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Netanyahu’s ‘smoke-and-mirrors’ performance on the Iranian nuclear deal

Netanyahu tells world leaders things about the Iranian nuclear weapons programme which they have always known

A well-established trick of a skilled propagandist is to dress up as a “startling revelation” something which in reality everyone with knowledge of a matter has long known.

We had a masterclass in this technique yesterday from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is someone who is not just a skilled propagandist but who is actually a brilliant one.

Thus we heard from him a technically superb presentation about how Iran has “lied” about its nuclear programme, complete with the perfect prop: a vast archive of documents apparently stolen by Israeli intelligence from Iran, which supposedly confirms how Iran has previously “lied” about its nuclear weapons programme.

Netanyahu then drew from this “revelation” the conclusion that he wanted: that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“JCPOA”) between Iran and the world powers whereby Iran agreed to place limits on its nuclear programme in return for sanctions relief is based on a “lie”.

Netanyahu has in fact been a relentless critic of the JCPOA ever since it was agreed.  He has campaigned tirelessly to have it rescinded, with all the indications being that because of Donald Trump’s own publicly voiced hostility to the JCPOA that campaign is now about to bear fruit.

Netanyahu’s presentation yesterday was intended to ensure that his campaign against the JCPOA does indeed bear fruit, and that Donald Trump will announce the US’s withdrawal from the JCPOA before it comes up for renewal on 12th May 2018.

Speaking for myself, I have no doubt Netanyahu will get his wish.  The US’s response to his presentation yesterday all but confirms that the Trump administration is indeed going to take the US out of the JCPOA and that all the attempts of the US’s European allies – first and foremost France’s Macron and Germany’s Merkel – to persuade the US to change course have failed.

None of this alters the fact that Netanyahu’s presentation yesterday was an exercise in smoke-and-mirrors.

Obviously I have not read the vast stolen archive which was the presentation’s main prop.  However the key point is that Netanyahu during his presentation said absolutely nothing that I – and everyone else who has followed the story of the Iranian nuclear programme closely – did not already know.

Specifically, Iran did have a nuclear weapons programme before 2003 – just as Netanyahu says – and Iran has not been truthful in its denial about this – as Netanyahu also says – but all the indications are that Iran’s nuclear weapons programme was put on hold in 2003, and has not been pursued since, and nothing Netanyahu said yesterday in any way casts doubt on that fact.

US intelligence publicly reported all this in 2007.

These facts were therefore fully known by all the world powers – including the US – when the JCPOA was agreed in 2015.

In no sense is it therefore true that the JCPOA is based on a “lie”, and Netanyahu’s claim to that effect is wrong.

Nor is there any evidence that Iran has gone back on any of the commitments it took when it agreed to the JCPOA in July 2015, and importantly Netanyahu in his presentation yesterday provided no evidence that it had done so.

That everyone knew at the time when the JCPOA was agreed in 2015 all the facts which Netanyahu presented as “news” yesterday I can prove in the simplest way: by referring to one of my own articles which I wrote for Sputnik on 6th April 2015, ie. before the JCPOA was formally agreed on 14th July 2015.

Iran’s claims that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful are disingenuous. The Iranian nuclear  program was originally military. It was created in the 1980’s in response to a  program to develop nuclear weapons launched by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

That  program came dangerously close to success. Iraq’s acquisition of nuclear weapons may only have been averted by Iraq’s defeat in 1991.

Given the ferocious war Iran fought in the 1980s against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Iran’s decision to seek an equivalent capability is understandable.

Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003 removed this incentive.

An Iranian nuclear bomb would have balanced an Iraqi nuclear bomb. Against Israel and the US it makes no sense. Were Iran to threaten or use such a bomb against either of these states, it would face an overwhelming retaliation that would put the entire existence of the Iranian nation in jeopardy.

Not surprisingly therefore, following the fail of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iran made peace overtures to the US and (according to the consensus of all US intelligence agencies) suspended work on its nuclear weapons  program at the very latest by 2007.

Iran has however insisted on maintaining a capability to restart its program. This is unsurprising, given that Iran remains threatened by neighbors, led by Saudi Arabia, which might acquire such a capability themselves. In the meantime, however, Iran has abided by its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

All this is well understood in the US.

(bold italics added)

Since I wrote that article on 6th April 2015 the one additional fact which has become known is that Iran put its nuclear weapons programme on hold in 2003, not as I wrote in that article “at the very latest by 2007”.

As a matter of fact Netanyahu confirmed this in his presentation yesterday.

Iran has in my opinion done itself no favours by persisting in the pretence that the nuclear weapons programme which it had before 2003 never existed.

Given that Iran had perfectly valid reasons for possessing a nuclear weapons programme before 2003 – Saddam Hussein, who Iran’s nuclear weapons programme was intended to deter, was not only a relentless enemy of Iran who once possessed a nuclear weapons programme of his own, but he was also someone who in the 1980s had fought a ruthless war against Iran in which he used weapons of mass destruction against Iran on a massive scale – Iran’s decision to go on pretending that it never had a nuclear weapons programme is strange.

