Netanyahu’s Folly . . . or a gamble that paid off?

On the 30th April, through live broadcast from Jerusalem, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu delivered an assertive presentation to the world accusing Iran of “brazenly lying” about their nuclear weapons ambitions. The presentation itself seemed amateur and the Prime Minister delivered it as if he were at school. But his intention was to make a serious point.

His point being that various Iranian leaders have falsely denied that they had ever been working on acquiring nuclear weapons with several citing the idea as “immoral”. Netanyahu’s PowerPoint presentation featuring diagrams, photographs and blueprints sought to demonstrate that Iran was in violation of the JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action known commonly as the Iran nuclear deal) and that Iran, through what was known as Project Amad (1999-2003), had had the active goal of building a nuclear weapon.

The key allegation Netanyahu made in this presentation was that Project Amad, a supposedly merely scientific program, had been a covert nuclear weapons development project and that even after the closure of Project Amad, the work had secretly continued. He said that top-secret documents proved it. However, the Next Century Foundation does not find any real merit in Netanyahu’s further suggestion that the JCPOA allows Iran to continue their alleged nuclear weapons development unabated. Evidence to support the accusation that Project Amad was a covert nuclear weapons project is definitely compelling, but is nothing new to anyone in the international community. However, Netanyahu explicitly states throughout that Iran continues with its pursuit of its nuclear weapons ambitions. For these accusations he provides no real evidence. He simply opines that the retention of these documents, already known about since before the JCPOA, indicates that they are doing so and that their denial of the existence of prior nuclear weapon development efforts means they are liars.

The Presentation in Detail:

This presentation was built around alleged evidence from 55,000 pages and 183 CDs of “top secret” documentation that only a few Iranians and Israelis were supposedly aware of. Netanyahu does not specify how or when these documents were obtained but states that they were being kept in a top-secret, unassuming compound in Tehran. The acquisition of said documents was described by Netanyahu as a “great intelligence achievement”  by the Israeli intelligence services. The Iranians refute the claims made by Netanyahu and say that they would never keep official documents in the “dilapidated warehouse” Israeli intelligence allegedly acquired them from.

Project Amad ran for four years before closing in 2003. The documents obtained by Israeli intelligence seem to show, according to Netanyahu’s presentation, the active pursuit of nuclear weapons acquisition because Iran pursued the development of ballistic missiles with high power capability. However the development of a long range missile program does not necessarily mean an intention to have nuclear warheads. Several photographs, videos, blueprints and scans of documents were presented on different slides to enforce the message Netanyahu was pushing.

Rather more importantly Netanyahu did pull up one specific document that said the project was going to “design, produce and test … four nuclear warheads each with 10 kilotons of TNT yield for integration on a missile”. Israeli intelligence analysis of the documents determined that Project Amad had the ‘five key elements of a nuclear weapons programme’ including developing nuclear cores and preparing nuclear tests. To support the latter allegation, he provided scans of maps detailing five potential test locations in eastern Iran. Furthermore, he claims that despite Amad’s closure, the project continued in a devolved and both covert and overt way with the full knowledge of Iranian leaders and under the pretence that it was for scientific knowledge development. One cannot dismiss such evidence. The evidence was lacking in  quantity but it was supportive nonetheless. When taking this evidence into consideration, his point that Iran has lied could be considered compelling.

However, this evidence and knowledge has been in the public domain for many years. Concerns about Project Amad and nuclear weapons, deriving from official documents, are not ground-breaking in the slightest. It is of course concerning, but Netanyahu is essentially regurgitating old knowledge. This knowledge was reported on by international journalists at the time. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the ‘nuclear watchdog’ with whom Netanyahu said he would share these documents, had their own concerns over Iran and nuclear weapons. However, they were addressed at the time and in the years following. Yes, Iran did lie about the intentions and activities of Project Amad and subsequent nuclear ambitions. However the IAEA conducted their own investigation and by the time it came to signing the JCPOA in 2015, there was confidence that Iran were no longer pursuing the development of nuclear weapons. We knew this and the world knew this. Netanyahu is not offering us anything more.

Unlike the wealth of documentation supporting claims that Project Amad and its subsequent activities do show nuclear weapons development, Netanyahu failed to prove that Iran are still lying. He believes that holding such knowledge of nuclear development and “advanced work on weaponization” shows that Iran are continuing with their nuclear weapons ambitions. In his eyes the JCPOA nuclear deal “gives Iran a clear pass to an atomic arsenal” through allowing them to continue uranium enrichment and failing to address Project Amad and any other subsequent development of nuclear weapons. He does not provide anything substantive to support this.

Conclusions

Netanyahu delivered what he believed was a ‘ground-breaking’ presentation that addressed issues previously unaddressed or acknowledged. However, this was not the case. There has been an awareness of Iran’s nuclear activities by the international community and that this supposedly top-secret documentation has been known about and is nothing new. What Israel’s premier presented did indeed show a contradiction between the denials of nuclear weapons development by Iranian leadership and what was actually happening. Whilst the presentation may have raised legitimate concerns, it was no turning point.

It is important to be aware of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s own perceptions of Iran and place this presentation in a wider geopolitical context. He refers to Iran as a “terrorist regime” and expresses his distrust and disdain for Iran’s leadership. The presentation concluded with his opinion on the JCPOA and his belief that President Trump would do “the right thing” and withdraw from the nuclear deal. Stating that he would share the gathered intelligence with other countries and the IAEA, he said that “the United States [could] vouch for its authenticity”. In the ten days that have followed the presentation, President Trump has withdrawn from the deal and tensions have heightened between Israel and Iran. It appears that Netanyahu’s big presentation was successful.

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