On April 30th, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a televised speech at the Israeli Ministry of Defence where he presented “new” information on Iran’s nuclear program. He stated that Israeli intelligence had secured documents proving that Iran lied about the peaceful nature of its nuclear program. However, deeper analysis of the evidence suggests that this information was widely known to the international community as early as 2003.
Netanyahu began by stating that Iran had always denied that it pursued nuclear weapons. Then, in his usual theatrical manner, he went on to pull back a sheet revealing fifty-five thousand pages and another fifty-five thousand computer files of evidence that he claims show the contrary. He explained that this evidence had recently been discovered in a secret archive in Tehran and its legitimacy verified by the United States. They included incriminating documents, charts, blueprints, videos and photos that show that Iran had been pursuing nuclear weapons prior to signing the 2015 nuclear deal.
Netanyahu went on to express that Israel had already been aware that Iran had a secret nuclear weapons program. However, it could now prove that Iran aimed to design, develop, build, test and integrate nuclear weapons onto ballistic missiles. The fact that Iran held on to this material, according to Netanyahu, proves it intended to continue to develop its program in the future. On the surface, this seems like a crucial development. After all, how can one negotiate with a country that lies about its intentions? However, further analysis suggests that this development is not as relevant as Netanyahu may like the public to believe.
It is no coincidence that Netanyahu chose to unveil this new information at a time when US president Donald Trump is considering pulling out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. President Trump has until May 12th to decide whether or not to renew sanctions. He is currently under pressure from European leaders to stay in the agreement and needs all the international support he can get. Whether Netanyahu’s speech was made as a favour to Trump or as part of an Israeli campaign to influence the American government remains unclear. However, recent rhetoric from Washington indicates that it is most likely to be an act of support for an impending US withdrawal from the JCPOA. Timing, and the fact that the speech was made in English suggest that the announcement was directly aimed at the American public to rally support for a US exit from the deal.
The glaring issue with this new information is that the documents do not come from a current Iranian nuclear program. In his speech, Netanyahu stated that the documents came from a secret nuclear program called Project Amad. However, that project was put aside in 2003 following mounting international pressure. There is no evidence to suggest that Iran is currently developing nuclear weapons and the International Atomic Energy Agency has recently stated that Iran is acting in full compliance with the deal.
The Deal is Working
In a speech at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv on January 18th, the Israeli Defence Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot stated that the nuclear deal, “with all its faults, is working and is putting off realization of the Iranian nuclear vision by 10 to 15 years.” This statement was seen by many as a slap in the face to Netanyahu, who had been claiming that Iran would cheat on the agreement. In the wake of these remarks, Netanyahu’s speech suggests a shift in strategy away from the threat of Iran cheating within the JCPOA’s framework, to delegitimizing the trust that it is built on. However, it is important to note that Netanyahu and his chief of staff agree that after the sunset clause expires in 2025 there will be nothing stopping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. This is because Iran will be able to pursue unlimited enrichment without the threat of sanctions. In other words, from Netanyahu’s perspective, the deal makes Iran an economic power and then gives it a nuclear weapon. Suggesting the Iran is untrustworthy provides a new avenue from which to criticize the agreement regardless of whether or not Iran is cooperating.
In essence, Netanyahu put on a show. He spoke in English and used theatrics to get his message across. In many respects this is what the international community had come to expect of him. He drove home the idea that the Iranian regime cannot be trusted and provided support for an American withdrawal from the deal. However, the information that Netanyahu disclosed in his speech did not reveal anything the international community had not already known from IAEA reports. He simply proved, once and for all, that Iran had been planning to build nuclear weapons prior to the initiation of the JCPOA agreement. Against all odds, the deal seems to be holding for now. It remains to be seen how an American withdrawal would affect it.
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