by Mitchell Plitnick
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu loves to indulge in theatrics from time to time. On Monday, he cleared out prime time space in Israel for what was billed as a “big announcement” regarding Iran.
Netanyahu spent the time outlining the proof that Iran had, in fact, maintained a nuclear weapons program from 1997-2003. He made a big deal about “catching Iran lying,” and neglected to mention that the information he was “revealing” was well known. In fact, the National Intelligence Estimate of 2007, which described how Iran had halted the program, contained most of what was revealed in Netanyahu’s presentation.
As former intelligence officer Paul Pillar wrote,
The parts of the U.S. government charged with keeping track of such things assessed formally and publicly more than a decade ago that Iran had an active and undeclared nuclear weapons program that it halted in 2003. The International Atomic Energy Agency also has been actively seized with this issue, consistent with the responsibilities that the JCPOA placed on it. This became known as the ‘possible military dimensions’ issue or PMD and received much attention during the negotiation of the JCPOA. The IAEA prepared a report on PMD in December 2015, subsequently approved by the IAEA Board of Governors, that concluded that Iran had a “coordinated effort” prior to 2003 to develop a nuclear device, that “some activities” took place after 2003, and that the agency has “no credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device after 2009.”
So, all Netanyahu did was provide evidence that Iran lied about having pursued research toward a nuclear weapon. How can that be news? The Obama administration put tough sanctions in place to bring the Iranians to the table. Some believed that Iran was truly innocent, but those were not the people calling for regime change in Iran and for the United States to refrain from diplomacy over the nuclear issue. No, those people kept saying that Iran had been pursuing a weapon. And President Barack Obama agreed.
When Obama announced the deal, he was quite clear about its basis. “Because of this deal, we will, for the first time, be in a position to verify all of [Iran’s] commitments. That means this deal is not built on trust; it is built on verification. Inspectors will have 24/7 access to Iran’s key nuclear facilities.”
And no one has been able to deny that inspectors have had that access. Obama laid out all the access inspectors got, and it was considerable. Iran has not acted to prevent any of it in the intervening years.
Making the Case for the Deal
The French foreign ministry pointed out that Netanyahu’s presentation actually strengthened the case for the JCPOA:
The pertinence of the deal is reinforced by the details presented by Israel: all activity linked to the development of a nuclear weapon is permanently forbidden by the deal. The inspection regime put in place by the (UN nuclear watchdog) IAEA thanks to the deal is one of the most exhaustive and the most robust in the history of nuclear non-proliferation.
To believe that Israel’s claims undermine the JCPOA requires a willful and dishonest interpretation of the agreement. The echo chamber that has assembled around Trump—including Netanyahu, John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, and virtually all the Fox News shows the president watches—all reinforce such distorted claims that the the deal’s inspection regime is weak, it effectively expires in a few years, and it doesn’t cover all the actions Iran takes that the US doesn’t like.
Only that last is true, and it’s a poor argument, since the deal was specifically targeted at the nuclear deal. Because of that targeting, it won unprecedented—and, frankly, unexpected—concessions from Iran on the first two points. Trying to get a deal on everything would have required much greater concessions from the P5+1. Given the tumult over what was conceded to Iran, that seems like an impossibility.
Slouching Toward Regime Change
The Netanyahu TV special was clearly aimed at the United States, and specifically at President Donald Trump. Conducting it in English was proof that Netanyahu wasn’t speaking to the people of Israel.
Over the weekend, Israel bombed a site near Homs in Syria. According to a Haaretz report, “Israeli fighter jets struck a military base near Hama on Sunday after Iran had transferred a shipment of anti-aircraft missiles there, three U.S. officials told NBC News.”
This attack continues a pattern established last year, when Trump agreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin to establish a ceasefire zone in southern Syria, not far from the Israeli border, effectively legitimizing Iran’s presence in Syria, presumably under Russian supervision. Israel found this unsatisfactory, but its complaints to Trump and Putin fell on deaf ears.
Ever since then, Israel has slowly and gradually increased its aggression in Syria. The Trump administration has raised no objections, indicating that its idea all along was to give Israel free rein to defend its interests in Syria. That is in keeping with Trump’s stated approach to foreign intervention and aligns well with the wishes of long-time Israeli rightists who have always craved more freedom of action militarily.
Iran understands that Assad’s Syria is its only path toward expanding its regional reach in the Levant. Iran sees its presence in Syria as key not only to protecting Assad but to advancing their own regional ambitions. Israel sees Iran’s presence in Syria as a threat, although this isn’t likely a major motivating factor for Iran. Iran takes umbrage at what it sees as Israel’s attempt to dictate what actions they can take since Assad has welcomed their presence.
There is no disagreement in Israel over whether to tolerate an Iranian presence in Syria. The political and military leadership agrees that Iran must be forced out. That alone is a recipe for conflict and a real danger, but there is more.
If Netanyahu’s view prevails—and given that it is supported by the Trump administration, especially now with the growing prominence of John Bolton and Pompeo—Israel’s escalations will continue on a path toward a regime-change war. The defense establishment, which merely wants to force Iran out of Syria, will not be able to stop the momentum if a full-blown conflict emerges.
Iran has already shown that it is reluctant to confront Israel. The Israeli attack on April 9 and the more recent one were both escalations, and Iran did nothing more than shake a fist, even though Israel was bracing for a retaliatory attack. Iran knows very well it is outgunned and stands to lose a lot more in a regional war than Israel would, despite Tehran’s bold proclamations.
Israel, therefore, will continue its attacks, incrementally becoming more provocative. The hope from the military establishment is that Iran, which will eventually be forced to either respond with force or withdraw, will choose the latter. Netanyahu and Trump are more likely to prefer the former, as it opens the door to broader fighting, which can, they hope, lead to regime change.
Israel and the US will be pursuing this path alone. There is a limit to how much Saudi Arabia, some of the other Gulf states, and Egypt can be seen supporting such actions. Europe will surely object, but whether it will take any meaningful action to stop this march to war is dubious at best. There are, of course, many things that can happen to change the course the region is currently on. But there is no reason to believe that Trump and his supporters in both Washington and Jerusalem, including Netanyahu, want to see anything short of regime change.
As laughable as Netanyahu’s attempt to re-package old news into something new might appear, it’s best to view it with the utmost gravity. This is about more than the nuclear deal. Washington and Jerusalem, with the silent support of Riyadh and other key actors in the region, are united in their goal of regime change in Iran. Changing their course is not impossible, but the work will be difficult and must begin immediately.