Netanyahu on Iran: new news or no news?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he has evidence Iran is lying about its nuclear program--but experts aren't so sure.

Posted: May 2, 2018 11:45 AM
Updated: May 2, 2018 11:47 AM

Monday night, the White House issued a statement showing support for a presentation Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had just given.

Check that. They issued TWO statements showing support for Netanyahu's presentation.

In case you missed it, Netanyahu unveiled what he called a "trove" of Iranian data and records that demonstrate Iran lied about its nuclear weapons program and that it still intends to pursue that program in the future.

His point, ostensibly, was to prove that the Iran deal -- officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA -- was based on faulty assumptions, flawed logic and poor information. But his goal was no doubt to nudge President Trump even closer to scrapping the deal.

Clever timing, given that French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel just last week tried to persuade Trump to stay in the deal, and next week Trump faces a May 12 deadline to decide whether to waive nuclear-related sanctions against Iran, thereby doing just that: staying in.

In any event, the first White House statement included this sentence: "Iran has a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program that it has tried and failed to hide from the world and from its own people."

Italics are mine.

The second statement -- which, unlike the first was not emailed to reporters but rather just posted online -- walked that back considerably: "Iran had a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program that it has tried and failed to hide from the world and from its own people."

That's a big difference in meaning for such a small word.

But then, as Mark Twain put it: "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter -- 'tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning."

Now, to be fair, a spokesperson for the National Security Council fessed up, claiming it was "a clerical error, which we quickly detected and fixed."

Having made more than my share of mistakes in public statements over the years, I am inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. It happens. And they did fix it -- although the more appropriate way to do so would have been to issue the correction as aggressively as they issued the errant statement.

That said -- and given this President's utter hatred of the Iran deal, his uninhibited enthusiasm for all things Netanyahu, his distrust of his own intelligence community, and his penchant for playing straight to the fears and predilections of his voter base -- it would be naive not to allow for the possibility that this "clerical error" was also something of a Freudian slip, something that at the very least Trump and his staff wanted to be true.

Because if Iran did possess a clandestine nuclear program after three years of the most intrusive international inspections ever imposed in a modern arms control agreement, well, then, it would be absolutely foolish not to tear up the deal, right?

But therein lies the real rub with Netanyahu's presentation. It was just so much fluff.

The Iranian documents revealed by the Prime Minister largely predate the JCPOA, are well known to European and American governments, and do not in any way indict the Iranians for violating -- or even intending to violate -- the deal.

There's no smoking gun there. There's not even any smoke.

One must believe that if the Israelis had found in this data collection proof of Iran's cheating, Netanyahu would have pounced on it. That he didn't suggests it just doesn't exist.

It appears the presence of these documents alone represents to the Prime Minister some sort of moral or legal transgression. He's wrong. It doesn't.

What it does represent, however, is full justification for the Iran deal itself. Yes, Iran "had" been working on getting a bomb. And yes, they lied about it. Enter the JCPOA. We secured that deal precisely because we didn't believe what the Iranians were saying about their program and because we didn't blindly trust that they wouldn't cheat going forward.

But Netanyahu surely knows all that. He wasn't trying to reveal anything new. He was playing to an audience of one, giving Trump more red meat to throw to his base.

And the President played right along. On Monday, in a Rose Garden news conference, Trump said Netanyahu's presentation proved he was "100% right" about the Iran deal. "I'm not telling you what I'm doing," he continued, "but a lot of people think they know. And, on or before the 12th, we'll make a decision."

Trump likes the theatrics of keeping everyone guessing, as he no doubt appreciated the theatrics of Netanyahu's little slideshow Monday.

For his part, the Prime Minister quickly followed suit, telling reporters he believes Trump will "do the right thing; the right thing for the United States, the right thing for Israel, and the right thing for the peace of the world."

Look, there's a lot not to like about the Iranian regime and what it is doing in the region. The United States, our allies and our partners there and around the world should absolutely continue to counter the regime's ballistic missile program and their state sponsorship of terrorism.

But if Trump snaps those sanctions back in place, not only would the United States be the only signatory to the deal out of compliance -- and therefore isolated -- but there's a real risk Iran could reciprocate and restart their nuclear program.

Talk about lightning.

It's hard to imagine how that outcome is the right thing for anyone.

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