Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a splashy, prop-filled press conference in Tel Aviv yesterday (April 30), where he alleged that Iran had a “secret nuclear weapons” program it has been “hiding for years from the international community in its secret atomic archive.”
“Iran lied,” Netanyahu said, claiming that ahead of the 2015 international nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran “intensified its efforts” to hide files describing the program. Netanyahu dramatically unveiled shelves holding what he said were 55,000 pages of information and another 55,000 files on 183 compact discs that he said prove Iran had “a comprehensive program to design, build, and test nuclear weapons.”
Many international weapons experts have since pointed out that the program Netanyahu is describing, known as “Project Amad,” was anything but secret. The program, which Iran worked on in 2002 and 2003, was the basis for the US, Germany, France, the UK, the EU, Russia, and China to come together to create the JCPOA—an agreement focused on stopping Iran’s nuclear-weapons program.
Experts on Iran, including the former chief inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency, the group tasked with insuring Iran is complying with the terms of the deal, say there was nothing new in Netanyahu’s presentation. The IAEA explained what Amad was in a public 2011 report (pdf, pg. 15), including the most alarming part of Netanyahu’s presentation—Tehran’s plans to put a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile:
The IAEA said today that the agency’s final assessment of the activities Netanyahu described was summed up in a 2015 report, which found that Iran “did not advance beyond feasibility and scientific studies, and the acquisition of certain relevant technical competences and capabilities,” and that there was no evidence after 2009 that Iran was involved in any activities related to a nuclear explosive device.
The information in the “dramatic presentation was already public knowledge, and was key in shaping the nuclear deal’s inspections regime,” the Times of Israel points out.
Addressing an audience of one
Israel is a longstanding critic of the Iran deal, and Netanyahu’s presentation on a 15-year-old weapons program seemed carefully timed to speak to one man—Donald Trump.
It comes just days after French president Emmanuel Macron indicated he may have convinced Trump to support the deal, ahead of a May 12 deadline. Macron said during a joint White House press conference last week that all parties in the deal, and Iran’s Mideast neighbors, should work on a new, improved agreement, as Trump nodded along.
Trump has criticized the Iran deal as an “embarrassment,” and pledged on the campaign to pull the US out of it immediately. The May 12 deadline is his next chance.
The White House takes it out for a spin
Soon after Netanyahu’s presentation, Trump praised himself during a press conference with Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari for being “100% right” about Iran.
New US secretary of state Mike Pompeo quickly said the presentation shows “Iran hid a vast atomic archive from the world and from the IAEA, until today”—despite the fact that the information had been documented by the IAEA.
Then White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders put out a factually incorrect statement about the presentation, saying it proved that “Iran has a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program that it has tried and failed to hide from the world and from its own people.” If such a weapons program still existed, it would be a clear violation of the JCPOA, but that’s not what the presentation alleged.
The White House corrected the statement later on Monday to say “Iran had” such a weapons program.
Ignoring the lessons from Iraq
The same people who pushed for the disastrous US-led invasion of Iraq under president George W. Bush are quickly reemerging to support Netanyahu’s presentation and the idea of leaving the Iran deal. Ari Fleischer, Bush’s onetime press secretary, quickly praised the “powerful” presentation—and then foreign-policy Twitter immediately drew parallels:
Netanyahu himself guaranteed to the US Congress in 2002 that removing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein would be a huge positive for the Mideast, critics quickly pointed out.
“If we get out of this deal, it’s going to be just fine,” former secretary of state Condeleezza Rice told Fox News on Tuesday morning. “The Iranians, I think, will try and stay in because they do want that investment eventually to start flowing.” Rice was a very vocal part of the Bush administration’s argument for invading Iraq.
“We will help Iraqis to build an Iraq that is whole, free, and at peace with itself and with its neighbors,” Rice said in 2003, at the start of the US-led invasion of the country.
Fifteen years later, more than 4,000 US soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been killed in the conflict. The ISIS terror group formed after the invasion has killed thousands more worldwide.