Bibi’s Infomercial for the Iran Deal

Smoke and mirrors aside, the Israeli prime minister’s presentation was an endorsement of existing nuclear diplomacy with Tehran.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech on Iran's nuclear program at the defence ministry 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 at the defence ministry in Tel Aviv on April 30, 2018. (JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s dog and pony show on Monday, in which he displayed a trove of documents from Iran’s pre-2003 nuclear weapons program, had an audience of precisely one. It was part of a coordinated effort with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to persuade U.S. President Donald Trump to kill the Iran nuclear deal. And, if you don’t know anything about Iran’s pre-2003 nuclear weapons program, perhaps it was persuasive.

But if you do — if you happen to have a blog called Arms Control Wonk, for example — you will have heard it all before. There was nothing new in Netanyahu’s presentation, at least nothing that would change someone’s mind about the nuclear deal. In fact, Netanyahu’s presentation works as an advertisement for the pact he was trying to take down.

We should probably recap how we got here. Iran had a nuclear weapons program until 2003. The United States intelligence community concluded that Iran “halted” that program under pressure from international sanctions — although I have always thought “paused” would have been a better word. After more than a decade of negotiations, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between Iran and members of the international community was signed. The JCPOA, better known as the Iran nuclear deal, removed those sanctions in exchange for a number of commitments by Iran to limit its nuclear energy program and to expand access given to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.

The JCPOA has always been unpopular for a couple of reasons. Most treaties and international agreements tend to be beauty contests — whether you like them tends to come down to whether you like the country with whom you are signing a deal. This makes nonproliferation agreements a hard sell, because the government you are negotiating with typically hates you and vice-versa.

The Islamic Republic of Iran isn’t winning any beauty contests. For the sizable slice of the foreign-policy establishment that has always wanted to topple the Islamic Republic, its nuclear program is just a convenient cudgel. They aren’t interested in solving the problem of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, because that would undercut support for regime change. And then there is partisanship. Trump, as far as I can tell, hates former President Barack Obama and anything he touched. Add it all up, and the only people who support the JCPOA are weenies like me — and maybe our secretary of defense.

But, judged on its merits, rather than its theater, Netanyahu’s speech serves as an excellent commercial for the JCPOA. First, consider the collection of documents in Tehran about Iran’s pre-2003 nuclear program that the Mossad drew from in preparing Netanyahu’s speech. Netanyahu described these files as being now compiled in a Tehran archive as a kind of “lending library.” That’s ridiculous. This is more like the world’s weirdest episode of Storage Wars. The documents and compact disks were boxed up, put in safes, and left in storage with no monitoring. This isn’t an active nuclear weapons program. This is an archive of a program that has been halted — first under international pressure, and then under the JCPOA.

Moreover, the archive contains little or no information that wasn’t already available to the IAEA and the rest of the world at the time the JCPOA was signed. From Netanyahu’s presentation, I get the sense that much of the archive was already acquired on the infamous “laptop of death” that was smuggled out of the Iran around 2004 — which would mean that U.S. officials are familiar with the material.

As a result, Netanyahu’s description of Iran’s pre-2003 nuclear weapons program — and let’s be clear, this is historical material — contains no new revelations that have not already been detailed by the IAEA in its final report on Iran’s nuclear weapons program, “Final Assessment on Past and Present Outstanding Issues regarding Iran’s Nuclear Programme.” You know, the one that concluded Iran had a “coordinated effort” to conduct “a range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device” — that is, a nuclear weapons program.

On Twitter, I’ve gone through this in rather more detail, but Netanyahu identifies the pre-2003 nuclear weapons effort as Project Amad and then proceeds to list its five components: nuclear weapons design and simulation, casting of nuclear weapons cores, development of a multipoint initiator, planning for a nuclear test, and integration of a nuclear warhead onto an Iranian missile, the Shahab-3. The IAEA’s document also identifies the nuclear weapons program by name (paragraph 22), and then proceeds to detail each of these five areas in far more detail than Netanyahu did. That includes “modeling of a nuclear explosive device” (paragraphs 58-62), casting of “uranium components for a nuclear explosive device” (paragraphs 33-35), development of multipoint initiator “relevant to a nuclear explosive device” (paragraphs 41-46), preparation “relevant to testing a nuclear explosive device” (paragraphs 66-68), and work on how to “integrate a new spherical payload chamber of the re-entry vehicle for the Shahab-3 missile” (paragraphs 69-72). There is a ton of other nuclear weapons work documented by the IAEA (the paragraphs I don’t mention) that Netanyahu left out.

