Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu certainly hyped a speech today in which he was to announce stunning news about the Iran deal, specifically Iran’s intent to “deceive” the international community. Naturally, you’d think the results of an espionage operation that lifted a treasure trove of Iranian documents would show some new evidence Iran is violating the deal. Nope. And despite genuine admiration for another Israeli intelligence coup, the entire presentation left observers wondering what all of this was about.

Speaking from the Kiryia military headquarters in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu, speaking mainly in English, said, “Iran’s leaders repeatedly deny ever pursuing nuclear weapons,” said Netanyahu. “Tonight I’m here to tell you one thing: Iran lied.”
“After signing the nuclear deal in 2015, Iran intensified its efforts to hide its secret files,” he said. “In 2017 Iran moved its nuclear weapons files to a highly secret location in Tehran.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the international community, when it entered into the deal, knew Iran lied and knew it had previously pursued a weapons program. The Obama administration in coordination with the other P5+1 countries entered into a deal to stop that weapons program, choosing not to demand a complete accounting of the past. That was, in the minds of critics of the deal, a foolish strategic decision, but opponents who raised this very point ultimately couldn’t persuade Congress and the administration to hold out for better terms. (Notice Netanyahu says Iran hid the files of past work, not that it hid material or facilities that run afoul of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.)

In short, it’s no news that Iran had a nuclear weapons program, although it’s impressive the Israelis were able to lift the documents evidencing this. What Netanyahu did not display and what we have yet to find evidence of is Iran’s cheating on the terms of the JCPOA. Longtime Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross tells me, “It is not new to say that the Iranians lied.  It is not new to say that the Iranians were not required to come clean on their whole nuclear program — something that was a major flaw in the deal, partly because it allowed them to claim they had never worked on a nuclear weapon when we know that they had.” He continues, ” You may recall that [former secretary of state John] Kerry said we know they did, so we don’t need to require them to say it.”

President Trump said on April 30 that the Iran nuclear deal is "not acceptable," and that Israel's claims about their weapons program prove that he's right. (The Washington Post)

The rest of Netanyahu’s presentation is also a restatement of the arguments against making the deal in the first place. He said, “Even after the deal, Iran continued to preserve and expand its nuclear know-how for future use.” That is another perfectly valid complaint about the deal, but allowing certain types of nuclear research to continue is a flaw in the deal; not evidence of cheating. Ross notes that if there is evidence of ongoing work on the weapons program (not simply enrichment) not allowed by the JCPOA that would be “a violation of the highest order: they would be violating the Iranian commitment not ever to pursue, acquire or develop a nuclear weapon.” But where is evidence of that? “That is not clear from what the prime minister said,” Ross says. “But it would be a serious violation and would need to be answered — and, if so, the Europeans (and maybe the Chinese) would join us in that.  If not, however, then what the PM presented is not new.”

It seems rather that Netanyahu is simply complaining the deal allowed Iran to do too much. The Times of Israel reported:

Repeating his past criticisms of the deal, Netanyahu said the accord gave Iran a “clear path” to uranium enrichment and did not address its missile program or nuclear weapons ambitions.
“This is a terrible deal. It should never have been concluded,” he said.

But it was concluded, and now the question remains what to do about it. If pulling out of the deal —  or threatening to pull out of the deal — would fix its infirmities, the Europeans would be in lock step with Trump. The problem, however, is that the West currently has little or no leverage to force Iran back to the table. Iran is in compliance; sanctions are suspended and the Europeans are happy to do business to the extent possible in Iran. Pulling out means Iran is free to pursue its program,  and the United States as odd man out.

Defenders of the deal will say that Netanyahu inadvertently showed that Iran is in compliance. In all that trove of espionage, they’d point out, there is no evidence Iran is currently in violation of the agreement. The dilemma is still how to make the deal stronger.

Why would Netanyahu put on this show if ultimately it didn’t deliver the killer proof of Iran cheating? Most likely, he figured (not unreasonably) that he’d bamboozle Trump into believing Iran is currently cheating. Trump hears what he wants to hear, and is already disposed to undo the Obama administration’s signature achievement. It is altogether possible that President Trump will nix the deal — with just a little push from Netanyahu.

Nevertheless, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (and perhaps others) will have to break it to Trump: There is no evidence Iran is in violation of the deal, and the Europeans won’t agree to reimpose sanctions absent such proof. The choice remains whether to isolate ourselves or stay in the deal while building up leverage in other ways.

What is the end game for Trump and Netanyahu if the United States backs out? That’s far from clear. Iran could stay in the deal, and the United States would face the prospect of having to sanction our allies’ companies. Iran could say the deal is over, deny the inspectors access and choose at its discretion to restart the program. Regardless, what we would not have is an improved JCPOA — and we’d have lost support of our allies not only in the JCPOA arena but in taking stronger measures against Iran on non-nuclear items.

Netanyahu could of course push Trump to take military action, but in the absence of any evidence Iran is racing to a bomb that simply isn’t going to happen in the United States. Unless Netanyahu has some dream of a unilateral action to knock out Iran’s facilities without starting another regional war, it’s hard to figure out where he does if he successfully eggs Trump into pulling out.

Perhaps we’ll get a clearer idea of the end game before the May 12 deadline. Our fear is there isn’t one, and the game of chicken will wind up reigniting Iran’s nuclear program with little recourse for the West. As Ross says, “a credible ‘day after’ strategy is needed.”