Perhaps the Iranians are embarrassed to contradict publicly the edict of their Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei that possession of nuclear weapons is sinful and un-Islamic.  Or possibly they fear that acknowledging the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapons programme before 2003 would would expose them to more demands including for still more intrusive inspections.

Irrespective of the exact reasons for the Iranian denials, by persisting in them the Iranians have exposed themselves to precisely the sort of propaganda exercise we saw from Netanyahu yesterday.

Regardless, Netanyahu’s demarche has no bearing on the validity of the JCPOA, which all countries apart from the US, Israel and Iran’s Arab enemies continue to regard as the best safeguard against a resumption of the Iranian nuclear programme.

President Putin of Russia pointedly reminded Netanyahu of this in a telephone conversation the two leaders had yesterday

The leaders discussed progress of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear programme, including in the light of Mr Netanyahu’s statement on the issue made today.

Vladimir Putin confirmed Russia’s stance that the Plan of Action, which is of primary importance for ensuring international stability and security, must be meticulously observed by all parties.

President Putin and Prime Minister Netanyahu continued to exchange opinions on the overall situation in the Middle East, including the developments in Syria.

The parties agreed on further personal contacts.

The same stance – expressed in rather more turgid language – was taken by the EU’s Foreign Policy chief Frederica Mogherini

What I have seen from the first reports is that Prime Minister Netanyahu has not put into question Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) commitments, meaning post-2015 nuclear commitments……

[The JCPOA] is not based on assumptions of good faith or trust – it is based on concrete commitments, verification mechanisms and a very strict monitoring of facts, done by the IAEA. The IAEA has published 10 reports, certifying that Iran has fully complied with its commitments….

And in any case, if any party and if any country has information of non-compliance, of any kind, it can and should address and channel this information to the proper, legitimate, recognized mechanisms, the IAEA and the Joint Commission [of the JCPOA] for the monitoring of the nuclear deal that I chair and that I convened just a couple of months ago. We have mechanisms in place to address eventual concerns

(bold italics added)

Similar views have also been expressed by the governments of Britain, France and Germany.

My own views about the JCPOA are the same as those of the former US CIA officer and analyst Philip Giraldi.  Like him I believe its preservation overwhelmingly serves regional stability and world peace as well as the national security interests of the US

Trump’s objection to the agreement is that it is a “bad deal” that virtually guarantees that Iran will have a nuclear weapon somewhere down the road. There is, however, no factual basis for that claim and that it is being made at all is largely reflective of Israeli and Israel Lobby propaganda. It is, on the contrary, an American interest not to have another nuclear proliferator in the Middle East in addition to Israel, which Washington has never dared to confront on the issue. The JCPOA agreement guarantees that Iran will not work to develop a weapon for at least ten years which is a considerable benefit considering that Tehran, if it had chosen to initiate such a program, could easily have had breakout capability in one year……

Ironically, the JCPOA is approved of by most Americans because it prevents the development of yet another potentially hostile nuclear armed power in a volatile part of the world. American Jews, in fact, support it more than other Americans, according to opinion polls. Even the generals in the Pentagon favor continuing it as do U.S. close allies Germany, France and Britain…..

To which I would add that the US’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and its likely re-imposition of economic sanctions on Iran will also force Iran into greater dependence – both military and economic – on Russia, which given that Iran is by far the biggest and most powerful Central Asian state can only further secure Russia’s regional dominance in Central Asia, which is increasingly looking unchallengeable.

Over and beyond this there is the further proof which a US pullout from the JCPOA will provide that the survival of agreements the US enters into with adversarial powers – be they Russia, China, Cuba, North Korea, Libya or Iran – is hostage to the internal politics of the US, so that no such agreement made by the US even if it is signed by the US President can be guaranteed to survive changes in US domestic politics.

Here is what Philip Giraldi has to say about this

The Iranians for their part have made it clear that no modification of the agreement is possible. They note, correctly, that the JCPOA was not a bilateral commitment made between Tehran and Washington. It also included as signatories Russia, China, France, Britain and the European Union and was ratified by the United Nations (P5+1). They and others also have noted that U.S. exit from the agreement will mean that other nations will negotiate with Washington with the understanding that a legal commitment entered into by the President of the United States cannot be trusted after he is out of office.

(bold italics added)

For the present the reality of US power makes it impossible for countries to avoid dealing with the US.  However they can increasingly see for themselves that they can place no reliance on the US’s word.  Sooner or later that is bound to backfire on the US, and when it eventually does it will likely do so in the most devastating way.

That of course is a lesson that the Russians, with memories of how the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty – signed by President Nixon and ratified by the US Senate – was simply cancelled by the George W. Bush administration when it felt like it, have already learnt and digested.

More and more countries are now learning it also.

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