Opinion

Yes, Iran Lied About Its Nuclear Capabilities. But So Did Israel

Netanyahu’s arrogant theatricals exposed Israel's lack of current incriminating evidence on Iran – and Israel's hypocrisy about its own nuclear capabilities

sraeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 30, 2018.
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

If any doubts remained regarding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s thespian talents, his Monday prime-time performance dispelled them. We witnessed, in a live broadcast, a most impressive but highly cynical show meant to manipulate the actions of one prime viewer: U.S. President Donald Trump, who is being pressured by Netanyahu to abandon the Iran nuclear deal.

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We say "cynical" because Netanyahu’s show meant to be both manipulative and devious. Behind the stunning "cloak and dagger" aura surrounding his newly obtained intelligence - the Mossad transfer of the entire archive to Israel is a feat beyond the imagination - Netanyahu presented the world with an obsolete picture that was well-known when the agreement with Iran was signed.

But Netanyahu’s theatrical performance was not only cynical; it was also ironic.

Read more: >> Netanyahu tries but fails to bury Iran nuclear deal before Trump actually kills it || Analysis >> Great show, glaring flaw: 3 takeaways from Netanyahu’s ‘Iran lied’ speech ■ FULL TEXT & VIDEO: Netanyahu claims Iran nuclear deal based on lies 

If anything, the fact that Iran preserved, archived and sealed away its early work on nuclear weapons development is compelling evidence that Iran is following both the spirit and the letter of the agreement. Indeed, the International Atomic Energy Agency has consistently certified Iran’s full compliance with its provisions. Under the deal, Iran treats its past weapons work as something to be preserved in a historical repository.

On the other hand, one should realize that Iran did not, and will not, "forget" its existing nuclear knowledge. If the deal is to be abandoned, Iran almost certainly will try to resume that work.

The plain truth is that while the nuclear deal, like any deal, is admittedly imperfect in some areas, it is far better than the situation we were in when it was signed, arguably six months from a first Iranian nuclear weapon.

Iran's President Hassan Rohani reviews a military parade during the 37th anniversary of Iraq's 1980 invasion of Iran, September 22, 2017.
Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

Furthermore, none of Netanyahu’s specific "archival" items are dated. He presented no single item dated later than 2003. He presented no "proof" of any current Iranian incriminating nuclear activities; all the archival evidence is rooted in pre-2003 weaponization activities.

As far back as 2007, the United States issued a National Intelligence Estimate that drew a similar conclusion: Iran had run a dedicated nuclear weapons program, but that program was dismantled or halted in 2003 and Iran was no longer in pursuit of those weaponization activities in a centralized and methodic fashion.

At the time of the release of the 2007 assessment, many (including one of us) criticized its methodology for using too narrow a definition of a nuclear weapons program, a definition that puts too much premium on weaponization activities per se. If anything, Netanyahu’s theater seems to support that controversial document.

After all, the fact that the old Iranian weaponization program exists only in the form of a preserved archival record, that was kept in some obscure storage facility ("vault") in Tehran without proper security only highlights the inactive, historical, nature of the evidence.

Moreover, that the great success of the Mossad is limited to stealing and smuggling a historical archive only demonstrates what Israel lacks: current incriminating evidence about post-2015 Iranian activity.

Netanyahu repeatedly told his audience that Iran lied about its past activities and therefore the Iran deal must be abandoned.

The Dimona nuclear plant, 2002.
Thomas Coex/AFP

Yes, Iranian leaders did lie. Yes, Iranian officials did not provide the IAEA with true and complete information on past "possible military dimensions" of its nuclear program. This is well-known.

But Israel itself is not exactly a role model of truth speaking in this field either.

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s first statement to the Knesset on the Dimona nuclear reactor, in December 1960 - the only one ever given by an Israeli leader - was no less of a lie than those of Iranian leaders. And then, throughout the 1960s, Israel systematically made sure that American nuclear inspectors would not find out the full truth about Dimona.

If Netanyahu’s purpose was to "prove" that the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal is inherently bad, or that Iran is in violation of its obligations and therefore the agreement needs to be abandoned, the evidence he presented Monday was irrelevant, if not counterproductive, to that purpose. Netanyahu’s showmanship was little more than a thin veil to stoke fears by circulating old, largely known, irrelevant historical evidence.

Proponents who advocate the dismantlement of the Iranian nuclear agreement have an utterly unrealistic expectation that such action will provide the impetus for Iran to negotiate a second, more restrictive deal.

This is an illusion.The good must not be abandoned in pursuit of the unattainable perfect. It is hard to tell whether those arrogant voices truly believe their own distended logic or use it merely as a cover for the only other option that remains: War.

Avner Cohen is a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

Ben McIntosh is a master’s student in the Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies program at the Middlebury Institute.