On April 30, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed a treasure trove of documents stolen from Iranian government facilities. These documents showed that Iran had been lying about the intentions of its nuclear program in the past. Iran’s official position has been that its nuclear program has been purely for peaceful purposes, a transparent lie.
If we thought that Iran only wanted nuclear material for power plants and hospitals, we would’ve never made a deal with it to stop it from getting a bomb. So, in a sense, Netanyahu’s revelations didn’t have any new information. Netanyahu was trying to say that because Iran lied about its program in the past, it couldn’t be trusted in the future not to cheat on the nuclear deal.
The nuclear deal is the only thing besides war preventing Iran from getting a nuclear bomb. It does this with two mechanisms: inspections and leverage. As part of the deal, the West, China, and Russia agreed to lift most sanctions on Iran, letting it sell more of its oil and get more foreign investment to develop its economy. In exchange, Iran has to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency visit all its nuclear sites to make sure uranium isn’t being enriched beyond what’s needed for peaceful purposes like energy and medicine. If those inspectors find any irregularities or violations, sanctions will be reinstated.
Without the deal, Iran would’ve simply continued building up its nuclear weapons program, albeit at a slowed pace due to sanctions. Eventually, as the program neared completion, the West would face a choice: topple the regime, at terrible cost, or allow Iran to develop a nuke, the only true form of deterrence for a dictatorship against regime change. With the U.S. pulling out of the deal, the same incentives apply, and the same outcomes will happen. Iran will have no reason not to build a nuke because it’s being sanctioned anyway, and a nuke is the only thing that will stop the U.S. invading, like it did with Iraq or Afghanistan.
The deal is mostly criticized by war hawks in the U.S,, right-wingers in Israel like Netanyahu, and by Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia. They have two sets of disagreements with the deal, one in good faith and one in bad. The bad faith attacks are that the deal won’t stop Iran from getting a bomb because it expires in 10 years and doesn’t allow universal, on-the-spot inspections. These attacks are made in bad faith because the people making them know that it would be impossible to get stricter inspections without going to war and because the inspections are already incredibly thorough.
The real criticisms from the hawks are that the deal will strengthen Iran’s military (but only its conventional forces). Because most sanctions on Iran were lifted by the deal, it could theoretically fund its military and its foreign allies like Hezbollah more. A non-nuclear Iran also isn’t the objective of most hawks, or of Iran’s enemies like Israel or Saudi Arabia. Their objective is an Iran that doesn’t threaten them in any way, with nukes or otherwise.
The only way to ensure this is by regime change through war with Iran, and so they view war with Iran as basically inevitable. They also already have nuclear capability either through the U.S. or directly in the case of Israel. If Iran had a nuke, it wouldn’t be able to use it on Israel or the Arab states without massive retaliation from the U.S. In a hypothetical war, the U.S. or Israel also couldn’t use their nukes offensively without being seen as pariahs by the world, making them useless except as defensive weapons. Therefore, it makes sense for Israel and the Gulf Arab states to oppose the deal outright. A nuclear Iran isn’t much more of a threat to them because of mutually assured destruction, and lifting sanctions gives Iran more money to fund its conventional military, which they expect to face in battle.
Netanyahu’s presentation is especially ironic because he accused Iran of something that Israel has done for years. Israel has had nuclear weapons since the Six-Day War in 1967 but to this day refuses to acknowledge it possesses them. The stolen documents that Netanyahu shared also proved a point that he didn’t think that he was making. The IAEA inspectors should be able to find any potential violations by Iran, but there’s always the possibility that Iran fools the inspectors somehow.
The IAEA, though, isn’t the only group in Iran looking for weapons sites. The CIA and Mossad, the Israeli spy agency, have been looking for years and already found and sabotaged weapons sites, which is why we knew Iran was trying to make a nuclear bomb in the first place. Spies from the CIA and Mossad provide an additional level of verification that Iran is sticking to a peaceful nuclear program, and so far, have certified that Iran is in compliance with the nuclear deal. This is why Netanyahu’s big revelation was that Iran lied about having a weapons program in the past, and not that Iran is currently lying about having a weapons program.
But it didn’t matter that Netanyahu wasn’t presenting any new information about Iran violating the deal, because he was talking to an audience of one: President Trump. The sole purpose of the press conference was to convince Trump that because Iran lied, the nuclear deal had to be torn up and that all sanctions had to be re-imposed, making war far more likely. In a future op-ed, I’ll talk about how uniquely terrible an offensive war with Iran would be.