In 2012, during the negotiations that ultimately led to the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu memorably addressed the United Nations in front of a drawing of a bomb that looked straight out of Looney Toons. Rather than provoking alarm, it mostly inspired ridicule, and Netanyahu failed to prevent Iran and the P5+1 countries (the United States, China, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom, plus Germany) from reaching an accord.
This week, Netanyahu’s public diplomacy innovation continued when he served as the host of a live, English-language presentation that purported to reveal new and damning information about Iran’s conduct both before and since those negotiations. Netanyahu’s pitch included theatrical curtain reveals of incriminating documents and a pithy tagline repeatedly displayed behind him in letters nearly as tall as the PM himself: “Iran lied.” Netanyahu concluded the segment with a list of four takeaways that he wants his viewers (or perhaps a certain viewer in the White House) to remember, and they warrant some scrutiny.
1. “Iran lied about never having a nuclear weapon’s program.”
This is true, but it isn’t new information. All parties, including the Americans and Europeans, knew Iran’s claim that its nuclear program was purely civilian was a lie. If they believed that Iran had never possessed a weapons program or nuclear weapons ambitions, why would they need a deal to restrict Iran’s capacity for uranium enrichment?
2. “Even after the deal, Iran continued to preserve and expand its nuclear weapons knowhow for future use.”
Netanyahu’s trove of Iranian documents, if real, prove that this is true. But again, rather than undermining our understanding of Iran’s strategy, they would only confirm it. Ideally, Iran would likely want to have a developed nuclear weapons program that does not actually build or test nuclear weapons, as they would serve as a deterrent in dealings with its regional rivals (Saudi Arabia and Israel), while allowing it to continue to deny being a nuclear state and avoid the opprobrium associated with abandoning the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It was willing to accept a significantly longer breakout time (one year, instead of the three months it had likely already achieved) in exchange for sanctions relief. Given that the U.S. appears close to reneging on the deal and reimposing sanctions—and given that the deal did not require Iran to destroy its prior research—preserving the ability to resume its nuclear program in the event of American withdrawal from the agreement seems strategically obvious, not incendiary.
3. “Iran lied again in 2015 when it didn’t come clean to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as required by the nuclear deal.”
Like the first two charges, this is possibly true but definitely not revelatory. The IAEA itself reported in 2015 that Iran had not been truthful about its weapons program. But in the same report, it also concluded that Iran was still complying with the terms of the agreement. In fact, all of the examples of weapons development that Netanyahu implies were uncovered by this intelligence operation have been public knowledge for years. Netanyahu, who likely would have preferred a stronger statement like, “Iran violated the agreement by lying about its weapons program,”seems to have been unable to find any evidence in those reams of documents to support it.
4. “The nuclear deal is based on lies.”
That is a pretty vague charge, but the JCPoA is based on the assumption that Iran has, like most states, been willing to lie and deceive in order to achieve its security goals. The agreement is written to ensure that we know when Iran is lying and that if those lies constitute violations of the agreement, sanctions “snap back” into place.
Netanyahu’s presentation began with a description of the dilapidated warehouse from which tens of thousands of documents were stolen by Mossad and/or its informants. Netanyahu’s pride in the reach of Israeli intelligence is well-deserved, but it blinded him to one obvious implication of that anecdote: Why were hundreds of thousands of critical research documents left to molder in a Tehran storage unit? A probable reason is that Iran has suspended this research as it waits to see if the agreement holds. Otherwise, presumably, the documents would still be in the research facilities that produced them or in secret research facilities to which they would be useful. It is worth noting that no evidence of secret facilities or ongoing research seems to have been discovered by the Israelis, since presumably Netanyahu would have presented it as it makes his case far stronger. In fact, the IAEA reiterated on Tuesday that there are “no credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device after 2009,” well before the agreement was even negotiated.
Regardless of why the documents ended up there, we know that Iran’s nuclear facilities are operating in accordance with the agreement. The monitoring provisions are appropriately onerous and include highly advanced and tamper-resistant sensors, seals and cameras, as well as frequent inspections. There are two ways, however, that these sites could resume enriching uranium to weapons-grade.
One is that Iran could violate or abandon the agreement. If this occurs, the IAEA will know immediately, as will the other signatories to the agreement. Economic sanctions on Iran, currently suspended, would return to force. Iran’s leaders would have to explain to their people why they had invited the return of economic catastrophe and to the world why Iran had broken its word.
The other way is that the U.S. could violate or abandon the agreement. If the U.S. reimposes sanctions without evidence Iran not complying, the deal is broken, leaving Iran free to begin enriching uranium again. Since it would be the U.S. and not Iran that had broken faith, there would be little chance of Europeans reimposing sanctions, and no chance at all of sanctions coming from Russia or China. Iran would get to have its yellowcake and eat it too: freedom from most sanctions and a free hand to conduct nuclear research unimpeded and unobserved.
Israel’s intelligence operation proved what we already knew: Absent an agreement that restricts uranium enrichment, Iran will conduct research and development aimed at establishing a nuclear deterrent, either through the achievement of a short breakout time or the construction of an actual weapon. Netanyahu would like nothing better than to end the agreement by proving that Iran is violating it, but even after a raid into what he asserts to be Iran’s most secret archive, Israeli intelligence found nothing to allow Netanyahu to make such a claim. The raid proved that Iran has sought a nuclear capability in the past and remains open to pursuing one in the future—and that is an argument for staying in the agreement, not abandoning it.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
Image: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu April 29, 2018 in Tel Aviv. (Photo by Haim Zach / GPO via Getty Images)