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Netanyahu’s Iran claims won’t make a difference, analysts say — the nuclear deal is already doomed

Key Points
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Neytanyahu delivered a visual-heavy presentation Monday that claimed to prove Tehran secretly pursued developing nuclear weapons.
  • During the 2015 Iran nuclear deal negotiations, Iran was suspected of lying about the military dimensions of its now-shelved nuclear program from 2003.
  • The information regarding Iran's activities does not indicate violation of the 2015 nuclear agreement, but it is still likely to collapse under pressure fro the Trump administration.
Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv, Israel April 30, 2018.
Amir Cohen | Reuters

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's detailed accusation that Iran lied about its nuclear program makes little difference to the fate of its nuclear deal, according to analysts.

Neytanyahu delivered a visual-heavy presentation Monday that claimed to prove Tehran secretly pursued developing nuclear weapons, in a bid to undermine support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 agreement signed with six major world powers to curb its nuclear program in exchange for economic sanctions relief.

"Tonight, I'm here to tell you one thing. Iran lied, big time," he said in a televised statement from Israel, displaying a trove of files comprising 55,000 pages of documents and 183 CDs he called an "atomic archive."

Diplomats and intelligence experts, however, have refuted the idea that these documents prove anything beyond what they already knew when the deal was signed — that Iran certainly did pursue nuclear arms development, which then led to stringent international sanctions and ultimately the negotiation for a deal. During the 2015 negotiations, Iran was suspected of lying about the military dimensions of its now-shelved nuclear program from 2003. But the experts said Israel's evidence still does not point to a violation of the JCPOA or current pursuit of a bomb.

So, rather than shock supporters of the deal into opposing it, which may have been among Netanyahu's aims, the presentation has left the JCPOA's fate largely unchanged. It's most likely to fail regardless, analysts said.

"It is unclear whether any new information regarding Iran's nuclear activities was revealed or any new argument for scrapping the nuclear deal," said Hasnain Malik, global head of equity research at Exotix Capital.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with US President Donald Trump at Ben Gurion International Airport on May 23, 2017 in Jerusalem, Israel.
Kobi Gideon | GPO | Getty Images

But the press conference likely aimed to shape U.S. public opinion, Malik said, and while not producing any groundbreaking intelligence, would make it easier for President Donald Trump to scrap the deal. Speaking after Netanyahu's speech, Trump said that it "showed I was 100 percent right" in opposing the Barack Obama administration-led agreement.

No love for the deal

Indeed, if the deal collapsed it would be at the hands of the Trump administration, following the president's repeated declarations that the deal was "insane" and the "worst ever." Trump allowed sanctions relief to remain in place during a previous deadline in January, but warned that it was the deal's "last chance" before the upcoming May 12 deadline, by which time he's threatened to withdraw entirely unless a new deal, or significantly reformed parameters, is reached by its signatories France, Germany, the U.K., Russia and China.

Meanwhile, Iran has denied Netanyahu's allegations, calling them "propaganda." Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called Netanyahu "the boy who can't stop crying wolf."

"Netanyahu's presentation will only marginally affect U.S. and European decision-making" regarding the agreement's fate, said Henry Rome, Iran researcher at risk consultancy Eurasia Group. "We retain our call that the deal has a 65 percent chance of collapsing during Trump's first term and a 60 percent chance that he pulls out on or before the 12 May waiver deadline."

A reactor building at the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant in Bushehr, Iran.
Getty Images

Iran's economy, particularly its hydrocarbons sector, has benefited from sanctions relief. A renewal of sanctions would disrupt oil production, fueling global prices upward.

A shadow war?

The accusations come amid heightened tensions between Iran and Israel in Syria — a suspected Israeli airstrike Sunday struck an arms depot in Syria's southern Hama district, killing 11 Iranians and destroying 200 missiles. Israel's government has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility.

The blow follows months of back-and-forth incursions, including attempted drone attacks from Syria into Israeli territory and Israeli airstrikes in response. Seven Iranian military advisors supporting Syrian government forces were killed mid-April, but so far the conflict has not devolved into all-out war, something experts say both countries want to avoid.

Still, Israel sees Iranian activity in Syria near its border as an existential threat, and intends to prevent Iranian military installations becoming permanent bases from which its Shia proxy Hezbollah can launch attacks into its territory. Israeli defense sources reportedly told U.S. officials Sunday that any such attack would trigger a response targeting Iranian soil.

Amid the already myriad and complex battles underway in Syria, yet another quagmire will only further cripple the beleaguered country's prospects for stability.