War Stories

Bibi’s Iran Speech Was a Bust

The Israeli prime minister’s much-hyped revelations make the case for keeping the Iran deal.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech on Iran’s nuclear program at the defense ministry in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Monday.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech on Iran’s nuclear program at the defense ministry in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Monday. Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has issued the lamest critique of the Iran nuclear deal that one might imagine. Though his avowed aim was to convince President Trump to back out of the deal, he in fact unwittingly made a strong case to stay in.

In his Monday broadcast, which he recited in English and Hebrew, Netanyahu did publicize a remarkable heist by Israeli intelligence agencies—if his claims are true—of 55,000 pages of “files” and “archives” showing that 15 years ago, Iran did have a plan with an avowed intent to build nuclear weapons.

But did the prime minister think his viewers, at home and abroad, would glide over those key words—files and archive—or that they wouldn’t notice that the quotations from some of those files were dated 2003?

He said and showed nothing to suggest that the Iranians ever put their plan into motion or that they are violating the deal’s restrictions on nuclear activities now. In fact, at one point in his telecast, he acknowledged that Iran stopped the program—supporting the conclusion of a U.S National Intelligence Estimate, published in 2007, that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003.

Netanyahu said the newly uncovered files indicate that Iranian officials have violated an article of the Iran deal requiring them to reveal their past plans or intentions to build nuclear weapons. Faced with the question, Iranian officials have denied that they ever had such intentions. If the files are authentic, they show that those denials are false. This is not a new point, but it is not trivial either, and the International Atomic Energy Agency should investigate the claims. (They may well find that Iran’s written plans about building nuclear weapons don’t amount to activities—nothing in Netanyahu’s presentation proves otherwise—and, therefore, don’t amount to a violation at all.)

However, the larger message of the archive—and Netanyahu’s briefing—is that the Iran nuclear deal, now more than ever, is worth preserving. Netanyahu pointed to documents suggesting that Iran had plans—he talked of secret documents, charts, presentations, and blueprints—for every aspect of designing, building, and testing nuclear weapons. What he neglected to point out is that the deal gives international inspectors highly intrusive powers to verify whether Iran is taking any steps to pursue those plans.

In Senate hearings last week, Secretary of Defense James Mattis testified that after reading the full text of the deal three times, he was struck by how solid its inspection provisions are. “I will say it is written almost with an assumption that Iran would try to cheat,” Mattis said. “So the verification, what is in there, is actually pretty robust as far as our intrusive ability to get in” and check on compliance.

Trump faces a May 12 deadline on whether to certify that Iran is in compliance with the deal and thus extend sanctions relief—or to pull out of the deal and reimpose sanctions. He has signed the certification twice before but has threatened to pull out this next time. On the earlier occasions, he was pressured to stay in the treaty by Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and his national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. Tillerson and McMaster have since been replaced by Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, who are fervent critics of the deal and supporters of regime change in Iran.

Several allied leaders have urged Trump not to withdraw from the deal. Ironically, many Israeli security and intelligence officers have publicly said that the deal is better for Israel than the abandonment of the deal. Netanyahu, ignoring their analyses, is trying to whip up a frisson of alarm but without any substance.