Opinion | Benjamin Netanyahu’s Nuclear Nothingburger
On Monday morning, Middle East watchers awoke to astonishing news from Israel. A headline in The Jerusalem Post read, “Netanyahu to Address Country with ‘Dramatic News About Iran.’” As the day passed, details remained sparse, but it became clear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was going to unveil secret evidence of Iranian cheating on the nuclear deal. The timing of the announcement, right after the new American secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, met with Mr. Netanyahu, accentuated its gravity.
Monday afternoon, just a bit behind schedule, Mr. Netanyahu took to the stage next to an enormous screen. The headlines had suggested he would be in his office at a desk or podium to share news of existential importance. Instead, he presented a minor-league TED Talk — and in English, no less. Outside the elite, fewer and fewer people in Israel speak English, so the notion of a country’s leader supposedly addressing his compatriots in a foreign language on a matter of national security added to the weirdness of the performance.
The substance of Mr. Netanyahu’s allegedly shattering revelation was correspondingly strange. Of greatest interest was the disclosure of a covert operation that spirited Iran’s nuclear archives out of the country for analysis in Israel. These records, according to Mr. Netanyahu, consisted of 55,000 pages and 183 CDs — an enormous load — which nicely demonstrated what can happen when a resourceful and audacious intelligence community in one country meets staggering carelessness and incompetence in another.
The archive had been stored in what Mr. Netanyahu described as a derelict warehouse in Tehran. The photos he displayed indicated that there did not even appear to be a lock on the door. One wonders how important the Iranians thought these documents were, given the slapdash approach they took to storing them. In any case, the Mossad operation that netted this haul apparently took place in January and President Trump was briefed on it shortly afterward.
It quickly became obvious in Mr. Netanyahu’s presentation, however, that these materials were already widely known and that they covered a weapons program that was shut down in 2003, perhaps because Iran’s leaders reckoned that they were next on the American hit list after Saddam Hussein was toppled, and did not want to get caught with their hand in the nuclear cookie jar. Or perhaps, with Iraq disarmed by the United States, it no longer needed the program.
But this development has been explored exhaustively already in a 2007 United States National Intelligence Estimate that began with this conclusion: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.”
The Iranian archive that Mr. Netanyahu revealed did show clearly that even though the program had been halted, Iran looked forward to restarting it in the future. This is scarcely surprising. After the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, when Iran’s cities were bombarded by Iraqi missiles and its troops attacked with chemical weapons, Iranian leaders probably figured that having a nuclear capacity was a good idea. It probably looked even better when they saw the ease with which the United States defeated Hussein, who possessed one of the region’s largest militaries, twice in 12 years.
When the Iranians finally resumed their program, presumably feeling more confident as the George W. Bush administration’s effort to domesticate Iraq ran aground, they went at it with gusto. From 2006 to 2013 they installed 20,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium at various locations, including an underground complex called Fordow dug secretly into the base of a mountain and intended to be bombproof. Given that Israel had destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 and Syria’s in 2007 in air raids, both the choice of location and secrecy surrounding it would have made sense from an Iranian perspective. This too is old news.
It is also widely understood, not least by the American government, that Iran — having made the decision in 2015 to put off its nuclear program for 10 years for a shot at economic development — is in compliance with the nuclear agreement. And if it is in compliance, then however much its leaders might lust in their hearts for nuclear weapons, the fact remains that they are not making them.
So why did Mr. Netanyahu do his dog and pony show? Because the United States has threatened to withdraw from the nuclear deal, claiming it was a “political agreement” whose validity expired along with the Obama administration that negotiated it. The diplomatic novelty of this approach is matched only by a related Trump doctrine that Iran is in violation of the “spirit” of the agreement, even if it is abiding by the letter of the law.
A withdrawal decision, one way or another, is to be announced on May 12. Since the members of Congress will have a say on whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran, Mr. Netanyahu’s pitch must surely have been directed to them.
Americans might distrust the C.I.A. and wince when recalling its verdict that Hussein’s nuclear, chemical and biological capacity was a “slam dunk,” but even Democrats might be seduced by Mossad’s reputation and susceptible to Mr. Netanyahu’s mishmash of stale reporting, truisms and outright hucksterism, especially given the credibility the current Israeli government enjoys in key constituencies. In 2015, Mr. Netanyahu deployed this stratagem before a joint session of Congress; this time, he deployed it from an auditorium in Israel’s Ministry of Defense.
That the Trump administration has evidently colluded with Israel to influence Americans’ understanding of a major strategic issue fits an established, dispiriting pattern. If the president can convince us that the Iran nuclear deal damages our national interest, which encompasses the security of our allies, very well. But if he can’t, then I’d prefer not to hear it from a foreign leader.
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