JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu informed U.S. President Donald Trump about evidence of a past secret Iranian nuclear arms program in March, a senior Israeli official said, a move apparently aimed at killing an international deal with Tehran that both leaders oppose.
Trump agreed Israel would publish the information before May 12, the date by which he is due to decide whether the United States should quit the nuclear deal with Iran, an arch foe of both countries, the Israeli official said.
In a prime-time televised statement on Monday night Netanyahu presented what he said were Iranian documents obtained in a daring Israeli intelligence operation that purportedly prove Iran had been developing nuclear weapons before the 2015 deal that it signed with the U.S. and world powers.
Netanyahu told CNN on Tuesday that “nobody” sought war with Iran, a prospect seen by some as a possible result of the deal’s collapse.
But his presentation said the evidence shows Iran lied going into the deal, a landmark 2015 agreement seen by Trump as flawed but by European powers as vital to allaying concerns that Iran could one day develop nuclear bombs.
Tehran, which denies ever pursuing nuclear weapons, dismissed Netanyahu as “the boy who cried wolf,” and called his presentation propaganda.
International and Israeli experts said Netanyahu had presented no evidence Iran was in breach of the deal. Rather, it appeared the presentation, delivered almost entirely in English, was composed as an Israeli prelude to Trump quitting the accord.
Tzachi Hanegbi, Israeli minister for regional development and a Netanyahu confidant, said the presentation was meant to provide Trump with the grounds to bolt the deal.
“In 12 days a huge drama will unfold. The American president will likely pull out of the deal,” Hanegbi said in an interview to Israeli Army Radio.
“What the prime minister did last night, was to give Trump ammunition against the European naiveté and unwillingness regarding Iran.”
Under the nuclear deal struck by Iran and six major powers – Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States – Tehran agreed to limit its nuclear program in return for relief from U.S. and other economic sanctions.
Trump gave Britain, France and Germany a May 12 deadline to fix what he views as the deal’s flaws – its failure to address Iran’s ballistic missile program, the terms by which inspectors visit suspect Iranian sites, and “sunset” clauses under which some of its terms expire – or he will reimpose U.S. sanctions.
A senior Israeli official said that Israel knew about the Iranian archive for a year, got hold of it in an intelligence operation in February and informed Trump about it at a meeting in Washington on March 5.
It took time for Israel to translate from Persian, and the United States is still conducting its own review of the material, he said. The senior official added that Israel had updated China on its Iranian material and by the end of this week was scheduled to host experts from Britian, Germany and France who would inspect it.
Asked if Israel is prepared to go to war with Iran, Netanyahu told CNN: “Nobody’s seeking that kind of development. Iran is the one that’s changing the rules in the region.”
Most of the purported evidence Netanyahu presented dated to the period before the 2015 accord was signed, although he said Iran had also kept important files on nuclear technology since then, and continued adding to its “nuclear weapons knowledge”.
Although the presentation was live on Israeli television, Netanyahu made clear his audience was abroad, delivering most of his speech in English, before switching to Hebrew.
“A few weeks ago, in a great intelligence achievement, Israel obtained half a ton of the material inside these vaults,” Netanyahu said.
A 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate judged with “high confidence” that Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003. The IAEA later reached a similar judgment.
One Vienna-based diplomat who has dealt with the IAEA for years, when asked what he made of Netanyahu’s speech, said: “Nothing new. Theatrics.”
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who chairs a Joint Commission that oversees implementation of the deal, said in a preliminary reaction that Netanyahu had not questioned Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA.
She noted the deal was made “exactly because there was no trust between the parties, otherwise we would not have required a nuclear deal to be put in place”.
Hanegbi acknowledged Netanyahu had not shown Iran had violated the agreement:
“The Iranians are clean in regard to the nuclear deal because it is a gift given to them by an exhausted, tired, naive world. They embraced it in 2015 and they have no intention to breach this agreement, which is a great one for them,” Hangebi said.
NO “SMOKING GUN”
Ehud Barak, a former Israeli prime minister who served as defense minister from 2009 to 2013, said there was nothing essentially new in the Netanyahu presentation.
“Israel’s amazing intelligence has not provided a smoking gun,” Barak, a frequent Netanyahu critic, told Army Radio. “All in all it is a big help for Trump ahead of the May 12 decision.”
After Netanyahu spoke, Trump repeated his criticism of the deal, suggesting he backed the Israeli leader’s remarks.
Trump told a news conference the nuclear deal would let Tehran develop nuclear arms after seven years and had “proven right what Israel has done today” with Netanyahu’s disclosures.
Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council, said he was reminded of Netanyahu’s testimony to the U.S. Congress in 2002 lobbying George W. Bush’s administration to topple Saddam Hussein ahead of a U.S.-led 2003 invasion.
An Israeli official familiar with Netanyahu’s telegenic style – one the Israeli leader has refined over decades in the international arena – said that the two-word headline “Iran Lied” that appeared beside him during the presentation was tailor-made for Trump’s own short, pithy, rhetorical style.
Noting Trump’s own use of short epithets such as “Lyin’ Ted,” the mocking nickname that Trump deployed against his 2016 election rival Ted Cruz, the Israeli official said Trump “responds to pithy messaging, and that is what we were going for with this briefing.”
Writing by Maayan Lubell; Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem, François Murphy in Vienna, Mark Heinrich in London and Alastair Macdonald in Brussels, Editing by William Maclean