Netanyahu’s latest ‘show and tell’ not just about theatrics
The current prime minister of Israel is no stranger to theatrical appearances. Back in February, while speaking to a high-profile audience at the Berlin Security Conference, Benjamin Netanyahu held above his head a piece of wreckage from an Iranian drone shot down over Israeli territory. Also memorable is his 2012 speech to the UN General Assembly, where Netanyahu presented a cartoon-type drawing of a bomb, on which he wrote with a red pen to illustrate his argument that Iran was close to reaching enough weapons-grade material for a nuclear bomb.
On Monday, Netanyahu made another visually-rich presentation about Iran, accusing the regime of cheating on the nuclear deal. In a televised prime-time news conference held at Israel’s Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu displayed through slides and photographs what he said was only a small part of tens of thousands of documents he labeled “Atomic Archives.”
The files extracted from a Tehran warehouse by Mossad represent, according to Israel’s PM, “new and conclusive” evidence that Iran has pursued a nuclear weapons program even after it signed the nuclear deal. He ended the presentation with words of confidence that US President Donald Trump “will do the right thing” by May 12 and place Iran in material breach of the nuclear deal.
This latest peculiar message from Netanyahu comes at a critical time, only a week and a half away from the deadline for the US president to decide whether or not he will issue a sanctions waiver on Iran. But it also comes in the context of a near state of war between Israel and Iran, with the two sides increasingly locked in a spiral of aggressive moves and declarations, mostly around Iran’s activities in Syria. And Netanyahu’s domestic travails, too, may have propelled him to organize this latest “show and tell” session.
Contrary to what he claimed, much of the documentation hardly represents new evidence or an obvious violation of the nuclear deal. Following Netanyahu’s remarks, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed it had access to many of those same documents as far back as 2005.
Netanyahu’s move is almost unanimously seen as a final attempt to persuade Trump to make good on his campaign promise to abandon the nuclear deal.
Dr. Manuel Almeida
It is well-established that Iran has lied about pursuing a nuclear weapons program until 2003 –- and continues to deny ever having done so. As the 2007 United States National Intelligence Estimate stated: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” Tehran later reactivated the program and installed thousands of centrifuges to enrich uranium, leading to the international sanctions program and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Reportedly, the main issue lies with the fact that the documents seem to show Iran’s nuclear program was on a larger scale than had been previously thought and that Iran retains the capacity to eventually resume a nuclear weapons program. Right after Israel’s revelations, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, said on TV that Iran has the technical capability to enrich uranium to higher levels than it could before the nuclear deal: “Technically, we are fully prepared to enrich uranium higher than we used to produce before the deal was reached … I hope Trump comes to his senses and stays in the deal.”
Official reactions from Washington backed Netanyahu’s claims. “I think, if anything, what’s happening today and what’s happened over the last little while … has really shown that I’m 100 percent right” about the nuclear deal, President Trump said.
After last week’s meetings of the US president with the president of France and the German chancellor, reactions by the E3 (Britain, France and Germany) have similarly emphasized that the documentation only reinforces the need for the nuclear deal and its monitoring mechanisms.
Netanyahu’s move is almost unanimously seen as a final attempt to persuade President Trump to make good on his campaign promise to abandon the nuclear deal. It was widely noted that Netanyahu’s announcement came right after his meeting with Mike Pompeo, the new secretary of state. It was also a reminder to US Congress, which will have a say on the reimposition of sanctions on Iran in case the US president decides not to renew the waiver, about the Iranian nuclear threat.
Recent developments in Syria loom large. On Sunday, just a day before Israel’s PM launched his accusations, the latest Israeli missile strikes at Syria regime’s two military bases, supported by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, reportedly killed more than 20 people, among whom are believed to be Iranians. This happened as rumors were growing about an imminent Iranian retaliation to Israeli strikes in early April that reportedly killed seven IRGC personnel in another air base in Syria.
The same day as Netanyahu’s press conference, the Knesset handed Israel’s PM the authority to declare war and order major military operations only in consultation with the defense minister -– at present the hawkish Avigdor Lieberman –- dropping the cabinet vote requirement.
Dennis Ross, former director of policy planning at the US State Department, explains in a recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal how the recent strikes could be a game-changer: “Israel’s practice has been to strike targets in Syria that are involved with, among other things, the Iranian transfer of qualitatively new weapons to Hezbollah — but never to acknowledge it. So long as the Israelis said nothing publicly, neither the Iranians nor Hezbollah had to retaliate to avoid losing face.
“But with the Iranians losing at least seven Quds Force officers in the Israeli attack, and the Russians declaring Israeli responsibility, the Iranians have been exposed. Their media is now giving significant coverage not just to the attack but the declarations of senior officials like Ali Akbar Velayati that Iran will retaliate.”
But there are also domestic factors. Apart from another brewing crisis of the Palestinian issue, fueled by the announced move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Israel’s PM is struggling politically and could soon be indicted on corruption charges. Increasingly, Netanyahu’s leverage lies with his national security credentials.
- Dr. Manuel Almeida is a political analyst and consultant focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a PhD in international relations from the London School of Economics. Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida