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What Netanyahu’s dramatic speech about Iran’s nuclear program revealed — and concealed

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said April 30 that Israel had obtained documents proving Iran had been covertly gathering nuclear weapons know-how. (Video: Reuters)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is no amateur when it comes to appearing on live television. In a televised speech Monday, Netanyahu made bold accusations about Iran’s nuclear record. The speech came ahead of President Trump’s expected announcement about whether the U.S. will continue to participate in the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, on May 12.

Not one to shy away from props, Netanyahu dramatically pulled a curtain to reveal bookshelves containing dozens of files and CDs, copies of original Iranian documents secretly removed from Tehran by Israeli agents in recent weeks. The documents, Netanyahu said, represented Iran’s “nuclear archive” — information on Iran’s 1999-2003 nuclear weapons program. Incoming Secretary of State Mike Pompeo vouched for their authenticity.

Iranian possession of this “nuclear archive” is not a clear JCPOA violation. However, a precedent supports the argument that retaining these documents violates Iran’s obligation under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Did the presentation reveal anything new?

As commentator Joshua Pollack noted, some of the documents contained details hitherto unknown outside the intelligence community. Most notable was the planned Iranian nuclear arsenal’s size: It would have included five nuclear devices with a yield of 10 kilotons each.

But the captured documents refer only to Iranian activities that were finished by 2003 — about which the international community already knew. While Netanyahu implied that nuclear weapons development had continued, he presented no evidence to that effect.

Western reaction was split. The White House welcomed Netanyahu’s presentation as containing “new and compelling details.” European powers maintained that they had learned nothing new.

1. Did Netanyahu prove that Iran was in violation of the JCPOA?

No. Netanyahu accused Iran of lying in 2015 “when it didn’t come clean to the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] as required by the nuclear deal.” However, this by itself does not violate the JCPOA. The agreement, signed in July 2015, did require Iran to cooperate with the IAEA in investigating its nuclear past. The deal did not require Iran to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Iran was required to provide the IAEA with “explanations regarding outstanding issues,” but false explanations were not cited as reasons to void the deal. The JCPOA did require that the IAEA submit a report on Iran’s past nuclear activities. The agency investigated evidence from various sources and submitted questions to which the Iranian government was required to respond and did. That report was submitted in December 2015.

The agency’s report was not contingent on Iranian candor. Even if Iran “did not come clean” to the IAEA, as Netanyahu alleged, this would not violate the JCPOA.

2. So what’s the problem with the archive?

While not a clear violation of the JCPOA, by possessing the archive, Iran is violating its obligations as a Non-Nuclear Weapon State (NNWS) party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). NNWS members such as Iran are obligated by the treaty “not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons.” Possessing documents about producing nuclear weapons contradicts the spirit of the treaty because such documents could promote nuclear proliferation — either by the country possessing the archive or by transferring know-how to other actors seeking nuclear weapons.

That’s on top of Iran’s more serious violation of actively trying to develop nuclear weapons before 2003.

Destroying the records of a nuclear program has an important historical precedent. When F.W. de Klerk became South Africa’s president in 1989, he ordered that South Africa’s nuclear stockpile, consisting of six and a half bombs, be dismantled. That way, he could bring his country into the NPT as an NNWS. He ordered that weapons-related documents be destroyed as well. Nic Von Wielligh, a former South African nuclear official, explained that de Klerk believed that “as a future signatory of the NPT, South Africa had an obligation not to pass on detailed plans” — and should not retain any documents with nuclear weapons know-how.

But Israeli officials probably won’t be pointing to de Klerk’s example any time soon. Israel doesn’t like to draw attention to the question of whether it helped apartheid South Africa develop nuclear weapons. Some researchers argue that the South African nuclear documents were destroyed not because of lofty ideals, but because of combined U.S., British and Israeli pressure.

3. Was Netanyahu trying to influence Trump, or was he doing him a favor?

Within Israel, Netanyahu’s decision to publicly divulge information on a recent covert operation drew criticism. Most observers, including the Iranian Foreign Ministry, say he did so as part of an Israeli campaign to persuade Trump to withdraw from the JCPOA.

But it is also possible that Netanyahu was acting at Trump’s request, revealing the sensitive information to give Trump a reason to withdraw from the agreement. In other words, he might have been doing Trump a favor.

Such a request would have precedents. After the successful Israeli raid against the Al-Kibar Syrian nuclear reactor in September 2007, President George W. Bush asked Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to publicly divulge related information, as Bush revealed in his biography. Bush wanted to make the details of the operation public to further isolate the Syrian government. Olmert, who wanted to avoid giving Syria cause to react against Israel, refused.

4. Sharing is caring?

Sharing sensitive information with a powerful ally about a hostile nuclear program is always tricky. That’s especially true if it happens before a planned counter-proliferation raid takes place. The Reagan administration is said to have foiled a planned Indian raid against a Pakistani nuclear facility in 1984 by leaking the plan to the Pakistanis. When Israel considered its June 1981 raid against the Iraqi nuclear reactor, it did not share its intelligence on the Iraqi program with Washington, so as not to compromise freedom of action.

In a forthcoming paper that I co-authored with Giordana Pulcini, we outline how that decision to keep the Reagan administration in the dark backfired. Reagan and his officials were surprised, and the initial U.S. reaction was harsh. It took Israel a considerable amount of effort to change the tone.

This time, Netanyahu used his considerable theatrical skills to keep Israel in the conversation.

Or Rabinowitz is an assistant professor of international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.