Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference with President Trump in the East Room of the White House in Washington in February 2017. (Pete Marovich/Bloomberg News)
Opinion writer

In a statement issued by the White House on Monday in response to the presentation by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Trump administration claimed: “The United States is aware of the information just released by Israel and continues to examine it carefully. This information provides new and compelling details about Iran’s efforts to develop missile-deliverable nuclear weapons. These facts are consistent with what the United States has long known: Iran has a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program that it has tried and failed to hide from the world and from its own people.”

The only problem with that: Netanyahu never claimed that Iran still has its nuclear weapons program. If it did, that would be a grievous violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — and a huge intelligence failure by the United States in not uncovering this previously.

Not to worry, though. A short time later, the administration reissued the statement saying, “Iran had a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program that it has tried and failed to hide from the world and from its own people.” (Emphasis added.) One might see this as a horrifically sloppy error on a matter of great significance. The difference between “had” and “has” is the difference between Iran complying with the deal and Iran violating the deal. Alternatively, suspicious minds might wonder whether the statement was an attempt to play fast and loose with the facts, an all-too-eager effort to justify the U.S. pullout from the deal. If so, it was a clumsy effort that inevitably had to be corrected. In either event, one is entitled to conclude that the National Security Council is not running as a well-oiled machine. (Remember that new national security adviser John Bolton has let a number of staffers go since taking office.) The change in language only underscored that Iran is indeed in compliance with the JCPOA currently.

If Europeans are concerned that the administration is rushing to justify a pullout and acting recklessly without a day-after plan, this gaffe will not increase their confidence. Indeed, the entire media show that was meant to convey that Iran previously lied about its program (which we knew) wasn’t going to convince anyone not already determined to end the deal.

In fairness, the statement from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was more professional, detailed and effective:

For many years, the Iranian regime has insisted to the world that its nuclear program was peaceful. The documents obtained by Israel from inside of Iran show beyond any doubt that the Iranian regime was not telling the truth. …

Among the flaws of the Iran nuclear deal was the whitewashing of Iran’s illicit activities related to its military nuclear program. Iran had many opportunities over the years to turn over its files to international inspectors from the [International Atomic Energy Agency] and admit its nuclear weapons work. Instead, they lied to the IAEA repeatedly. They also lied about their program to the six nations who negotiated the Iran nuclear deal.

Aside from the fact that opponents and proponents of the deal knew that Iran had an active nuclear program, it’s not clear what this means as a policy matter. Pompeo was restrained. (“We are therefore assessing what the discovery of Iran’s secret nuclear files means for the future of the JCPOA. Allowing restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program to sunset was a mistake. … As the President’s May 12 deadline to fix the Iran deal approaches, I will be consulting with our European allies and other nations on the best way forward in light of what we now know about Iran’s past pursuit of nuclear weapons and its systematic deception of the world.”)

On Sunday, France, Germany and Britain made clear where they stand — and it is virtually certain that the latest PR push won’t affect their thinking. Politico reported:

The leaders of the U.K., Germany and France agreed this weekend that the Iran nuclear deal is the “best way” to prevent the country from becoming armed with nuclear weapons.

British Prime Minister Theresa May spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel separately on Saturday and Sunday to discuss the Iran deal as well as U.S. tariffs, according to No. 10 Downing Street. A German government spokesman also confirmed Merkel’s conversation with May, as well as her own phone call with Macron on Saturday.

They also affirmed that several matters do need to be addressed, but are not covered under the terms of the deal. In a joint statement, the three leaders declared, “There were important elements that the deal does not cover, but which we need to address — including ballistic missiles, what happens when the deal expires and Iran’s destabilising regional activity.”

If anything, Netanyahu’s presentation strengthened their determination to stay in the deal. The Times of Israel quotes a French Foreign Ministry official as saying, “The pertinence of the deal is reinforced by the details presented by Israel: all activity linked to the development of a nuclear weapon is permanently forbidden by the deal.”

Let’s face it: Netanyahu’s show speaks volumes about how unsophisticated the Israel government believes President Trump is. However, advertising that unpleasant reality is not going to move the European Union in the direction of making any side deal or follow-on agreement that puts the JCPOA at risk. It surely isn’t going to encourage the E.U. to take a leap into the unknown with Trump and exit the deal. One wishes that rather than trying to manipulate the other parties to the deal, the United States and Israel would sit down and think through the implications of leaving the deal. What leverage would that really give the West? Why would Iran not have a field day, touting its own adherence to an international deal? Why can’t much of what they seek be obtained by pressure applied outside the Iran deal?

Trump, goaded by Israel and his hard-line advisers, is painting himself into a corner. He either backs down (accepting some face-saving agreements with the Europeans) or plunges ahead, opening the United States to worldwide condemnation and the risk of a restarted Iranian nuclear weapons program — the one the Iranians had but don’t have currently, unless Trump gives them an excuse to restart.