Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the Munich Security Conference was full of eye-popping distortions on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal. Those remarks were forcefully rebutted by former Secretary of State John Kerry, who reiterated in the starkest terms yet how the Obama administration had resisted explicit calls from Netanyahu, as well as King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Mubarak of Egypt, to bomb Iran rather than engage in nuclear negotiations. Given that Netanyahu appears to prefer war to the hard-fought security gains of the JCPOA, his remarks are not surprising – but they do deserve scrutiny and rebutting.
Netanyahu labeled the JCPOA as “appeasement” and falsely stated that it “has begun the countdown to an Iranian nuclear arsenal in little more than a decade.” Kerry directly addressed this claim, asserting that it is “fundamentally not accurate with respect to this agreement.”
The JCPOA obligates Iran to refrain from ever seeking, developing or acquiring nuclear weapons and will ensure intrusive inspections of Iran’s entire nuclear program in perpetuity. As Kerry noted, thanks to the JCPOA, “[t]oday we have 130 additional inspectors on the ground in Iran, inspecting radio-transmitted, sealed centrifuges and facilities on a daily basis.” If Iran chooses to break its commitments in pursuit of a nuclear arsenal under the JCPOA they would be detected and the U.S. would have the same options to respond – this will hold true even after certain restrictions expire.
It is also worth noting that there is a sharp divide on the JCPOA between Netanyahu and the Israeli security establishment. As Haaretz reported in October, Netanyahu’s anti-JCPOA stance “is at odds with most Israeli experts in Military Intelligence and in the IDFs Planning Directorate, the Mossad, Foreign Ministry and the Atomic Energy Committee.” Moreover, the report indicated that “all Israeli intelligence bodies dealing with the Iranian issue are united in the opinion that…Iran hasn’t been caught violating a single clause.”
For those with legitimate concerns about the sunset of enrichment restrictions in the out-years of the JCPOA, it might be possible for the U.S. to seek a follow-on agreement through serious diplomacy. But that possibility will be dashed if the U.S. fails to uphold its end of the bargain, as the Trump administration appears determined to do. As it stands now, killing the deal now out of fears that the agreement’s terms won’t last forever – and then expecting President Trump to negotiate a better deal after alienating our negotiating partners – is simply irrational.
Netanyahu cited Iran’s missile testing, arguing that Iran is “developing ballistic missiles to reach deep into Europe and to the United States as well.” The track record of Iran’s recent testing contradicts Netanyahu’s claims. According to a recent analysis from the Center for Nonproliferation Studies and Nuclear Threat Initiative, it appears “the JCPOA has helped redirect Iran’s priorities for its missile program away from developing an ICBM (whose only purpose would be as a nuclear delivery system), to developing solid-fueled versions of its short-range missiles.” This also matches Iran’s stated policy, with the apparent endorsement of Iran’s Supreme Leader, to limit its missile program to a 2,000 kilometer radius around Iran. As a result, there is little evidence to back up Netanyahu’s claim on missiles.
Netanyahu also claimed that Iran “seeks to dominate the world through aggression and terror” and “hopes to complete a contiguous empire.”
Iran continues to exert its influence in the Middle East, including in ways that run counter to U.S. interests, such as the apparent flight of a drone into Israeli air space. However, Iran is not in any way positioned to establish an “empire” or dominate the region, much less the world.
Iran’s military capabilities are still outmatched by Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States. In response to the drone flight into Israeli airspace, Israel took out Iranian and Syrian regime positions and defenses in Syria, albeit not without cost. In addition to a capable and modern air force, Israel possesses nuclear-tipped missiles. Iran has neither. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, also possesses a modern air force and outspent Iran militarily by a 5:1 rate in 2016, amid the JCPOA’s implementation. As Vali Nasr, Dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, wrote in Foreign Affairs, many in Tehran who backed the JCPOA were disappointed as “Iran had given up an important asset only to see the conventional military gap with its regional rivals widen,” thanks to arms sales under the Obama administration.
Iran is a regional power that engages in many activities that are counter to U.S. interests, and policymakers should carefully consider how to address them. Historically, bluster and confrontation have failed, while serious multilateral diplomacy has resulted in significant Iranian concessions on the nuclear issue. If we throw out that successful playbook and buy into Netanyahu’s fear mongering of an imminent Iranian nuclear arsenal and empire we risk unraveling the security gains from the JCPOA and moving rapidly toward a disastrous war with Iran.
Netanyahu, facing a corruption inquiry at home, will likely reprise his role as the JCPOA’s foremost opponent as the Trump administration weighs the fate of the agreement. While Israel has legitimate concerns regarding Iran, Netanyahu’s fabrications and exaggerations undermine his credibility on a nuclear agreement that has enhanced both Israeli and American security. As the Director of National Intelligence, Daniel Coats, stated in testimony during the Worldwide Threats report last week:
“Iran’s implementation of the JCPOA has extended the amount of time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon from a few months to about one year, provided Iran continues to adhere to the deal’s major provisions. The JCPOA has also enhanced the transparency of Iran’s nuclear activities, mainly by fostering improved access to Iranian nuclear facilities for the IAEA and its investigative authorities under the Additional Protocol to its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement.”
No amount of spin from Netanyahu can reverse the deal’s success, nor the fact that diplomacy has succeeded where bluster and unilateral demands failed. Policymakers should consider Netanyahu’s statements on Iran with a healthy dose of skepticism and reject his self-destructive attempts to undermine the JCPOA and force the United States into a military conflict with Iran.