There is virtually nothing new here; we already knew the outlines of the Iranian nuclear weapons effort in great detail. What Netanyahu could do was to color inside those lines, sharing a few interesting images and details. But for those of us who supported the JCPOA, there was nothing that would change our understanding of Iran’s pre-2003 nuclear weapons program, or its remaining nuclear program today. Netanyahu’s speech tacitly admits this. He didn’t really bother to claim that Iran is cheating now, but instead boiled his case down to a single, pathetic talking point: Iran is lying about its pre-2003 nuclear weapons program. That’s it: Iran lied, big time, splashed in giant letters on the screen.

Based on my knowledge of other arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation agreements, let me offer my professional opinion about this charge in plain language: I don’t give a damn.

Iran lied. No kidding. The whole reason that the international community sanctioned Iran was that it was lying about not developing nuclear weapons. And the whole reason that the international community insisted on limits to Iran’s ostensibly civil nuclear energy program and extraordinary access for the IAEA inspectors was because Iran was lying about its nuclear weapons program. The entire premise of the JCPOA is that Iran was lying about not wanting a nuclear weapon and that, instead of Iranian promises, we wanted hard limits and inspections to make it much, much harder for Iran to resume that program. I do not need a confession from the Iranians or an apology or even a pony. I just need to make sure the IAEA and the U.S. intelligence community have the tools to do their job.

If you think Iran lied — which it did — then the last thing you should ever contemplate doing is killing the JCPOA, removing the limits that it places on Iran’s nuclear program, and cutting off the extraordinary access that the agreement provides to the IAEA. If you do that, Iran’s nuclear program is very likely to end up looking like North Korea’s.

Well, maybe not North Korea’s, at least not right away. There is one new thing in the documents, although again it is something that undermines Netanyahu’s effort to kill the JCPOA. In the run-up to the Iran nuclear deal, many of us mocked the idea that Iran would overtly “break out” of a nuclear deal as a remarkably stupid scenario that consumed far too much attention. Why would Iran openly use declared facilities, essentially giving the international community advance warning that it was building a bomb? No, Iran was far more likely to sneak out, building a covert enrichment facility and stockpiling a small number of nuclear weapons before presenting the world with a fait accompli.

As my colleague Josh Pollack has pointed out, one of the few new documents released by Netanyahu suggests that Iran wasn’t even that ambitious. We now have evidence that Iran’s goal, at least before 2003, was to follow the South African model of proliferation. This meant building a small arsenal of relatively simple compact weapons (five, in the case of Iran) that would not be disclosed unless Iran faced an imminent threat. (South Africa had a small stockpile of nuclear weapons throughout most of the 1980s, but the general public didn’t know this, because Pretoria never disclosed them until after it disarmed.) Iran’s goal was what has been called, in reference to Israel’s own early nuclear arsenal, a “bomb in the basement” — although some people will surely be offended by the comparison.

Of course, had Iran succeeded, we could not have counted on Tehran being satisfied forever with a latent capability of just five nuclear weapons available for use on medium-range ballistic missiles. As we have seen with India, Pakistan, and Israel, a “bomb in the basement” tends to find its way upstairs, evolving into a proper nuclear arsenal over time. Likely the same thing would have happened with Iran but for international pressure and, ultimately, the JCPOA.

Iran always planned to sneak out, starting with a bomb in the basement. The best solution, then, isn’t screaming at the Iranians. It is imposing limits on Iran’s nuclear energy program and increasing the IAEA’s access, specifically to strengthen its ability to find covert facilities. This is precisely what the JCPOA did.

Yes, Iran lied about its pre-2003 nuclear weapons ambitions. That’s precisely why we shouldn’t remove the extraordinary restrictions placed upon it. Thanks for the reminder, Bibi.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk