Less than two weeks before US President Donald J. Trump is due to decide on the future of US participation in the Iran nuclear deal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that his country has found proof Iran lied about the extent of its nuclear program.
In a speech delivered on April 30, Netanyahu said Israel has collected more than 100,000 files and roughly 180 CDs worth of evidence to show that Iran had nuclear capabilities beyond those revealed in negotiations to establish the nuclear deal. The material was reportedly obtained by Israeli intelligence from a secret storage facility in Tehran.
It is not news to US officials investigating Iran’s nuclear activity that Tehran had conducted research into nuclear weapons. While Netanyahu—a long-time opponent of the nuclear deal—claimed the documentation seized by Israel shows Iran developed a military nuclear program and lied about it, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had already concluded Iran’s nuclear program had military dimensions before the deal was put in place.
The Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was negotiated by former US President Barack Obama, along with Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China, in 2015 to block Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Since his presidential campaign, Trump has been vocal about his plans to do away with the JCPOA, calling it a “very bad deal.” If the United States walks away from the deal, Iran has threatened to do so as well.
Though he has maintained the looming threat to scrap the JCPOA, Trump renewed sanctions waivers for Iran in January 2018. He gave the US Congress and US allies until the next sanctions waiver deadline to make the terms of the deal more acceptable to the United States. That deadline expires on May 12.
On that day Trump will decide whether or not to uphold the Iran nuclear deal. It remains unclear what he will choose to do. Netanyahu’s declaration may impact the US president’s thinking on the matter and influence his decision.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, responding to Netanyahu’s claims, wrote in a tweet that the Israeli leader’s speech was “a rehash of old allegations already dealt with by the [International Atomic Energy Agency] to ‘nix’ the deal. How convenient. Coordinated timing of alleged intelligence revelations by the boy who cries wolf just days before May 12.”
Atlantic Council experts weighed in on Netanyahu’s announcement and its implications for the future of the nuclear deal. Here is what they had to say:
Rachel Brandenburg, director of the Middle East Security Initiative:
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s live broadcast today told us a couple things we didn’t know previously, including that Israel obtained a treasure trove of documents about Iran’s nuclear program. It will be up to intelligence analysts to comb through those documents and determine whether they reveal new details about Iran’s nuclear program and intentions. This close examination should precede and catalyze, not follow, any associated action. Netanyahu also confirmed what many knew and others assumed: that Iran previously lied about its nuclear program. He reinforced the importance of ensuring Iran is prevented from acting upon its intentions to obtain a nuclear weapon. However, it is precisely because Iran was caught lying that sanctions were imposed and it became an Obama administration priority to create a strict and intrusive inspections regime. That Iran had lied or would again lie is not new information. As US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said to the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, based on his reading of the JCPOA text, “it was written almost with an assumption that Iran would try to cheat.”
The JCPOA as currently written offers tools by which the United States and its partners can verify Iran is not cheating or lying at present. If improved upon, as European partners—including French President Emmanuel Macron last week—have suggested, verification regimes can be strengthened and extended. Partners—Israel, the United States, the Europe Union, and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states included—can collectively focus their efforts and energies on countering Iran’s ballistic missile proliferation and mitigating its destabilizing activities in the Middle East. The coalition of actors in agreement and willing to work together to exert pressure against the latter two threats has grown as a result of Trump’s January ultimatum.
However, if Trump walks away from the JCPOA, preventing Iran from restarting its nuclear program is likely to again become the primary focus, distracting from the above arguably more pressing, mutual threats. Netayahu focused on Iran’s nuclear program in his remarks today, but meanwhile, alleged or claimed Israeli strikes against Iranian or Iranian-backed installations in Syria have become more frequent. As rhetoric between Israel and Iran heat up and the battlefield in Syria becomes ever more uncertain, it seems all the more critical additional measures of uncertainty be kept at bay.
Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative:
Netanyahu delivered his “j’accuse” Iran speech with characteristic aplomb. However, apart from his contention that Israel had discovered the location of Iran’s “secret bomb archive” in Tehran and obtained some of what it contains, nothing he said was new to those who have followed Iran for years.
In 2015, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in an overall assessment of the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program, concluded that Iran conducted “a range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device…prior to the end of 2003 as a coordinated effort and some activities took place after 2003.” According to the agency, “these activities did not advance beyond feasibility and scientific studies and the acquisition of certain relevant technical competences and capabilities.”
The whole reason for reaching an agreement with Iran in 2015 was to block development of a nuclear weapon. Nothing Netanyahu said suggests that it is better to blow up the agreement now, allowing Iran to resume sensitive nuclear activities, rather than maintain restrictions until 2025 and beyond. Instead of listening to Netanyahu, the Trump administration should continue work with its European allies to negotiate a follow-on accord. Of course, in return, the Europeans must offer concessions to Iran—and so eventually must the United States.
Lastly, Netanyahu omitted the very pertinent fact that Israel has scores of nuclear weapons and has never openly acknowledged their existence.
Aaron Stein, senior fellow in the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East:
It is rare to see such high-quality images of nuclear weapons components as those included in Netanyahu’s presentation. However, they don’t actually mean that much. Iran had a nuclear weapons program between 1985 and 2003, and kept elements of that program in a sort of permanent stasis until the JCPOA in 2015. The pictures simply gave more graphic detail about what we already knew: Iran dedicated significant resources to developing a nuclear weapon, capable of delivery by Shahab-3 missile. This is all documented in the November 2011 IAEA report and forms the basis for one component of the so-called Alleged Studies, which is just a fancy way of talking about Iran’s weapons program. The JCPOA imposes costs on Iran for this weapons program and puts in places robust verification to verify Iran’s political decision to not build a bomb.
It is hard for people to accept that nuclear weapons are seventy-five years old, and that countries that many consider backwards can develop the bomb if its leadership chooses to do so. The United States can try to stop them, but the options to do so are difficult to implement and not cost-free. Countries make a choice not to build nuclear weapons. Iran did that in 2015.
Do I trust Iran? No. In secret, Tehran developed a pretty advanced nuclear weapons program before they were outed in 2002. This is why the JCPOA is so important. It verifies the regime’s political decision and will do so until 2040.
Rachel Ansley is assistant direcor of editorial content at the Atlantic Council.