In a special address on Monday, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented what he described as shocking, indisputable evidence that Iran had lied about its covert nuclear weapons program in the past and “continued to preserve and expand its nuclear weapons knowledge for future use” after signing the 2015 deal with six world powers to halt its nuclear activities.
Netanyahu was speaking on primetime Israeli television, but his presentation was delivered primarily in English and appeared targeted to a daytime audience in the U.S. (and perhaps an audience of one, residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C.) rather than to his fellow Israelis. If so, it certainly had its intended effect, causing President Donald Trump to declare that he was “100 percent right” about the failings of the nuclear deal, less than two weeks ahead of his next chance to derail it.
Much like Netanyahu’s previous dire warnings about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, however, this one is being hugely oversold. The trove of Iranian documents recently obtained by Israeli intelligence, most of which date to before the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was adopted, do not constitute proof that Iran either has violated or intends to violate it. Several experts and European diplomats pointed out that the Israeli prime minister had not revealed anything they didn’t already know, nor did he provide a proverbial smoking gun to show that Iran was making an end run around the JCPOA. If Mossad had found slam-dunk proof of noncompliance in their brazen heist of Iran’s nuclear archive, surely Netanyahu would have included it in his PowerPoint. That he didn’t suggests that they haven’t.
The nuclear deal is an imperfect document, to be sure, as agreements signed between adversaries usually are, but right-wing criticism of it tends to proceed from the false premises that the Obama administration was unaware of Iran’s past behavior and unconcerned that the JCPOA would not prevent Iran from engaging in nuclear activity in perpetuity. Of course we knew that Iran was pursuing a covert nuclear weapons program prior to 2015: That’s why we made them agree to stop it.
It also takes some chutzpah for the prime minister of Israel — whose own nuclear program involved lying to the international community, duping American nuclear inspectors, and possibly stealing highly enriched uranium from the U.S., and who has never acknowledged that program’s existence — to accuse another country of engaging in this particular kind of duplicity. But surely Netanyahu feels that the choices Israel made in its pursuit of the bomb were justified for the sake of its national security, given that it has always been surrounded by enemies.
Iran, which has been under persistent, explicit threat of attack from Israel, Saudi Arabia, and a certain nuclear superpower that spent most of the past two decades occupying two of its neighbors, probably feels the same way about continuing its ballistic missile tests and preserving its ability to restart its program in case the U.S. president makes good on his repeated threats to abrogate the JCPOA.
In other words, countries lie about their nuclear programs; it’s practically part of the job description. Once again, a lack of cognitive empathy toward Iran makes it impossible for the U.S. and our ally to understand the perfectly reasonable motivations behind some of Tehran’s decisions, which are not radically divergent from how most countries behave.
If Tehran failed to come clean about its past activities to the International Atomic Energy Agency, that’s something the IAEA should investigate. However, as James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, explains in an interview with the New Republic, everyone involved in drawing up the JCPOA knew Iran was lying when it said it never had a nuclear program. Not having to admit to lying was one of the carrots the Iranian government was offered for signing the deal.
Even if everything Netanyahu presented on Monday is verifiably true, it does not follow logically that the nuclear deal was poisoned from the get-go and should be abandoned. Notably absent from his speech was any assertion that the JCPOA is not working or that Iran is currently developing a nuclear weapon or otherwise failing to fulfill its obligations under the deal. In fact, if Iran really does have a plan for rapidly developing a nuclear weapon at the ready, that only underscores the importance of keeping the deal alive so that international inspectors can verify that the country has not put that plan into action.
Nonetheless, the Trump administration and right-wing media immediately latched onto Netanyahu’s denunciation as though it were actual evidence of the deal’s failure, Iran’s arch-villainy, and Barack Obama’s malignant ineptitude all wrapped up in one tidy package. Trump is coming up on a May 12 deadline to recertify Iran’s compliance with the deal, which he now appears even less likely to do than he was last month, despite the pesky absence of evidence that Iran is actually noncompliant.
To say that this all sounds like orchestrated propaganda to justify a war the administration has already decided to pursue is among the more believable of conspiracy theories. Whereas at past deadlines, the marginally better angels of his administration have stayed Trump’s hand, his top foreign-policy advisers are now John Bolton, who has been champing at the bit to “bomb, bomb Iran” for years now, and Mike Pompeo, who hates Islam, also wants to go to war with Iran, and just so happened to be in Riyadh on Sunday bashing the deal alongside Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir.
If Trump does decertify the JCPOA and reimpose sanctions on Iran, the deal is dead. At first, Iran would relish the opportunity to look more reasonable than the U.S., and would surely say it intended to uphold the deal along with the core European countries, Russia, and China. Slowly but surely, however, more hawkish elements within the Iranian political establishment would win the argument that a nuclear weapon was their only hedge against an American invasion. No longer benefiting from the rigorous inspection regime imposed by the deal, we’d be much less likely to observe Iran resuming its nuclear activities until it was too late to stop them.
There aren’t a lot of good alternatives to the JCPOA, although the myth of a better deal will forever be another conservative anti-Obama shibboleth. The only alternative to working within the parameters of the existing agreement to keep Iran verifiably nuke-free is the war of Bolton’s and other unreconstructed neocons’ fever dreams.
War with Iran is easy for Trump’s enablers in Jerusalem and Riyadh to contemplate: both Israel and Saudi Arabia are already engaged in proxy wars with Iran. Israel is believed to have carried out a strike on a Syrian arms depot on Sunday that killed 11 Iranians, and is now threatening to strike Iran directly if its forces or proxies in Syria target Israel itself. Before Trump’s advisers urge him to act on the basis of Monday’s “revelations,” they should consider whether Netanyahu isn’t trying to drag the U.S. along on a disastrous military misadventure of his own.