Barking Up The Wrong Tree

by Peter Jenkins

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement to the UN General Assembly today leaves me feeling frustrated. There are more than 30 points in it that I would dearly love to discuss with him, either because they seem to be of questionable veracity, or because they are assertions that are not backed up by evidence.

But perhaps I should count myself lucky that such an opportunity will never come my way. I suspect Mr. Netanyahu is a politician who finds it hard to concede a point or learn from his mistakes.

If this piece has any readers, let me assure them that I am not going to itemise all 35 of the Israeli Prime Minister’s questionable propositions. Instead I propose to react to a handful of Mr. Netanyahu’s points (paraphrased below) that touch on my experience of the Iranian and North Korean nuclear issues over the last eleven years…

Rouhani was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator between 2003 and 2005. He masterminded the strategy that enabled Iran to advance its nuclear weapons program behind a smoke screen of diplomatic engagement. Here’s what he said in his 2011 book: “While we were talking to the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in Isfahan.”

The US intelligence assessment is that Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Francois Nicoullaud, who was France’s ambassador to Iran at the time, has written that it was Dr. Rouhani who, with the support of Iran’s Supreme Leader, ordered abandonment.

Iran’s completion of a uranium conversion plant at Isfahan in 2004 occurred with the full knowledge of Iran’s European negotiating partners, and indeed of the rest of the world, thanks to International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) inspection visits to the site. In doing so, Iran was not in breach of its 2003 agreement with Europe.

In 2002 Iran was caught red-handed secretly building an underground centrifuge facility in Natanz.

It is unknowable whether Iran intended the Natanz facility to be secret. In 2002, their safeguards agreement with the IAEA obliged them to declare new facilities 180 days before the first introduction of nuclear material. Well before the 180-day mark, an Israeli-supported anti-Iran organisation proclaimed to the world that Tehran was building a “secret” enrichment facility. An Iranian declaration followed in good time. Personally, I doubt the Iranians could have been naïve enough to intend a large facility to be secret.

In 2009 Iran was again caught red-handed secretly building a huge underground nuclear facility for uranium enrichment in a mountain near Qom.

A similar story. The US and its allies allowed their knowledge that this facility was under construction to leak. At much the same time Iran declared the facility to the IAEA. Would Iran have made that declaration had it not been for the leak? Would they have declared it later, 180 days before the introduction of material? These questions are unanswerable until the relevant Iranian archives are opened.

Why would a country with vast natural energy reserves invest billions in developing nuclear energy?

I wonder whether this question was ever put in the 1960s to the USA, Canada and the USSR. I wonder whether now Israel is putting it to the United Arab Emirates.

Iran has also continued work on the heavy water reactor at Arak; that’s in order to have another route to the bomb, a plutonium path.

To extract plutonium from spent reactor fuel a reprocessing facility is necessary. Neither the IAEA nor US intelligence has ever come across evidence of an Iranian reprocessing facility. Iran has assured friend and foe for the last ten years that it has no intention of acquiring a reprocessing capability.

Since Rouhani’s election — and I stress this — this vast and feverish effort has continued unabated… The sanctions policy today is bearing fruit.

These two assertions look to me to be contradictory. In any case, Iran’s “effort” hardly qualifies for the epithet “feverish”: 18,000 centrifuges installed over the course of seven and a half years; 10.000 kg of low enriched uranium produced over the same period (only enough for four or five nuclear devices, if further enriched, or for just over a third of a fresh fuel load for Iran’s sole power reactor).

In 2005, North Korea agreed to a deal that was celebrated the world over by many well-meaning people… A year later, North Korea exploded its first nuclear weapons device.

An alleged Iranian nuclear threat to global survival deserves more rigorous analysis than a vague argument by analogy. And this is an analogy that breaks down when exposed to facts. In 2005, the DPRK, unlike Iran, was not a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and was not subject to IAEA safeguards; it already possessed enough plutonium for at least ten nuclear devices. Its leaders knew that the US and its allies were unable to make a credible threat to end the DPRK nuclear weapons program by force or to retaliate for DPRK bad faith, because the DPRK was capable of killing millions of South Koreans in a matter of hours by conventional means. The DPRK has a record of reneging on deals with the US; Iran does not. The DPRK is a “loner” that has not the remotest chance of ever being elected to preside over the 120-nation Non-Aligned Movement (NAM); Iranians care passionately about the prestige and reputation of Iran, which currently presides over the NAM.

In standing alone, Israel will know that it will be defending many, many others.

I wonder whom Mr. Netanyahu has in mind. India? China? Japan? Indonesia? Malaysia or Thailand? Sub-Saharan Africa? Latin America? Europe? Russia? Iraq? Turkey? Syria? Egypt? Algeria? Oman?

I would like to conclude with a quotation from a political thinker whom I would expect Mr. Netanyahu to admire: Nicolai Machiavelli. “I believe that forced agreements will be kept neither by princes nor by republics.”

Israeli fears will never be dispelled by forcing Iran to give up uranium enrichment, nor by destroying its enrichment facilities. Safety lies in the US negotiating an agreement that Iran will have no interest in breaking but that will nonetheless be subject to stringent verification and and actionable under the NPT.

Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.



  1. Mr Jenkins rebuttal[s] above, begs the question: “what was Netanyahoo thinking”, when he spoke? Did he not know or understand that rebuttal would follow, that others would take issue? Perhaps it was his way of playing to the home crowd, being able to say he tried. After all, we’ve heard most of what he spoke many times over at one time or another. We will see if time is kind to him, or will/has he put Israel in a position that will be like “O” red line.

  2. Please if you ever find a chance, also ask Mr Netanyahu about Israel’s +200 nuclear warheads and non-existing peaceful nuclear energy programme! I would love to hear him say: “But Israel is not a member-state to the NPT; we have every right to make all sorts of WMD including nuclear bombs; but also every right to feed false information to the IAEA (acquired through a terrorist group) against NPT signatory Iran; oh yeah, In standing alone and outside international law, we will know that we will be defending many, many others.”

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