A well-known logic riddle, with the necessary adaptations, tells of the Israeli who comes to the land of the liars and wants to know if they have a nuclear weapons program. “We have a nuclear weapons program,” the liar says, “but we’re liars.”
“Ah,” says the Israeli. “I already know that and also that you’re liars.”
“So you understand that we don’t have a nuclear weapons program,” the liar replies. “Yes, but you’re a liar, so you do have a nuclear program,” the Israeli says.
Israel didn’t need to hear the riddle. It knew that Iran had a military nuclear program called Project Amad. Iran had lied when it declared that it doesn’t and didn’t have a military nuclear weapons program. But not only Israel discovered the lie. The International Atomic Energy Agency also knew about the program. Back in 2011, in a periodic report that it published, the agency detailed the nature of the program as well as the fact that it had been suspended.
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So why didn’t the IAEA stand with Israel and declare that Iran had lied? And if the IAEA knew, so did the United States, so it too looked the other way. The answer is that Iran’s lies were well-known. They can be read about in detail in reports from the IAEA’s board of governors back in 2004, where it was plainly stated that Iran had lied, misled, denied and delayed when it comes to everything related to information that the IAEA had requested.
Decisive evidence of that came with the discovery, with Israel’s help, of nuclear sites that had been previously unknown long before Iran signed the nuclear agreement with the major powers in 2015. Therefore the major “discovery” that Iran has lied and therefore the nuclear agreement itself is invalid and null and void because it is based on a lie, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims, is not a discovery in the least.
It’s worth noting in this context that the suspension of the nuclear program at the end of the term in office of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, who stepped down in 2005, came at the initiative of Iran itself, which proposed nuclear negotiations with the United States after Iraq was taken over by Western coalition forces. The response of President George W. Bush was: We don’t talk to the axis of evil.
Khatami’s letter on the matter did not prompt a written response. About a year later, it was the IAEA’s director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, who suggested that Bush enter into nuclear negotiations with Iran. The American president agreed and proposed that ElBaradei suggest to Iran that it send a high-ranking official with broad authority to conduct the talks. But Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, decided not to conduct any negotiations with the United States.
Iranian President Khatami recounted these developments in 2012 to the Iranian publication Mehrnameh, evidence that Bush knew about the Iranian nuclear program and its military aims. Why did the United States decide only to attack Iraq on the argument that it had weapons of mass destruction and not Iran? Only Bush knows.
The main question therefore is not if Iran lied and if Netanyahu managed to expose the lie, but rather what Israel would gain if it managed to convince U.S. President Donald Trump to pull out of the nuclear agreement, which the president had called “the worst deal ever.” An American withdrawal would not automatically require the imposition of new sanctions on Iran or the reimposition of sanctions that were lifted as part of the agreement itself. The United States can now impose new sanctions on Iran and still remain a party to the agreement as long as the sanctions are not justified as the product of an Iranian violation of the agreement.
The United States couldn’t require the Europeans and Russia and China to pull out with it or to impose the same sanctions that the Americans might want to impose on Iran. As a result, Iran would be able to continue to enjoy trade ties and assistance for peaceful purposes for its nuclear industry without the United States as a partner. The United States could include international firms in any sanctions that it imposes, if it imposes them, but then it would find itself on a collision course with American corporations that do business with Europe, Russia and China.
Iran, which managed to develop a nuclear program under a stiff sanctions regime, would not be expected to suffer substantial damage from any potential American sanctions if Europe and Russia and China and other East Asian countries such as South Korea and India continue to maintain normal ties with Tehran. In practice, Iran is still subject to American sanctions and is even having difficulty carrying out transactions in dollars with European countries. It has therefore shifted to doing business in euros and local currencies.
If Iran were to decide to maintain the nuclear agreement even if the United States withdraws from it, the tight inspections regime on Iranian nuclear sites would continue for at least the next 12 years, as it exists today, and according to IAEA reports and comments by Israeli army Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, Iran is strictly complying with the conditions of the agreement. As long as this remains the case, the United States would have no real leverage to bring about the amendment of the nuclear agreement, but its withdrawal would make it very difficult for the Americans to mobilize an international coalition that would attempt to come to a separate agreement on the subject of Iranian ballistic missiles, a matter that is of particular concern to Israel.
The result would be entirely different if European countries were to decide to join the American move, which is still not final until Trump announces his decision. At the moment, it doesn’t appear that Europe, let alone Russia or China, intends to join Trump, but if the United States does withdraw, what comes next?
Would Iran resume uranium enrichment at a high level, as several senior Iranian officials have threatened? Would the international coalition be prepared to attack Iran as a result? Could and would Israel on its own bear this burden and, in the process, turn the Iranian issue into a bilateral one that the world would stay out of? Has the United States unconditionally committed to participate and assist Israel in military moves against Iran?
Netanyahu is not addressing these questions in his public appearances. The international community agreed to forgo the issue of Iran’s past lies when it signed the nuclear agreement, which contains unprecedented oversight provisions designed to neutralize future lies, but other than the United States and Israel, the international community has been unprepared to forgo the relative calm that this agreement is providing.