Netanyahu's Bizarre PowerPoint Presentation on Iran

Israel’s leader says Iran cheated on the nuclear deal, adding doubts about the agreement’s survival. But he mostly described past programs.

Prime Minister Netanyahu in front of a screen that reads "Iran lied"
Amir Cohen / Reuters

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that Israel had uncovered documents showing that Iranian officials had lied when they said the country had never pursued nuclear weapons, adding that the Islamic Republic had a detailed plan to develop nuclear weapons—and had hidden the relevant documents away in an archive in Tehran.

“I’m here to tell you one thing: Iran lied. Big time,” Netanyahu said in a presentation that included details from what he said were the Iranian documents.

He said Iran had moved its atomic archives to a secret location in Tehran’s Shorabad district, and that Israel had obtained half a ton of material from inside these vaults a few weeks ago, including 55,000 pages, and 55,000 files on 183 CDs.

“We’ve shared this material with the United States, and the United States can vouch for its authenticity,” he said, continuing that Israel was willing to share the material with other countries and the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement.

He said documents pertaining to Iran’s nuclear program, Project Amad, were secretly being stored by Tehran until a later time when it could develop nuclear weapons. The goal of that program, he said, was to design, produce, and test five nuclear warheads with a yield of 10 kilotons. The IAEA has known about Project Amad well before the signing of the nuclear agreement in the Iran nuclear deal, in 2015, and published material on it in 2011.

Israeli media reported that Meir Ben-Shabbat, the country’s national-security adviser, spoke with his counterparts from the United Kingdom, France, and Germany on Israel’s new intelligence. The three countries, along with Russia, China, the U.S., and the European Union, were party to the nuclear agreement with Iran.

What Netanyahu was hoping to achieve with his presentation is not clear. His skepticism about Iran’s intentions and its commitment to the nuclear agreement is well known. Those hoping for a smoking gun of Iran’s cheating on the deal, in which it agreed to curb its nuclear program, were likely to be disappointed. The fact that Iran was at one point pursuing nuclear weapons will likely be a surprise to no one—and indeed was a rationale for concluding the nuclear agreement in the first place. Many of the slides Netanyahu showed pertained to the period from 1999 to 2003, during which the U.S. also cited evidence of an Iranian nuclear-weapons program, and after which a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate said the program had been shut down. His main evidence that Iran had cheated on the nuclear deal was that it had not fully disclosed the details of its past nuclear programs to the IAEA, as required by the nuclear deal—though the agreement did not tie that requirement to either implementation of the deal or sanctions relief.

Still, Netanyahu’s announcement could have dramatic consequences not only for the future of the nuclear deal, which is known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but also in stoking the already high tensions between Israel and Iran. Netanyahu made his comments hours after an unnamed military force conducted a strike on Iranian targets in Syria. Suspicion immediately fell on Israel, which has carried out dozens of similar strikes, and which neither confirms nor denies its activities inside Syria.

As to the Obama-era nuclear agreement itself, Donald Trump has called it “the worst deal in history.” His advisers, as well as his European allies, have hoped to persuade him to remain in the JCPOA, arguing that it is achieving what it is intended to do—prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. But French President Emmanuel Macron told French media last week, after his visit to Washington, D.C., that he believed Trump “will get rid of this deal on his own, for domestic reasons.” Trump has until May 12 to decide. Netanyahu’s speech could help give him a rationale to withdraw—or, should he want to save the deal, give him wiggle room to reimpose nuclear sanctions without fully withdrawing.

European leaders have lobbied to preserve the JCPOA. They maintain that the agreement did not set out to curtail the Islamic Republic’s nonnuclear actions in the region—its ballistic-missile tests, involvement in the Syrian civil war and in Iraqi politics, role in the conflict in Yemen, and continued support for Shia proxies. These are all factors that opponents of the deal cite while pointing to the JCPOA’s weaknesses, and ones that Netanyahu did not cite in his speech.

But the biggest complaints cover the pact’s “sunset” provisions, which Netanyahu also alluded to, and under which certain restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program expire in eight, 10, and 15 years. The deal’s opponents say these provisions allow the Islamic Republic to freely resume a nuclear-weapons program after those periods end, and that the deal merely delays the time it would take for Iran to have nuclear weapons. On Monday, Netanyahu argued that Iran’s intent in preserving its atomic archive was to resume the program eventually. But the agreement’s supporters call the sunset-clause criticism a willful misreading of the JCPOA. They say that the deal places other permanent restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program.

Netanyahu is a long-standing critic of the pact, though Israeli national-security experts have previously said that the JCPOA is accomplishing its goals. (Efraim Halevy, the former head of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, said over the weekend that the JCPOA had “positive elements in it.”) The Israeli leader says he views Iran as an existential threat. The rhetoric of the Islamic Republic’s clerical leadership, as well as Tehran’s financial and military support for Hezbollah, which fought Israel for decades in Lebanon, and Hamas, the Palestinian militant organization that governs the Gaza Strip, shows the basis for Netanyahu’s fears. Iran’s growing influence in Syria, where it supports the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, is an added factor, as it gives Iran’s proxies a land border with Israel.

And the Israeli–Iranian confrontation goes beyond diplomacy. Fearful that Iran is seeking a permanent military presence inside Syria, Israel has struck several times inside the country—most recently, apparently, Sunday night, after which at least 22 people were reported to have been killed. There has been no claim of responsibility for that strike, though that was not the case earlier this month when Israel struck a military base inside Syria, the T4 base, where Iran is known to operate, reportedly killing 14 people. Israel says Iran uses the base to transfer weapons to Hezbollah. Israel also struck the base in February after an Iranian drone launched from the base entered Israeli territory. Tehran has so far done little to retaliate.

The latest attack inside Syria, and Netanyahu’s speech, came after multiple high-level contacts between the U.S. and Israel.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is still in the Middle East, met with Israeli officials on Sunday and said the U.S. was “deeply concerned about Iran’s dangerous escalation of threats to Israel and the region and Iran’s ambition to dominate the Middle East remains.” Netanyahu also spoke Sunday with Trump to discuss “the Iranian regime’s destabilizing activities,” the White House said. Last week, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman met with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis in Washington, hours after Mattis told lawmakers that the prospect of a conflict between Iran and Israel was “very likely.” Additionally, General Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military interests across the Middle East, visited Israel last week and met with his senior Israeli counterparts.

“All this is beginning to look rather like a coordinated Israeli–American operation to limit Iran’s military activities in Syria—simultaneously conveying the message to Moscow that Russia’s green light for Iran to establish itself militarily in Syria is not acceptable in Jerusalem and Washington,” Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel’s Middle East analyst, wrote. Haaretz’s Noa Landau reported that Netanyahu had informed Trump and Pompeo about the information he unveiled Monday.

In any case, Trump has a decision about the nuclear deal coming up. America’s major allies in Europe and Israel have made their preferences clear, from opposite sides of the debate. The agreement’s fate now rests with Trump. “I’m sure he’ll do the right thing,” Netanyahu said of the U.S. president.  “The right thing for the United States. The right thing for Israel. And the right thing for the peace of the world.”