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Making Sense of Netanyahu’s Strange Slideshow

The Israeli prime minister said the Iran deal "is based on lies.” Of course it is, says nuclear expert James Acton—but the U.S. knew that.

JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just drop the most impressively timed intelligence scoop of the decade? The Israeli officials who hyped the event to journalists beforehand seemed to think so. On Monday afternoon, or 8 p.m. Israel time, the prime minister stood before a camera and delivered a low-budget PowerPoint presentation featuring photos and slides in Farsi. Israeli intelligence, he said, had uncovered evidence that Iran was working on “Project Amad,” a secret plan to develop and test nuclear weapons, in 2015 at the time of the Obama-era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The Iran nuclear deal is based on lies!” Netanyahu declared in English. “One-hundred-thousand files right here prove that they lied.” And then he appealed to Trump, who has said he will decide on whether to stay or leave the deal by May 12. “I’m sure you’ll do the right thing: The right thing for the United States, the right thing for Israel, and the right thing for the peace of the world.”

Heady brew. But is this new information the deal-breaker Netanyahu presented it as being? I asked James Acton, the co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, for his perspective on the striking twenty minutes of television.

How much of the information Netanyahu just presented was new?

Netanyahu presumably only presented a small fraction of what he has: We don’t know how much new information Israelis have in their hands. That said, what he presented seemed largely consistent with what the International Atomic Energy Agency had previously reported. In particular, in 2011 it published this long report on Iranian so-called possible military dimensions, and it talked about Project Amad there. Having not had the chance to reread that report and go through Netanyahu’s claims one by one, what I would say in general terms is that everything that he said appeared to be broadly consistent with what the IAEA had previously reported.

How significant is this information in terms of the Iran nuclear deal?

This addition is potentially significant if it’s new. The IAEA had long assumed that Iran had a nuclear weapons program, as did everyone involved in the JCPOA. The question is, Do we fully understand the extent of that program? If everything the Israelis have is consistent with everything we already knew, then at one level I would not say it was that significant. It’s clearly a concern that Iran has kept this documentation, and the IAEA should absolutely push for access to get hold of this documentation and remove it from Iran and it’s significant if there’s new information that would be helpful especially going forward for verification.

Politically, of course, this has the potential to be highly significant. We’ll have to see how it plays out in the next days and months.

But everyone involved in negotiating the JCPOA assumed that Iran was lying when it said that it had never had a nuclear weapons program and the JCPOA was developed on that basis.

So when Netanyahu says the entire basis for the deal was a lie, he’s only partly correct: Iran may have lied, but the deal was already based on the assumption that Iran had lied?

That’s absolutely correct. I would say that the basis for the deal was a face-saving way out for Iran whereby we didn’t make the Iranians fess up that they had a nuclear weapons program. Of course it would have been better if they had been willing to do that. But in order to get the deal we chose not to force the Iranians to fess up.

I’m obviously not condoning Iran lying to the IAEA, and of course these documents need to be fully investigated for their veracity and the IAEA should push Iran on the information found in these documents. So I’m not saying we should just ignore it. But I am saying that we forged the Iran deal on the basis that Iran had a nuclear weapons program that it wasn’t about to admit to.

Speaking in terms of political strategy, is it a coincidence that this press conference came twelve days before Trump is scheduled to have his deadline on deciding?

Well, if it’s really true that Israel only got the documents, as Netanyahu said, last week, it obviously does seem to be a remarkable coincidence. That Netanyahu wanted to make them public right away is obviously not a coincidence. Netanyahu basically acknowledged at the end of the speech he wants Trump to withdraw from the Iran deal.

I don’t think you can divorce this, to be frank, from Netanyahu’s political problems at home, either. He probably sees this as being useful in that regard, too.

Any thoughts on the format of the speech, both in terms of the PowerPoint and the language Netanyahu chose to address people in?

Well it was obviously very unusual, I think probably unprecedented, to have a national leader presenting raw intelligence like that. It clearly has shades of Colin Powell at the U.N. in 2003 and of further back Adlai Stevenson at the U.N. Security Council in 1962, presenting the photos of Soviet missiles in Cuba, but they weren’t heads of government. I would say this had risks associated with it. If, for example, it were to be discovered that small items were mistranlated, that could potentially open him up to a whole load of criticism. I think it remains to be seen how this is received. To be honest with you I don’t have a good sense of how this is going to be received within the U.S., within Israel, elsewhere. It’s so unusual we really don’t really have much to judge it against.

Is there anything else in this speech that casual listeners and laypeople might not have appreciated?

As I said, Netanyahu didn’t give any indication that the IAEA knew about project Amad and had already written extensively about lots of these different activities. And clearly if you’re just tuning into this speech, if you haven’t been working this portfolio for ten years, why would you be aware of the fact that the IAEA has written about these activities extensively? So the thing that struck me most about this was the lack of context he presented.

What do you see as the stakes here?

Look, I’m somebody who for many years was very worried about Iran’s nuclear program. I’m certainly not an Iran apologist. I argued publicly multiple occasions before the JCPOA was signed that Iran’s violations were quite a problem and we shouldn’t brush them under the carpet.

I believe the JCPOA is a good deal: It provides the most plausible way of preventing Iran from getting the bomb. And I think the survival of the JCPOA may well be settled in the next few weeks. There is a significant risk, if the JCPOA falls apart, that we could be left in a situation of rapidly rising tensions with Iran, in which Iran is stockpiling more uranium enriched to a higher level that could ultimately end in a war, and I don’t believe it’s going to be possible to reconstruct the JCPOA or at least it’s going to be extremely difficult. So the escalating tensions here, I think, bode badly for the security of the region and the world more generally.

Given that there’s this risk of escalation if the deal is scrapped, what was Netanyahu hoping for with this presentation?

I honestly don’t know what Netanyahu wants and I’m not even sure he knows what he really wants out of this. It’s clear that he doesn’t like the JCPOA. It’s also not clear to me that he actually wants a war with Iran, or that there’s any deal that he would consider good enough.

Now, look, it’s not up to me to try to work out what Netanyahu wants. But at best he has been extremely vague in explaining what he wants, and I think his position would be a lot more credible if he could articulate a clear alternative.