What Netanyahu Did and Didn't Say About Iran's Nuclear Program

What Israel’s prime minister included in his presentation is as striking as what he left out.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pointing to a map on a slideshow image
Amir Cohen / Reuters

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a speech Monday that he billed as showing “something that the world has never seen.” He vowed to provide evidence of Iran’s duplicity over its nuclear program, and especially its obligations to the nuclear agreement Tehran signed in 2015 with the world’s powers. But much of the speech concerned details of Iran’s covert nuclear program from the years 1999 to 2003, and it provided no smoking-gun evidence that those programs were continuing in violation of the deal—something that would have given Donald Trump’s administration the justification it might be looking for to withdraw from it.

Here’s what the speech, which was made mostly in English (ostensibly for a Western audience), did say about Iran’s nuclear program.

“Iran lied about never having a nuclear-weapons program.”

Iranian officials have consistently denied pursuing nuclear weapons, even when evidence of their nuclear-weapons activities were cited by international inspectors. Iran’s lack of credibility on the issue is part of what, after years of negotiations, persuaded China, the European Union, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States to sign the nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), with the Islamic Republic, in 2015. One key component is to make Iran subject to strict international verification that it is complying; otherwise it could be subject to renewed sanctions.

“Even after the deal, Iran continued to preserve and expand its nuclear know-how for future use.”

Netanyahu’s presentation revealed information that he said Iran had locked away in a secret vault in Tehran. Israel obtained this information, he said, only a few weeks ago. The Israeli leader said the fact that Iran had “intensified its efforts to hide its secret files” after the JCPOA was signed showed that the republic still intended to pursue nuclear weapons at a future date. This, he said, underscored the danger of “sunset provisions” in the nuclear deal, which lift some restrictions on Iran after a certain time period has elapsed; Iran retains the knowledge to try for a bomb later.

“Iran lied … in 2015 when it didn’t come clean to the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] as required by the nuclear deal.”

Netanyahu said the JCPOA required Iran to fully disclose its nuclear activities, though this is not in the text of the deal. Netanyahu asserted that the Islamic Republic had violated the agreement through its pointed denials that it even had a weapons program. This was the most concrete evidence he gave of a violation. Most of his presentation dealt with weapons programs that both U.S. intelligence and international inspectors knew about previously and assessed to now be dormant. But Netanyahu said that some of the same individuals who had worked on Iran’s nuclear-weapons program went on, after the weapons programs formally shut down, to work in dual-use projects disguised as civilian nuclear work, which may be going on to this day. (International monitors say Iran is complying with the agreement.)

“The nuclear deal is based on lies. It is based on Iranian lies and Iranian deception. … 100,000 files right here prove that they lied.”

Netanyahu has long been a critic of the deal—and of Iran. He believes that the regime in Tehran cannot be trusted, and his presentation was intended to persuade his allies in the international community in general, and in Washington, D.C., in particular, of this argument. As Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who is a staunch critic of the JCPOA, said on Twitter: “Simple takeaway from Netanyahu presentation: Iran regime conducted nuclear weaponization activities, lied to the IAEA and to the world & hid 100,000+ documents, videos, photos with the instructions to restart a nuke weapons program at a time of its choosing.”

What Netanyahu did not say about the JCPOA is perhaps as important as what he said about Iran’s actions.

He did not say the nuclear deal was not working.

Even some of the JCPOA’s critics concede that it is, in the short term at least, achieving its stated goal: preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Opponents of the agreement generally say it doesn’t restrict Iran’s other malign activities, pointing, for instance, to its ballistic-missile program and its support for proxies in Syria and Yemen. But the nuclear agreement’s architects say it was never meant to address those issues. Netanyahu called the deal “terrible,” but he made no claim about its efficacy.

He did not explicitly say Iran was working on a bomb.

Although Netanyahu said Iran had lied about possessing a nuclear-weapons program, and that it had hidden its plans for one in the hopes of picking it up at a later date, he did not say the Islamic Republic wasn’t living up to its international commitments. In that, he reflected the consensus of the IAEA, which must regularly certify Iran’s compliance with the agreement, as well as that of the other countries that signed the deal—including the U.S.

He did not explicitly urge the U.S. to withdraw.

This was perhaps the most striking aspect of the Israeli leader’s presentation. He railed against Iran and its nuclear activities, and called the JCPOA a “terrible deal” that “should never have been concluded.” But he stopped short of urging withdrawal, simply saying he hoped Trump would “do the right thing.” It may be that the Israeli leader didn’t want to be seen as putting public pressure on Trump, who must decide by May 12 whether or not the U.S. will remain party to the agreement. A flurry of visits between U.S. and Israeli officials over the past week indicated that the two countries are at least discussing their actions on Iran. Netanyahu said Israel had shared the information made public Monday with the U.S.—and was willing to share it with others, as well. In Washington, Trump said:  “We’ll see what happens. I’m not telling you what I’m doing, but a lot of people think they know, and on or before [May 12] we’ll make a decision.”