by Joseph Braude*
On April 30 in a public appearance at Israel’s Ministry of Defense, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented evidence that Iran had preserved a massive archive of advanced research and design plans for the development of a nuclear weapon. He displayed the archive itself — 110,000 files, he said, contained in shelves of three-ring binders and CDs — and described their having been smuggled out of Iran by Israeli intelligence agents. The documents appeared to confirm the existence of “Project Amad,” which Netanyahu described as “a comprehensive program to design, build, and test nuclear weapons.” Prior to the extraction of the archives from Iran by Israel, he asserted, Iran had been secretly preserving it for eventual use. A slide presentation which the Prime Minister curated featured models of warheads as well as locations of Iranian sites in which nuclear tests were to have been performed.
The appearance, broadcast on Israeli television, was covered on five continents, including the media of those Arab countries where the leadership shares Israel’s opposition to Iranian nuclear aspirations and regional expansionism. It naturally attracted attention within Iran and the territory of its Arab proxies, where the substance of the presentation was generally distorted by local media.
David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, opined that the information Israel shared was significant in that it proved Iran’s intentions. “They could have destroyed these documents,” Albright told Bloomberg correspondent Eli Lake, “but these were being carefully protected and hidden with the intention to reuse them when they launch their weapons program.” Other observers noted as well that the Israeli presentation appeared to give the lie to repeated assertions by Iran’s Supreme Leader, President, and Foreign Minister that Iran never intended to build a nuclear weapon.
Public reactions to the new information fell along a familiar JCPOA dividing line: Opponents of the deal hailed the evidence as a vindication of their concerns, while defenders either dismissed it or claimed the presentation unwittingly made their case
The Israeli presentation arrived 12 days ahead of a crucial May 12 deadline: U.S. President Donald Trump is due to decide whether to renew a sanctions waiver on Iran as per the terms of the JCPOA, or allow the waiver to end, effectively exiting the deal. Amid a heated American and international debate over what choice Trump should make, Netanyahu’s presentation has been widely understood as the Israeli government’s closing argument in that debate. Subsequent reporting noted that the White House became aware of the Israeli intelligence coup in March and received advance notice of the Prime Minister’s presentation.
Public reactions to the new information fell, for the most part, along a familiar JCPOA dividing line: Opponents of the deal hailed the evidence as a vindication of their concerns, while defenders either dismissed it or claimed the presentation unwittingly made their case.
Among the supportive voices, the White House registered approval of the Israeli government presentation in an official statement. The archives Israel had obtained, according to the statement, were further proof that Iran “had a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program.” The following day, sounding a note of support for White House policies, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told CBS This Morning that she had always opposed the deal because its verification methods “were not very strong.” The Israeli evidence confirmed the need for free and unfettered access to suspected nuclear sites, she said, which the JCPOA has neither promised nor delivered. Nor would it be “the end of the world” if Trump leaves the deal, she added, and expressed confidence that Trump would do “the right thing for the United States, the right thing for Israel, and the right thing for the world.” Others expressed appreciation for the presentation for reasons exceeding the polemics of the nuclear deal. Jonathan Schanzer of the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies — a think tank highly critical of the JCPOA — told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz,”The most dramatic revelation for me was that Israel lifted 100,000 physical documents out of Iran. This was as big a blow to Iran as the intel that was revealed. … Spies steal documents all the time. But this was a huge cache. And usually, spy agencies keep quiet after the intelligence is lifted. Not so with the Israelis. They are broadcasting this – making it as much a psychological operation as a revelation about Iran’s nuclear mendacity.”
As to domestic American statements critical of the Israeli presentation, they were waged largely by Obama Administration veterans and other former government officials who have emerged either as outspoken JCPOA defenders or outspoken Trump detractors. Rob Malley, a former senior Mideast policy official for President Obama, told reporters that “there is nothing new in [the Israeli Prime Minister’s] presentation. All it does is vindicate the need for the nuclear deal.” Malley expressed a more narrow view than Schanzer with respect to Netanyahu’s intentions in making the information public: “The Israeli Prime Minister has an audience of one: Trump.” In a similar vein, former CIA chief Michael Hayden downplayed the Netanyahu’s presentation as “old news.” “We created a national intelligence estimate in 2007 that said that the Iranians had stopped the weaponization part of their program,” he said, “– missiles still going on, centrifuges still spinning — but the actual building of the weapon, that they had stopped in 2003.” Hayden did not substantively speak to the potential significance of Iran’s preservation of the “Project Amad” archive.
None of the statements by Western opponents of the deal appeared to grapple with the weakness of the deal’s verification methods.
As to Western reactions outside the United States, voices committed to the JCPOA in its present form tended to display defensiveness, downplay the significance of the Iranian archives, or assert that the Israeli findings only reinforce their believe that the deal should live on in its present form. Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, dismissed Israel’s evidence as adding nothing to the record, yet criticized Israel for having taken it to the public before providing a copy to the “proper, legitimate, recognized mechanisms.” The International Atomic Energy Agency, for its part, offered a tempered statement Tuesday to the effect that the presentation had not changed its assessment of the Iranian nuclear program: “A range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device were conducted in Iran prior to the end of 2003 as a coordinated effort, and some activities took place after 2003. The Agency also assessed that these activities did not advance beyond feasibility and scientific studies, and the acquisition of certain relevant technical competences and capabilities.” Parisian and British officials, for their part, joined those American voices that insisted Israel’s evidence only strengthened case for the JCPOA. “The pertinence of the [Iran] deal is reinforced by the details presented by Israel,” read a statement by the French foreign ministry. “All activity linked to the development of a nuclear weapon is permanently forbidden by the deal.” French foreign ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll dubbed the agreement among “the most comprehensive and robust in the history of nuclear non-proliferation.” Along the same lines, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said, “[The Israeli Prime MInister’s] presentation on Iran’s past research into nuclear weapons technology underlines the importance of keeping the Iran nuclear deal’s constraints on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. … The Iran nuclear deal is not based on trust about Iran’s intentions, rather it is based on tough verification, including measures that allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) unprecedented access to Iran’s nuclear programme.” None of these statements appeared to grapple with the weakness of the deal’s verification methods to which Condoleezza Rice referred in her comments.
This range of divergent public reactions reflects the deeply entrenched positions a range of powers have formed on one of the most contentious diplomatic arrangements of the twenty-first century thus far. To recall Rob Malley’s observation, the lynchpin of the Iran deal’s future lies, until May 12 at least, with the President of the United States — and what he chooses to make of the information placed before him.
*Middle East specialist Joseph Braude is the author of Broadcasting Change: Arabic Media as a Catalyst for Liberalism (Rowman & Littlefield). He is Advisor to the Al-Mesbar Center for Research and Studies and tweets @josephbraude.