Trump Bites on Netanyahu’s Nothingburger About Iran

Foreign governments all over the globe are studying Donald Trump, just as many of us are here in this country. Assuming a modicum of intelligence on their part, I’m sure they have figured out by now that the current U.S. president is both ignorant and impulsive. As I wrote earlier, they can either use that to their benefit, or become the target of his attacks. Based on the performance of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his address yesterday, it is clear that he is attempting the former in his quest to start a war with Iran.

The basis of Netanyahu’s speech, which was obviously directed at the U.S., was that Israeli intelligence had gathered more that 100,000 documents about the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

In a special address on Monday, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented what he described as shocking, indisputable evidence that Iran had lied about its covert nuclear weapons program in the past and “continued to preserve and expand its nuclear weapons knowledge for future use” after signing the 2015 deal with six world powers to halt its nuclear activities.

For those who actually paid attention to the content of this presentation rather than the innuendo that it was “shocking, indisputable evidence,” two things stood out. First of all, the evidence isn’t so shocking. According to James Acton, the co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, “everyone involved in negotiating the JCPOA assumed that Iran was lying when it said that it had never had a nuclear weapons program and the JCPOA was developed on that basis.” He also pointed out that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) already documented much of what Netanyahu presented.

… in 2011 [IAEA] published this long report on Iranian so-called possible military dimensions, and it talked about Project Amad there. Having not had the chance to reread that report and go through Netanyahu’s claims one by one, what I would say in general terms is that everything that he said appeared to be broadly consistent with what the IAEA had previously reported.

Secondly, perhaps the most important part of Netanyahu’s speech was what he didn’t say.

Notably absent from his speech was any assertion that the JCPOA is not working or that Iran is currently developing a nuclear weapon or otherwise failing to fulfill its obligations under the deal. In fact, if Iran really does have a plan for rapidly developing a nuclear weapon at the ready, that only underscores the importance of keeping the deal alive so that international inspectors can verify that the country has not put that plan into action.

In other words, when it comes to the facts about the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA), Netanyahu’s speech was a complete nothingburger. But it obviously reached its target audience.

After repeating claims that the Iran nuclear agreement was “horrible,” Trump said that this information proves that he has been 100 percent correct in his assessment. The White House also initially sent out this statement:

ON ISRAEL’S ANNOUNCEMENT RELATED TO IRANIAN NUCLEAR WEAPONS DEVELOPMENT: …These facts are consistent with what the United States has long known: Iran has a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program that it has tried and failed to hide from the world and from its own people.

— The White House (@WhiteHouse) April 30, 2018

Later, when the statement was posted on the White House website, it had been changed to read: “Iran had a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program…” They claimed it was a typo in the original version, but it is clear that Netanyahu played Trump like a fiddle until smarter heads prevailed and they walked things back.

We now have 11 days until Trump has to decide whether or not the United States will unilaterally break their commitment in JCPOA by reinstituting the sanctions that were reversed in exchange for Iran halting its nuclear weapons program. Netanyahu just played his cards by attempting to incite the president into taking that step. As I wrote previously, two of the three voices of reason in Trump’s national security team have been fired and replaced with men who, in the past, have argued against upholding the agreement. It is clear that neither French President Macron nor German Chancellor Merkel were able to talk Trump out of his intentions. Meanwhile, the leaders of Iran have promised to restart their nuclear weapons program if the United States abandons the agreement. That will inevitably lead to war.

In the past, Trump has shown himself to be good at big talk and chest-thumping. But for the most part, he tends to back down from inciting direct conflict. Is that because people like McMaster and Mattis were able to talk him down, or are we dealing with a president who is, as they say, “all hat and no cattle?”

Leaving the entire world wondering whether he will take a step that guarantees another major war will break out in the Middle East seems to be fodder for Trump’s ego. He has said all along that he likes to be unpredictable, probably because it keeps all of the attention focused on him. But it is a deadly game that Trump is playing and demonstrates, once again, his unfitness for office.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.