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Netanyahu Hands Trump PR Win on Iran

In a dramatic presentation on Monday, the Israeli prime minister outlined revelations on Iran’s secret nuclear weapons program that most of the world had already accepted.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech on Iran's nuclear program in Tel Aviv on April 30, 2018. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech on Iran's nuclear program in Tel Aviv on April 30, 2018. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

Thousands of pages of documents “conclusively prove” Iran tried to develop a secret nuclear weapons program and retained its “knowhow” after signing the 2015 nuclear accords with other world powers, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a dramatic show-and-tell presentation on Monday.

“Tonight I’m here to tell you one thing: Iran lied, big time,” he said, presenting information collected by Israeli intelligence.

Much of what he outlined in his presentation is already widely known, experts say, and he didn’t appear to present any concrete evidence Iran was violating the nuclear deal. But it could be just the PR bombshell U.S. President Donald Trump needs.

Trump, a longtime critic of the Iran deal, is weighing whether to withdraw from the agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

“This is Bibi campaigning to make sure that [U.S. withdrawal from the deal] does happen,” says Jon Wolfsthal, who helped lead nuclear nonproliferation efforts at the National Security Council under President Barack Obama.

“Bibi is playing for keeps. He’s not going to take anything for granted here,” he says, referring to Netanyahu by his widely used nickname.

Netanyahu’s presentation comes just days after both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Washington in a last-ditch effort to salvage the deal.

Trump has until May 12 to decide whether to reimpose sanctions against Iran that were lifted as part of the 2015 nuclear accords, which the president has branded the “worst deal ever negotiated.”

Netanyahu’s presentation has “really shown that I’ve been 100 percent right,” Trump said in Washington shortly after the presentation ended. But he added he remains open to crafting a “better deal.”

“The president is enjoying the leaving the world in suspense on this issue, and having European leaders come to the White House and importune him with staying in,” says Suzanne Maloney, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution.

Netanyahu added another bit of drama in his presentation on Monday, just days after meeting new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an Iran hawk who has long criticized the deal. Netanyahu was armed with a slideshow presentation that at one point just said “Iran lied” in plain text on a white background.

He outlined the secret Iranian nuclear program known as “Project Amad” based on over 55,000 documents and more than 180 CDs of information, in what he described as a major coup for Israeli intelligence services. Iran shuttered the project in 2003, but kept its nuclear expertise, which Netanyahu charges it can use to restart its program at any point.

“We can now prove that Project Amad was a comprehensive program to design, build, and test nuclear weapons,” he said, something Iranian officials steadfastly denied but Western powers widely accepted. “We can also prove that Iran is secretly storing Project Amad material to use at a time of its choice to develop nuclear weapons.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy@RobbieGramer

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