This article was updated on May 1, 2018, at 6:45 a.m. EDT
TEL AVIV—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised his fellow citizens an address to the nation—a “dramatic” announcement containing new revelations about Iran’s failure to comply with the Iran deal (known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA). He gave Israelis, instead, a TED Talk in a foreign language about a nuclear program from 15 years ago.
The Iranians had said they never wanted a bomb, and nobody had ever believed that. Indeed, the JCPOA that U.S. President Donald Trump now appears ready to scuttle was designed to make sure Iran could not build a weapon even and especially if it was lying about what it did in the 1980s and ’90s, before it stopped in 2003.
Netanyahu’s speech was announced at 4:30 p.m. on Monday, three and a half hours before its scheduled delivery, and at the height of rush hour. The Tel Aviv stock market tanked and terrified citizens—who for years have heard Netanyahu’s escalating warnings about the threat posed by Iran, flooded—radio talk shows with concerned questions about the war they expected imminently to erupt.
Netanyahu aides, who were somehow caught unaware by the public’s growing dread, started calling into the same shows, encouraging the hosts to “transmit calm,” as Yaakov Bargudo, a popular radio chat show host said. “People,” he told his listeners with what sounded like an ironic laugh, “there won’t be a declaration of war. I’m hearing this from top sources.”
“The speech probably doesn’t even address our situation here in Israel. It’s about, um, third countries,” Bargudo said confidently, if enigmatically.
Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States and a Netanyahu surrogate, called a show to encourage listeners to calm down and implied that Netanyahu would, in fact, be addressing Trump who, he said, had been subject to “intense European pressure” not to withdraw from the Iran deal.
Oren was right.
Netanyahu, who said his speech was based on information gained from 100,000 original Iranian documents offering “proof” of Iran’s ambitions to build nuclear weapons—an impressive Israeli intelligence achievement—didn’t even pretend to address the Israelis or allay their fears.
Netanyahu said the JCPOA was “based on lies,” because, as he showed in video clips and excerpted documents he said had already been corroborated by American intelligence agencies, Iran deceived the West when it concealed Project Amad, a secret Iranian plan to build nuclear weapons that was, he admitted, “shelved in 2003.”
He claimed Iran failed to comply with the terms of the JCPOA because it didn’t disclose Project Amad in 2015, as required by the JCPOA.
In fact, it is unclear how many of the documents displayed by Netanyahu contain new information. In December 2015, a report published by the United Nations nuclear inspection agency, based on “partial answers” provided by Iran after reaching the nuclear deal with the West five months earlier, stated that Iran was actively designing a nuclear weapon until 2009, significantly later than the 2003 date mentioned by Netanyahu.
The report showed no evidence Iran’s efforts succeeded in drawing up a complete blueprint for a nuclear bomb. Nor did Netanyahu’s PowerPoint.
In a military briefing room transformed into a high-tech stage, complete with laser lights and a huge LED screen, a black-suited Netanyahu flashed simple messages such as “IRAN LIED” several feet high and pressed his point: “Iran lied. Big time.”
Coming to the end of what the Israeli daily Haaretz called “a great show” Netanyahu derided Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and praised Trump. “Here’s the bottom line,” he said. “Iran continues to lie. Just last week, Zarif said this: ‘We never wanted to produce a bomb.’” He ran a video of Zarif making the statement, then ran it again, with flourish.
“Yes,” Netanyahu countered, “You did. Yes you do. And the atomic archive proves it.”
All in English, a language spoken by Israeli elites.
“So this is a terrible deal,” Netanyahu concluded. “And in a few days’ time, President Trump will decide, will make a decision on what to do with the nuclear deal. I’m sure he’ll 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.”
Having finished the performance, Netanyahu swiveled and delivered a cursory, two-minute summary of his argument to those Hebrew speakers still tuned in. He strode off the stage, taking no questions.
Beyond the confusion of Israelis, it was unclear if Netanyahu achieved his aim of persuasion.
Trump, who regularly denounces the Iran deal, remains coy about his plans. In a press conference with Nigerian President Mohammed Buhari half an hour after Netanyahu’s speech, Trump said Netanyahu’s presentations "showed that I was 100 percent right," but added, "I'm not telling you what I'm doing."
“A lot of people think they know," he said. "We'll see."
Trump refused to rule out future negotiations with Iran.
Both U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and the Israeli army’s chief of staff, Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, have expressed their satisfaction with Iran’s current respect for the agreement and its “pretty robust” regimen for oversight.
Speaking with journalists on a flight back from a Middle East tour, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sounded an equivocal note. “I think [Netanyahu’s speech] makes very clear that, at the very least, the Iranians have continued to lie to their own people,” he said. “So while you say everyone knew, the Iranians have consistently taken the position that they’ve never had a program like this. This will—this will belie any notion that there wasn’t a program like this.”
Asked if there are any indications Iran is violating the JCPOA, a contention denied by the International Atomic Energy Commission, Pompeo responded that he’d “leave that to the lawyers,” a response designed to leave the American administration some margin for decision about what is a political agreement, not narrowly a legal document.
In Israel, too, responses to the substance of Netanyahu’s remarks has been mixed. Ram Ben Barak, a former deputy director of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency credited with obtaining the documents, who is now a centrist member of the Israeli parliament, said in several interviews on Tuesday that the intelligence community is “unhappy about being used for the prime minister’s spectacle.”
In an interview just before Netanyahu’s speech, his former National Security Advisor Yaacov Nagel, who opposes the Iran deal and hopes Trump withdraws, said “the one good thing we got out of this was that the period of time it would take for Iran to become a [nuclear] threshold nation was extended from about three months to a year.”
That fact remains unchanged following Netanyahu’s speech.
Iran’s foreign minister mocked Netanyahu before the speech. “The boy who can’t stop crying wolf is at it again,” Zarif said. After the speech, Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency declared that Netanyahu is “famous for ridiculous shows.”
Zarif tweeted that “Pres. Trump is jumping on a rehash of old allegations already dealt with by the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Commission] to ‘nix’ the deal. How convenient. Coordinated timing of alleged intelligence revelations by the boy who cries wolf just days before May 12. But Trump’s impetuousness to celebrate blew the cover.”