. He did not claim that the Iranians have resumed activity banned under the deal, such as enriching uranium to weapons-grade levels.

“The nuclear deal is based on lies. It’s based on Iranian lies and Iranian deception,” Netanyahu said, referring to the fact that leaders in Tehran have always denied — and continue to deny — ever having sought nuclear weapons.

But few people outside Iran ever disputed the existence of the Islamic Republic’s previous nuclear weapons program, know as Project Amad.

“We never denied that Iran had a secret nuclear weapons program,” a Western diplomat told The Times of Israel, reacting even as Netanyahu was still speaking.

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House on March 5, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan)

At the end of his remarks, Netanyahu appeared to indicate a hope — but not explicitly state it — that US President Donald Trump will announce that he’s quitting the deal by May 12.

“I’m sure he’ll do the right thing. The right thing for the United States, the right thing for Israel and the right thing for the peace of the world,” Netanyahu said.

The prime minister’s presentation, delivered mostly in English, might have been aimed mostly at the occupant of the White House. Netanyahu may have been worried that Trump was having second thoughts about leaving the deal. Trump’s comments, at the White House soon afterwards, were inconclusive.

Either way, the five other countries that signed the deal with Iran in 2015 — France, Britain, Germany, China and Russia — will mostly likely remain unfazed by Netanyahu’s presentation.

“All of this obviously raises some questions regarding Iran’s credibility,” the European diplomat told The Times of Israel, minutes after the prime minister had concluded his remarks. “But we made the nuclear deal precisely because we don’t trust the Iranians, not because we considered them very trustworthy.”

Representatives from world powers and Iran posing prior to the announcement of an agreement on Iran nuclear talks at the The Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, April 2, 2015. (AFP/Fabrice Coffrini)

Ilan Goldenberg, an expert on Iran at the Center for a New American Security, similarly argued that Iran’s past lies necessitated the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

“Of course Iran lied in the past about its nuclear program. That is precisely WHY we have the JCPOA which does not just take them at their word but puts in place one of the deepest, most intrusive inspections regime in history,” he tweeted.

While the fact that the Iranians had an illicit nuclear weapons program isn’t new, “there could be valuable new information in the material Netanyahu is talking about,” Goldenberg noted.

“The smart thing to do would be to go through all this intelligence [and] if there is compelling evidence of problematic behavior press Iran on it.”

Goldenberg said the information gleaned from the Mossad’s catch — Netanyahu boasted of “a half ton of material,” including 55,000 pages plus 55,000 additional files on 183 CDs — should be handed to the IAEA, which would “investigate concerns that have been raised by this information, including, if necessary, inspections of military sites or any other sites the IAEA needs access to” based on term JCPOA’s terms. (Netanyahu said he would share the material with the agency.)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showcases material he says was obtained by Israeli intelligence from Iran’s nuclear weapons archive, in Tel Aviv on April 30, 2018 (Amos Ben-Gershom (GPO)

If Iran were to refuse international inspectors access to the suspected sites, there would be global consensus for a restoration of the sanctions suspended by the deal, Goldenberg posited.

Netanyahu would doubtless argue with some of diplomats’ and analysts’ logic: How can you,and why would you, cut deals with people you don’t trust?

But five of the six countries that negotiated and signed the agreement believed, and still believe, that its verification mechanism is sufficient to ensure Iran is unable to clandestinely break out and produce enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb, at least for the duration of the accord.

The US is indeed likely to pull out of the deal next month, reinstating nuclear-related sanctions on the Islamic Republic. The Europeans, the Russians and the Chinese have already said they would not follow suit. And the early signs are that Netanyahu’s remarks on Monday have done nothing to change their minds.

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