How Benjamin Netanyahu accidentally made the case for the Iran nuclear deal

Iran armed with nuclear weapons is an enormous geopolitical risk. All the more reason for a deal. 

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There may be no Iran Deal after 12 May 2018. But as concerns rise about Donald Trump’s commitment, one man has set out to save the deal and draw the world’s attention to it. In a mysterious turn of events, that man is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In what was undoubtedly a coup for Israeli intelligence, Mossad obtained 55,000 pages from Iran’s nuclear archive. The files detail an extensive Iranian nuclear weapons program from the years preceding 2003. Those involved in this research, Netanyahu stated, were still part of Iran’s nuclear development personnel. Iran had misled the world on its intentions, and the foundations of trust in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or Iran Deal, were void. 

Netanyahu has long been an opponent of the Iran nuclear deal and his speech was addressed to one man only: Donald Trump. With a new and ever more hawkish team in the White House, including John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, Netanyahu is striking while the iron is hot. But the prime minister has undone himself. 

The “Iran Lied” presentation, in which the PM stood in front of a PowerPoint presentation saying exactly that, was a classic example of Netanyahu showmanship, reminiscent of his “Nuclear Duck” speech to the American Israel public affairs committee some years ago. Far from making the case for abandoning the deal, Netanyahu’s speech rehashed the case for its importance.

The facts Netanyahu presented have long since been known to the US and Europe. The French Foreign Ministry clarified in its response to the speech that this chimed with information gathered in 2002. For its part, the White House stated the Netanyahu’s revelations “are consistent with what the United States has long known.” The initial statement went on to declare that Iran “has” a clandestine nuclear weapons programme; a later statement adjusted this to make it the past tense.

That Iran has in the past sought to develop nuclear weapons, then, is clear. But Netanyahu had no smoking gun; no conclusive piece of evidence to show that any nuclear development was taking place in the here and now.

Much of this fact is owed to the Iran Deal. The logical international response to a state developing new nuclear capabilities is to place them under stringent observation and subject them to intense scrutiny. Luckily, this is already in place under the JCPOA. The deal turned back the clock on Iran’s nuclear program and limited the country’s enrichment abilities. It still radiates a distrust of the Islamic Republic, though: a rolling decertification allows sanctions to “snap-back” if necessary.

And there is much to be distrusted. As Iran continues to test and develop ballistic missiles, it attracts American rancour for its involvement in proxy wars in Syria and Yemen. The country insists that its ballistic missile program is a peaceful deterrent, but flouts the spirit of the agreement through it.

Still, Netanyahu and others are expecting too much. The deal was not designed to remould Iran in the West’s image of it. Quite the opposite. It was based on a calculation that something had to be done to end the capabilities most disagreeable to the US and Europe. An Iran armed with nuclear weapons is an enormous geopolitical risk: it would render the Islamic Republic a regional kingmaker, exacerbate tensions with Israel even further and allow the country to continue its support for Bashar al Assad with impunity.

Withdrawal from the deal would allow Iran to resume its enrichment activities. It would no longer have to put up with the burden of compulsory observation. It is a threat Iran has made multiple times since the deal has been in place. But it is thanks to the JCPOA that these threats have been limited to rhetoric alone. 

The information Netanyahu presented on Monday debunks the notion that the US and Europe entered into the JCPOA naively. The parties possessed much of the information Netanyahu unveiled, and used it as evidence for the urgency of a solution.

This sort of nuance may be lost on Donald Trump, whose erratic staff and policies continue to confound. By threatening to withdraw from the deal he plays to continued Iranian attempts to drive a stake between the US and Europe. But Trump is still the one-man audience of a domestically embattled Netanyahu. If Trump does decertify the deal on 12 May 2018, he will be the only one Netanyahu managed to convince. 

Daniel Amir is a Tel-Aviv-born graduate of Oxford University in Persian Studies and an MSc candidate in Conflict Studies at the London School of Economics. He has extensive experience in counter-terrorism and foreign policy research in Jerusalem, London, and Washington DC. Follow him @Daniel_Amir1