Why Netanyahu Really Wanted Trump To Scuttle The Iran Deal

A man looks out over Syria from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, where missiles were exchanged on Wednesday night, days after Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal.

On Wednesday night, twenty rockets were fired, from Syria, at the Golan Heights by, according to Israel, Iran’s Quds force, a special-forces unit of the Revolutionary Guard. Some got through Israel’s advanced missile-defense shield, but there were no injuries. Israel responded by launching seventy missiles, killing at least twenty-three fighters, including five Syrian troops and eighteen allied militiamen. The Israeli Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said that the I.D.F. had destroyed “nearly all” of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria. The Iranian attack had been expected; for days now, the Israeli media has been full of reports of people on the Golan cleaning out their shelters. On April 9th, Israel reportedly attacked the T-4 Syrian air force base near Homs. Seven members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, who had apparently been establishing an airbase, complete with anti-aircraft batteries, were killed. Last week, Israel reportedly bombed a major cache of Iranian missiles north of Hama, in Syria. “Everyone knows Israel has conducted over a hundred such attacks,” the veteran Syrian analyst Charles Glass told me in a telephone conversation from London. Iran threatened retaliation, which came last night.

The attacks and counterattacks came just a couple of days after President Trump’s announcement, on Tuesday, that the United States was withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—the Iran nuclear deal. The stories are often reported separately, but they should not be. The withdrawal is a part of a larger story, possibly a larger strategy, which began with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s surprise presentation at the Defense Ministry, in Tel Aviv, on April 30th. Its purpose was ostensibly to persuade the Trump Administration to confront a long-term nuclear threat to Israel. Its more plausible purpose was to prompt Trump to confront an immediate conventional threat. After Trump’s announcement, Israel attacked Kiswah, south of Damascus—again, an act designed to thwart Iran from firing rockets from Syria at northern Israel. Eight Iranians were reported to be among the fifteen killed. Netanyahu, at his press conference, claimed to expose “something that the world has never seen before,” Iranian documents—“fifty-five thousand pages, another fifty-five thousand files on one hundred-and eighty-three CDs”—secured by Israeli intelligence. The cache showed that Iran had operated a secret nuclear-weapons program from 1999 to 2003, the so-called “Project Amad.” The J.C.P.O.A., Netanyahu said, presumed that Iran would “come clean” about its past nuclear program, but, he claimed, after signing the deal, in 2015, Iran “intensified its efforts to hide its secret nuclear files.” The inference was clear: “Iran lied, big time”; the regime hid its nuclear files, cataloguing its nuclear knowledge, because it intended “to use them at a later date.” On Tuesday, as if on cue, Trump mirrored Netanyahu’s concern. “At the heart of the Iran deal was a giant fiction: that a murderous regime desired only a peaceful nuclear energy program,” Trump said.

Netanyahu, to seal his claim, provided video clips of Iranian leaders over the years. In one, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said, “The Islamic Republic has never been after nuclear weapons.” President Hassan Rouhani maintained that “nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran’s security and defense doctrine, and contradict our fundamental religious and ethical convictions.” Another leader claimed that “the source of any idea that we are building a nuclear weapon is specious…. We are building…a research facility for the purpose of industry, agriculture, medicine, and science—peaceful purposes only.”

Actually, that last statement was from Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, responding, in December, 1960, to reports that had reached President-elect John Kennedy—a known opponent of nuclear proliferation—that Israel was working on a bomb at its reactor in Dimona. For Israelis, word of covert Iranian work on nuclear weapons could hardly have been shocking. Indeed, Netanyahu’s big reveal was something that the signatories to the J.C.P.O.A. took for granted—that’s why it was negotiated. Netanyahu was showing that Iran could not be trusted, but the deal, as Susan Rice wrote in the Times, “was never about trust.” It was designed to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor the very sites that Netanyahu’s show-and-tell focussed on; the I.A.E.A. has certified Iranian compliance as recently as March.

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