Netanyahu’s Iran presentation plays into Trump’s hands to exit the nuclear deal

Analysis: Washington experts who follow Iran give varying accounts on the impact of the most recent speech by Israel's prime minister

epa06702946 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he describes how Iran has continued with its nuclear capabilities with the purpose of making atomic weapons, in the Israeli Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, Israel, 30 April 2018.
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US President Donald Trump recently told the media: "I am not telling you what I am doing", in reference to his decision on the Iran nuclear deal. But a presentation on Monday by his ally Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claiming to have proof of a secret Iranian nuclear programme, and that Iran "lied, big time", could tip Mr Trump against the deal, possibly leading to the US withdrawal from the agreement in 12 days' time.

Four experts in Washington who follow the Iran negotiations gave varying accounts to The National on the impact of Mr Netanyahu's presentation on the US decision. There was an agreement among analysts, however, that the deal is already on life support and that the announcement from Israel raises the threshold for keeping it in place.

'Nothing new in Netanyahu's presentation', according to Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of the Foreign Policy Programme, Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution
Having heard rumours of a late surprise by the Israelis, Mr Netanyahu's live television address today proved to be a bit underwhelming. Other than the appearance of a treasure trove of documents on Iran's nuclear programme in Israeli hands — which surely have a fascinating covert back story — there was no real news in Mr Netanyahu's presentation. But he was clearly not aiming to influence the views of ordinary people around the world.


Read more: Israel claims to have proof of 'secret' Iran nuclear programme


His statement was designed to reinforce — in unashamedly unsubtle fashion — the convictions already expressed by Mr Trump that Iran cannot be trusted and that Tehran somehow hoodwinked the Obama administration and its diplomatic partners into an unfair deal. In this sense, the most powerful part of the presentation was the juxtaposition of public statements by Iranian officials insisting on the nuclear programme’s peaceful intent with the official acknowledgements throughout the Iranian archives that this was always a ruse. For the US president, the presentation by Mr Netanyahu serves as confirmation of his existing narrative.

The message clearly resonated with Mr Trump, and probably reinforced his probable decision to walk away from the agreement at the upcoming deadline. But it did little to actually undermine the deal itself. In fact, his detailed description of Iran's record of hiding its nuclear activities only underscores the value of the robust monitoring and verification regime that was set up by the JCPOA and that will be put in jeopardy if the US takes steps to unravel the agreement. The deal was never predicated on trust in Iran.

'Fatal flaws in nuclear deal', says Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies 

The announcement means that the threshold for an acceptable fix [for the deal] just got much higher. The deal still can be fixed but it is clear that any US-European agreement will have to include a joint commitment to force the Iranian regime to grant full access to the IAEA to nuclear scientists, sites and documentation to resolve all of the outstanding questions about the regime’s nuclear-military activities.

These revelations of an atomic archive for warhead design [and other things] underscore the problem of the sunset provisions where a near-zero nuclear breakout, advanced centrifuge-powered sneak-out and massive missile programme will emerge in less than a decade unless the fatal flaws of the deal are fixed.
'Nuclear deal was already on life support', according to Dalia Dassa Kaye, Director, Centre for Middle East Public Policy, the Rand Corporation

The nuclear deal was already on life support before Mr Netanyahu’s remarks today, so I’m not sure this public posturing is likely to change much. Mr Trump already ignored the assessment of the IAEA and even that of his top officials that Iran was in compliance with the agreement.  He doesn’t need much persuasion by the [Israeli] prime minister on that front.


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What’s interesting is the timing of this speech in the aftermath of additional presumed Israeli air strikes in Syria targeting Iranian assets in the country. With all the theatrics on the nuclear deal by Mr Netanyahu, Israel’s biggest concern with respect to Iran is about its presence in Syria, and that’s where it would like to see more US pressure. The recent US strike in Syria was not "mission accomplished" from an Israeli standpoint.

'Everything packaged up to help Trump walk away', says Michael Pregent, senior Middle East analyst, adjunct fellow, The Hudson Institute

Mr Netanyahu just gave Donald Trump all he needs to walk away from the Iran nuclear deal. The timing is significant in that it comes on the eve of Mike Pompeo’s first day as secretary of state, and the announcement itself came one day after the Pompeo-Netanyahu meeting in Israel.

For Mr Trump, he trusts Mr Netanyahu, who presented him with solid intelligence that backs up the president’s argument that Iran cannot be trusted. He won’t need to convince Mike Pompeo or John Bolton of that, and the internal administration debate will likely happen with James Mattis, who supports staying in the deal.


Read more:

Iran nuclear deal in cross-hairs as top US diplomat begins Mideast tour in Riyadh

Iran will not acquire nuclear weapons: Trump


Here, I expect Gen Mattis to say we have to verify the Israeli obtained intelligence but the US cannot do that because it doesn’t have the assets of Israel to obtain such a trove.

More broadly, this will help Mr Trump to say Iran has been cheating. It has undeclared sites of uranium, and that the IAEA isn’t looking at all the sites. It also says that the JCPOA doesn’t have enough verification to begin with, making it easier for the US president to walk away on May 12.

The White House released the following statement in response to Benjamin Netanyahu's presentation:
"[We are] aware of the information just released by Israel and continue 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 programme that it has tried and failed to hide from the world and from its own people. Iran must never have nuclear weapons."