Iran had previously sought a nuclear weapon despite claims to the contrary, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday in a dramatic presentation that comes amid increased chatter that President Donald Trump will pull out of the Iran deal.
But Netanyahu revealed little that wasn't already known, and he provided no evidence that Iran was currently cheating on the 2015 nuclear deal it reached with the United States and five other major countries.
Still, Netanyahu said his presentation was the result of "an intelligence achievement, one of the biggest ever in the state of Israel" — thousands of files ferried away from Iran detailing the country's nuclear program. It is unclear how or when Israel got the documents out of Iran.
Speaking from Israel's defense ministry, Netanyahu said the documents proved Iran sought a nuclear weapon in what was called "Project Amada." He projected a Powerpoint presentation that included a map of five potential nuclear test sites in eastern Iran, charts showing yellowcake production and bomb designs, and a 2003 letter from the defense ministry ordering the continuation of work under scientific auspices, among other documents.
Netanyahu stood in front of hundreds of binders that he said held copies of files taken from Iran and said: "The Iran nuclear deal is based on lies. It's based on Iranian lies and Iranian deception."
In response, the White House said in a statement that the US is carefully examining the materials, which "provides new and compelling details about Iran’s efforts to develop missile-deliverable nuclear weapons."
Tehran, the White House said, “has a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program that it has tried and failed to hide from the world and from its own people." It later corrected the statement to say Iran “had” such a program.
Iran has repeatedly denied it wanted a nuclear weapon, but Western intelligence agencies have long known much of the information that Netanyahu presented. Sen. Bob Corker, the Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Bloomberg that the Israeli speech provided "nothing new."
The United States concluded in a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003. The talks that led to the 2015 deal, concluded by the US, France, Germany, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and the European Union, were designed specifically to prevent Iran from starting up work again.
Under the terms of the deal, Iran must declare any work on its nuclear program, get rid of the majority of its enriched uranium, and allow itself to be subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections. In exchange, it was given relief from international economic sanctions and some of its assets overseas were unfrozen.
Netanyahu did not provide any evidence during his speech that work has continued since the deal was signed. But he did slam Iran's statements to the IAEA, denying that there were any military aspects of Iran's nuclear program. "This was Iran's chance to finally come clean to the IAEA — they could have told the truth," Netanyahu said.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif spent the hours leading up to the speech attempting to take the wind out of Netanyahu's sails, tweeting an image of the prime minister's infamous 2012 speech at the UN General Assembly, saying, "You can only fool some of the people so many times."
Netanyahu's statement, while not exactly world-shifting, does raise the odds that the US will walk away from the deal. The announcement comes after the prime minister and Trump's phone call on Sunday about "the continuing threats and challenges facing the Middle East region, especially the problems posed by the Iranian regime’s destabilizing activities," according to a White House readout. The Prime Minister's Office did not immediately respond when asked whether the secret files were discussed during that call.
Netanyahu concluded the English portion of his presentation Monday by noting that Trump faces a May 12 deadline on whether to further waive sanctions on Iran that were suspended under the Iran deal. French President Emmanuel Macron came away from two days of meetings in the US last week fairly certain that Trump intended to tear up the deal.
Iran may not wait for that to happen, though. Iran's deputy foreign minister on Monday, prior to the Israeli announcement, told state-run media that the deal is "no longer sustainable for Iran in its present form, without regard to a US exit" — the most concrete threat to walk that Tehran has issued. Iran's nuclear chief also warned that the country was prepared to enrich uranium at even higher levels than before the deal, should the accord fall apart.
Macron, British Prime Minister Theresa May, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed in phone calls on Sunday and Monday that the deal remains "the best way of neutralizing the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran," according to a readout from Downing Street.
But in a seeming concession to Trump and Netanyahu's belief that the nuclear deal needs to cover more than simply Iran's nuclear activities, the leaders "agreed that there were important elements that the deal does not cover, but which we need to address — including ballistic missiles, what happens when the deal expires, and Iran’s destabilizing regional activity."
That would prove in line with both Trump's campaign promise to do away with the deal and the stance of his newly installed foreign policy advisers, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, both Iran hawks.
Shortly after Netanyahu's speech ended, Trump was asked whether backing out of the Iran deal sent the right message to North Korea, which is preparing to enter high-level talks with the US over its nuclear program. Trump was sure it did: "I think if anything, what's happening today and over the last little while and what we've learned has really shown that I've been 100% right."