Shadow Government

Netanyahu’s ‘Iran Lied’ Presentation Shows Why Trump Should Keep the Nuke Deal

Israel and the United States are both led by men who are hard to trust.

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

With great fanfare, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed to the world on Monday a trove of documents obtained by Israel about the history of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. He used a presentation at the Israeli Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv to make the case to the public and to U.S. President Donald Trump for walking away from the Iran nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But what Netanyahu unintentionally did was demonstrate why the JCPOA is so important and can be an effective tool for preventing Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

Netanyahu’s bottom line was that going back years, Iran lied about its nuclear program and secretly pursued weaponization research that would allow it to convert its supposedly peaceful civil nuclear program into a weapons program. But that was already well known. Iran built secret nuclear enrichment facilities in Natanz and Fordow that were outed to the world by Western intelligence agencies. And the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had evidence that Iran had been researching how to convert the fissile material from these enrichment facilities into a nuclear bomb. It was precisely because of this evidence that the United States and its partners passed multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions, implemented devastating sanctions, and devised the JCPOA, which puts much more severe restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program than it would have faced as a member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in good standing.

What is unclear is whether the intelligence gathered by the Israelis reveals new and troubling information that must be investigated and verified — or whether it is all old, known history. In 2007, the U.S. intelligence community concluded that even though Iran was still pursuing nuclear enrichment and leaving itself the option to build a bomb, it had suspended weaponization research. And as part of the JCPOA, Iran addressed to the satisfaction of the IAEA and the parties to the agreement (Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States) its previous weapons research. The key question is whether the Israeli revelations call these conclusions into question.

The way to answer that is not to walk away from the JCPOA but to use it. Israel has already shared the material with the United States and, to the extent it can without comprising sources and methods, should share it with Britain, France, Germany, and the IAEA. Experts should pore over the material, and if there is new and concerning information, the IAEA should seek answers from Iran.

Under the JCPOA and the Additional Protocol, which Iran is now provisionally adhering to as part of the JCPOA, the IAEA can demand access to any facility in Iran. But it cannot randomly ask for access without good reason. It needs evidence that raises legitimate questions requiring it to inspect a facility. And if the documents provided by the Israelis give rise to new suspicions about previously unknown sites and activities, the IAEA should demand to see them.

If Iran does not comply with the IAEA’s request, the dispute can be taken to the joint commission responsible for implementing the agreement, where the United States and its partners have a majority vote. And if Iran still refuses to comply, the United States and its partners can then pull out of the deal and snap back sanctions through the U.N. Security Council. Indeed, if the Israeli intelligence reveals significant new violations, using the tools available inside the JCPOA would be the single best way to get Iran to either fess up or generate the international unity necessary to reapply the types of crippling sanctions that brought Iran to the table in the first place.

But if, instead, the Trump administration uses Netanyahu’s presentation as the premise for unilaterally walking away from the deal without going through the process, it will find itself isolated. Many U.S. partners will conclude that Netanyahu’s presentation was simply a cynical ploy for killing the JCPOA. A fractured international coalition will result in uneven sanctions implementation, which will not generate the crippling sanctions necessary to change Iran’s calculus.

Netanyahu and Trump face a major uphill climb if they are to convince the world of the seriousness of their allegations. First, revealing all of this information through a prime-time address targeted at the Israeli public without first sharing it with key European partners that will need to stand with Israel and the United States automatically raises suspicions. Especially given the timing, only days before Trump’s self-imposed May 12 deadline for whether he will stay in the deal. It certainly gives the appearance of being politically motivated.

It also stands in sharp contrast to how both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations treated intelligence about a secret facility at Fordow, discovered in 2007 and outed in 2009. Rather than quickly and publicly rush out with the information, they shared it first with European allies. And when the time was right, President Barack Obama, standing with the French president and British prime minister, revealed it to the world. At the time, the information was so embarrassing to the Russians, who had been protecting Iran from further sanctions at the U.N. Security Council, that it helped trigger negotiations that eventually led to Resolution 1929, which became an essential building block in the strong sanctions that followed.

The Trump administration has done a terrible job in following up on Netanyahu’s speech, putting out a press statement that claimed, “Iran has a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program.” If this were true, it would be a major violation and certainly a reason to end the JCPOA, if not consider military action. But it is not true. And a couple of hours later, the White House retracted the statement acknowledging that it meant to say “had” not “has.” Words and typos matter. In this instance, that mistake could mean the difference between war and peace. And the need by the White House to issue such an important and basic correction utterly undermines its credibility.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did better, releasing a statement that argues that the JCPOA should not have permitted Iran to avoid coming fully clean on the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program. This is a legitimate critique, though Obama administration officials have long acknowledged that this was a weakness in the agreement. However, they felt that the issue deserved less priority because there already was so much intelligence on the question of Iran’s military activities and the more urgent need was to stop the ongoing nuclear enrichment program. But, again, the best way to address Pompeo’s critique is not to walk away from the JCPOA but to use its tools and the new information discovered by Israel to press Iran.

But perhaps the most fundamental problem with this entire episode is that it is really hard to trust Netanyahu or Trump. Netanyahu has time and again used hyperbole while raising the threat posed by Iran only to be proved wrong. As for Trump, on a daily basis he lies about things big and small, and many in his administration follow the president’s lead, severely harming their credibility. Now the president and his team are going to ask the public and the international community to give them the benefit of the doubt on a sensitive and controversial question of national security when the facts are not clear and the intelligence is murky. There is simply nothing that Trump has done in recent years to earn that benefit.

Ilan Goldenberg is a senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security program at the Center for a New American Security. Previously, he served as chief of staff to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, supporting Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative to conduct peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. @ilangoldenberg

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