My Word: Netanyahu’s nuclear showtime vs showdown

As nuclear material goes, this was the best type to be exposed to. On April 30, in a prime-time televised press conference that begged the description “dramatic,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed that Israel a few weeks ago pulled off a “great intelligence achievement.” Israel managed to obtain a huge cache of 55,000 pages and another 55,000 files on 183 CDs relating to Iran’s Project Amad nuclear program. The material had been stored in steel safes in a nondescript southern Tehran warehouse.

“Few Iranians knew where it was, very few, and also a few Israelis,” the prime minister boasted. Now it is in Israel, thousands of kilometers away.

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Standing next to a display of binders and CDs to demonstrate the physical scope of the intelligence coup, Netanyahu enthusiastically screened a PowerPoint display of the documents, some still in the original Farsi, and declared “Iran lied. Big time.”

“We have now turned our question marks into exclamation points,” Netanyahu said. I could only partly agree. The intelligence operation is so jaw-dropping that open mouths could symbolize the circle of the exclamation points. Netanyahu’s questions might have been answered, but the average viewer of the press conference and regular news consumer was left with different questions.

The obvious question is how did Israeli intelligence pull this off? How did it locate the material, gain access to the storeroom in the capital of an enemy country, and bring half a ton of intelligence data back to Israel, a country with which Iran, of course, doesn’t even have direct flights? Given that details of the Israeli raid that knocked out Syria’s nascent nuclear plant in 2007 were only revealed this March, more than 10 years later, we might have to wait for the official story to be published.

What will be the title of the movie about this operation is another question that ran through my mind.

On a prosaic note, I found it ironic that when the prime minister started to make the announcement of the intelligence coup he had to struggle for several minutes with a malfunctioning microphone.

If the country’s intelligence agencies can pull off such an incredible feat, you would think that the Prime Minister’s Office and Defense Ministry staff between them would be able to locate a microphone that worked.

More seriously, I really hope – for the sake of the whole world – that if Iran still has some nuclear material, it has hidden it in a much better guarded safe spot. Images of the plain, unprotected warehouse in Tehran were not reassuring.

The fact that Iran lied about its nuclear program did not come as news. While many commentators focused on the fact that there was no “smoking gun,” nothing to show that Iran continued to break its obligations under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, others believe that the storage of all the data, rather than its destruction, shows that the Iranian leadership intends to resume its nuclear program when the deal expires. (And it is ticking away like a time bomb; almost three years of the 10-year deal have already passed remarkably quickly.) As Dore Gold of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs put it in a paper issued this week: “It can now be stated without any qualification that Iran had a nuclear weapons program. The whole Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA), consequently, had been negotiated under false pretenses.”

He also said that Iran “unquestionably violated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970.”

Some Israeli intelligence officials were reportedly upset by the public disclosure of the material. I’m not surprised. It is the nature of members of the intelligence community to prefer shadows to spotlights.

But there is little doubt that the Iranian authorities already knew of the operation and were seeking suspects.

Israel is still plowing through the material to see what the treasure trove will yield. The Mossad apparently called in reinforcements of Farsi speakers serving in military intelligence. For all his enthusiasm, Netanyahu is probably keeping the most interesting bits under wraps, better protected than they were in Tehran.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini among others said she did not see anything new in the material, some of which had already been seen by the International Atomic Energy Agency. This does not make me feel better. Those of us who felt that the nuclear deal pushed through under then-US secretary of state John Kerry and the Obama administration was dangerously bad received confirmation of our fears. Project Amad, as presented by Netanyahu, had all the key elements of a nuclear weapons program, from nuclear- weapon design to identifying several potential test sites (also listed in the documents).

The nuclear deal allows Iran to build an arsenal of ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. What do you think the Iranian regime wants them for? Delivering a message of peace? As Netanyahu theatrically drew back the curtains on his props and reeled off his main points it became obvious that this show wasn’t only about the nuclear deal.

The presentation, in the prime minister’s flawless English, was not made for domestic consumption. Nor was it aimed at US President Donald Trump, whose views on the Iran deal drawn up under Obama are similar to those of Netanyahu (although it remains to be seen whether this translates it to nixing or fixing the deal on the May 12 deadline.) Revealing the intelligence coup was its own message. A message of deterrence and warning.

Not by chance did Netanyahu point out that the missiles from the Shi’ite Islamic Republic could reach Sunni Saudi Arabia.

“Iran is continually expanding the range of its ballistic missiles, its nuclear-capable missiles. They started with 1,000 kilometers, they’re now up to 2,000, roughly.

They can reach Riyadh, Tel Aviv, Moscow, but they’re working on far, far greater ranges,” Netanyahu noted.

He did not add, although he could have, that Iranian-backed Houthi forces in Yemen are already launching rockets at the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Iran is also putting its proxies in place in Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere.

The presentation clearly told Israel’s enemies that they are not safe, wherever they are. It’s a message aimed at Hamas leaders in places as far afield as Malaysia and Tunisia (where senior operatives have been killed in mysterious assassinations recently). Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, ahead of Lebanon’s parliamentary elections on May 6, also undoubtedly took note.

Above all, it was a reminder to the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia, which feel as threatened as Israel by a nuclear Iran, that the tiny Jewish state is a formidable enemy. It would be better to be on the same side than work against it.

Iranian officials belittled Netanyahu after the presentation as “an infamous liar.”

They did not counter the points he made.

When Iran said it had shelved its nuclear program, it meant it literally: It had stored the material on shelves for later use.

Iran’s nuclear weapons program has to be seen in the context of the regime’s drive to create a new Persian empire.

The Iran deal’s fatal flaws are literally lethal. It was left to basically monitor its own compliance, or non-compliance. The IAEA does not have access to Iranian sites without Iranian approval. Israel, on the other hand, didn’t ask permission before investigating Iran’s secretly stored nuclear weapons program. While the European countries rushing to do business with Iran might be upset, the Sunni Arab world is quietly relieved, and impressed, by Israel’s intelligence achievements. They’d rather watch Netanyahu put on a show than witness a showdown with an emboldened nuclear Iran.

liat