President Donald Trump has just 10 days left to decide whether to pull the U.S. out of a historic agreement on Iran’s nuclear program reached by his predecessor less than three years ago. As the deadline approaches, he was presented Monday night with a very public display of distrust for the deal, care of his closest ally in the Middle East, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Iranian officials have long said their nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes, but on Monday night in Tel Aviv, as he unveiled 55,000 pages of documents and a wall of gleaming CDs, Netanyahu announced: “Tonight I’m here to tell you one thing. Iran lied, big time.”
His 20-minute presentation in Tel Aviv, complete with a PowerPoint, photographs and files, offered—in his words—“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.” The files, which Netanyahu touted as having been obtained by Israeli intelligence in a “dilapidated warehouse” in southern Tehran, detailed Project Amad, a “comprehensive program to design, build and test nuclear weapons” that ran between 1999 and 2003.
The presentation, billed by Netanyahu’s office as a “significant development” regarding the deal, came as little surprise to many diplomats and Iran watchers. The Israeli premier has vehemently opposed any deal with Iran, going so far as to make a controversial address to Congress in March 2015 against the wishes of then President Barack Obama, in an attempt to stop the deal. Trump, meanwhile, has called the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) an “embarrassment” and “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into,” and has mused publicly that he might withdraw from the deal by May 12, the next deadline for the U.S. to waive sanctions imposed on Iran.
Did Netanyahu succeed, then, in convincing his audience that Iran is not a reliable partner and that the 2015 agreement was reached in bad faith?
That very much depends on whom he was speaking to. Those alarmed by Tehran’s drive to become a nuclear power and its growing influence in the region, particularly in Syria, view Netanyahu’s presentation as all the evidence the West needs in deciding whether they can trust anything Iran says. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement after the speech that the documents showed “Iran had a secret nuclear weapons program for years. Iran sought to develop nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems. Iran hid a vast atomic archive from the world and from the IAEA—until today.”
But the international community long ago accepted that Iran had lied about its ambitions to build nuclear weapons. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued a statement Tuesday reiterating that while “a range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device were conducted in Iran prior to the end of 2003 as a coordinated effort…it had no credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device after 2009.”
The Israeli Prime Minister wasn’t talking to them, though. His language — and his snappy takeaways, including his Powerpoint slide emblazoned with two giant, black-on-white words, “Iran lied” — made it clear to some analysts precisely who he was really addressing in his speech. “Viewing the timing of this, you can’t read it any other way, that Netanyahu wanted to influence that debate. He spoke in English rather than Hebrew because he has an audience of one,” says David Makovsky, a Middle East scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“And yet, I don’t think it’s right to say it’s all old news,” says Makovsky. “I don’t see how the IAEA can issue Iran a clean bill of health. This has certainly added to the debate because [Iran] has always denied that it ever had a weaponization program.” Under the nuclear deal, he says, Iran was supposed to reveal all of its research into nuclear weapons. On this evidence “it seems clear that they did not.”
In Europe, where leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron have tried to persuade Trump not to scrap the deal, the Israeli presentation failed to convince. EU Foreign Affairs High Representative Federica Mogherini said, “I have not seen from Prime Minister Netanyahu arguments for the moment on noncompliance, meaning violation by Iran of its nuclear commitments under the [nuclear] deal.”
And the U.S. already knew about what Netanyahu claimed to have found, argues Gary Sick, an Iran scholar at Columbia University and an expert who also served on the National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan. U.S. intelligence agencies in 2007 confirmed that Iran had done experimentation into building a bomb, he says, but they discontinued their work in 2003, and “nothing that’s been said contradicts that,” Sick notes. Iran never actually implemented these sketches and simulations or tried to marry them with fissile material to build a bomb.
“I think it’s pretty clear that what we saw Monday has exactly the same value as Netanyahu’s appearance before the United Nations General Assembly a few years ago with a picture of a cartoon bomb: it was meant to be alarming and to show him as a world expert on this subject,” Sick says.
The only experts who matter are the IAEA, he adds.“They’ve never suggested Iran is not in compliance. If Iran is cheating, say so,” Sick pointed out. “This is politics. It should not be mistaken for security policy.”
Netanyahu’s presentation against the deal may also have unwittingly reinforced the case for keeping it. What, after all, is the alternative? Tamara Cofman-Wittes, a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. says one of the key flaws in Netanyahu’s presentation was his failure to offer a better option for containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. That in fact, was the argument of President Obama, for whom she worked as a deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs 2009 to 2012.
“For all of us who care about preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb, what’s the best way to keep preventing that? It’s not perfect, but it’s something,” she says. “These conventions are never based on the premise that all the parties are telling the truth, it’s about enforcement mechanisms. No arms control agreement is based in trust.”
That may not matter to Trump. Meir Javedanfar, an Israeli Middle East analyst born and raised in Iran, says that while Netanyahu’s information trove may not have provided a “smoking gun” that effectively indicts Iran, his well-crafted exposition is going to be helpful ammunition in Trump’s pocket.
“Trump can use this to extract more concessions from the Europeans in terms of new sanctions against Iran. And if Trump cancels the deal, he can use Netanyahu’s presentation to support his decision,” says Javedanfar.