The Israeli prime minister’s speech on Iranian nuclear activities wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
On Monday afternoon, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disclosed a seemingly staggering intelligence coup: Israeli operatives had penetrated a secret Iranian military facility in Tehran and spirited away tens of thousands of detailed files on the Iranian nuclear program.
The stolen documents revealed a series of details about Iran’s nuclear weapons research in the early 2000s, granular proof that Iran had been — contrary to its public statements — actively pursuing a bomb. Netanyahu argued that the new files constituted proof that Iran cannot be trusted, and that President Trump should scrap the nuclear deal with Iran on May 12, when he is facing a deadline imposed by US law to decide whether to keep lifting sanctions on Iran as the deal requires.
“Iran lied about never having a nuclear weapons program,” Netanyahu said. “This is a terrible deal.”
Israel shared this information with the United States before the public presentation, and has called the leaders of several major countries (France, Germany, and Russia) to brief them on the findings. There’s been little in the way of official reaction from the United States; in a press conference, Trump said he’s interested in seeing what Netanyahu presented.
This all sounds significant. The problem, experts say, is that most of what Netanyahu said was already well-known.
The nuclear weapons research program he was discussing ended about 15 years ago. The prime minister presented no information that Iran was currently producing nuclear weapons, or was otherwise in violation of the deal’s restrictions on nuclear activities.
Dina Esfandiary, a fellow at King’s College London, told me that Netanyahu’s speech was “frankly underwhelming.” Suzanne Maloney, an Iran scholar at the Brookings Institution, said she heard “nothing new.” And Kingston Reif, a nuclear proliferation expert at the Arms Control Association, says “we already knew” most of what was in Netanyahu’s speech.
So why all the sturm and drang? Partly, it was to intimidate Iran: to show that Israeli intelligence could infiltrate Iran’s most sensitive facilities.
But mostly, it was a speech targeted at President Trump before the May 12 deadline.
There were lots of photos and visual aids, simple messages typed out in big block letters — the kinds of things Trump reportedly likes to see when receiving information.
This speech was political theater, a lobbying effort aimed at the president of the United States — a point Netanyahu all but admitted at the end.
“In a few days time, President Trump will make his decision on the deal,” he said. “I’m sure he’ll do the right thing.”
There’s less to Netanyahu’s Iran speech than meets the eye
The core of Netanyahu’s presentation Monday was that Iran had been pursuing nuclear weapons — in a program it called “Project Amad” — prior to 2003. After that program was ended around the time of the Iraq War, its director, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was transferred to another program, called SPND. That effort wasn’t explicitly dedicated to developing a nuclear bomb, but it did related research.
This all contradicted the Iranian government’s public insistence that its nuclear program has always existed for peaceful energy purposes rather than military ones. But we’ve long known that was a lie. All the so-called new information in Netanyahu’s presentation is actually pretty old.
A 2011 International Atomic Energy Agency report noted the existence of Project Amad and the role SPND played in continuing its work — four years before the nuclear deal was signed.
And the Israeli leader’s speech contained no evidence that Iran had restarted its weapons program or in any way violated the limits on nuclear activities like enrichment set up by the deal — which the IAEA has repeatedly confirmed Iran is abiding by.
“I was actually surprised at the level of hype,” says Maloney. “I don’t see that Netanyahu made a good case for scrapping [the deal.]”
Netanyahu at one point suggested that keeping these old files from the IAEA was, in and of itself, a violation of the deal. But it wasn’t clear what provision of the agreement he was pointing to, and there may not actually be one.
“I don’t believe that retaining the documents is a violation of the [Iran deal] per se,” says James Acton, the director of the Carnegie Endowment’s nuclear policy program. “I assume this requirement wasn’t included because it was considered unverifiable.”
But more fundamentally, there’s a hole in Netanyahu’s logic. His argument appeared to be that Iran lied about nuclear activities in the past, which means it’s likely to lie about it in the future. Put more bluntly, Netanyahu says that the Iran deal is a bad deal because it relies on trusting the Iranians, who aren’t trustworthy.
The problem, experts say, is that the Iran deal isn’t actually based on trust. It’s based on a deeply rigorous system of inspections, one that has repeatedly confirmed that Iran is not, in fact, cheating by, say, restarting prohibited centrifuges. It’s one thing to have a covert bomb program in 2003, before the agreement; it’s quite another when your country is crawling with IAEA inspectors. The deal doesn’t rely on trusting the Iranians; it creates series of mechanisms that hamstring their ability to lie.
This isn’t just the view of outside experts. Defense Secretary James Mattis, who has a reputation as an Iran hawk, said in April 14 Senate testimony that the deal’s inspection provisions are well-designed to spot Iranian violations (such as a covert bomb program, for example).
After Netanyahu’s presentation, a reporter asked if Mattis still had confidence in the deal on this point. His answer was a simple yes.
Netanyahu’s speech was meant for an audience of one: Donald Trump
The information revealed by this speech may not have been a big deal, but the Israeli intelligence operation that acquired it was. Israel somehow to documents that were kept in a secret government facility in Tehran, Iran’s capital, and came out with extremely granular information about Iran’s nuclear program (like the size of the bomb they were thinking about building).
This kind of operation is extremely hard to pull off, and it does in fact send a message to Tehran that its biggest regional adversary can seemingly penetrate one of its most highly secured and highly secretive sites at will.
“This was as much a psychological operation as it was the exposure of Iranian clandestine activities,” says Jonathan Schanzer, an analyst at the right-leaning Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “The Israelis went into the heart of Iran and extracted 100,000 physical files, leaving serious doubts in the regime about their own internal security.”
But that may not matter for the most important audience: the man who sits in the Oval Office. There is no doubt, given the way the information was presented, that this was designed principally with Trump in mind. Since the president might not be familiar with the details of 2011 IAEA reports, this dramatic show could resonate with him.
“[Netanyahu] knows how to influence the president: He watches television,” Maloney says. “This was broadcast live, he had the props, it seemed very Fox News like in the sense of its production values. This was not so much to tell the president something he didn’t know; it’s to give the president a sense that he recognizes it’s important because he’s seen it on TV.”
Ultimately, then, judging this speech by whether it contains damning new revelations is almost a category error. The speech wasn’t designed to persuade Iran experts; it was designed to get President Trump to dump the Iran deal.
And given that’s what Trump already wants to do, there’s a real chance it could succeed.
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