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Netanyahu tries to split Trump from Europe on Iran deal

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu details findings of Iran's past nuclear plans during a news conference at the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv, 30 April 2018. Reuters/Amir Cohen

France and other European countries said Tuesday that Israeli revelations of a past Iranian atomic weapons programme underline the importance of the historic nuclear deal signed in 2015, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks to convince US President Donald Trump to scrap the deal.


Netanyahu claimed Monday evening that 55,000 pages of documentation and 183 CDs that Israeli spies took from a secret depot in Tehran prove that Iran has lied about its past atomic weapons plans.

The material allegedly comes from archives of Project Amad, a nuclear weapons programme that ran from the late 1990s until 2003, before the deal was signed.

In fact, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which oversees Iran’s nuclear development, had previously reported knowledge of the project.

“In 2011 the IAEA published a report that shows the programme was stopped, but people were allowed to archive what they had done before,” says François Nicoullaud, who was France’s ambassador to Iran from 2001 to 2005.

“When you stop any kind of programme, it is standard procedure to archive the work so it won’t be lost,” he continues. “So there is nothing really spectacular about this discovery of Mr Netanyahu.”

From the Israeli perspective, though, the revelations suggest that Iran never fully disclosed its past ambitions.

“The Iranians always denied it and the IAEA never obtained real proof that it was true,” says Ely Karmon, senior research scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at The Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel.

“Not only does [the documentation] prove there was such a project but I’m sure in the framework of the documents were found there was information on what was the goal.”

Divergence between Europe and US

European proponents sought to emphasise Netanyahu’s revelations did little to contest the bases for the 2015 deal.

“Mr Netanyahu failed to unveil anything that proved that Iran was cheating on the 2015 nuclear agreement,” says Ellie Geranmayeh, senior policy fellow for the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“From a nuclear security perspective, it only validates that the deal is essential to inspecting and monitoring and verifying Iran’s nuclear programme going forward.”

But, with US President Donald Trump expected to announce whether he intends to follow through on threats to scrap the deal on 12 May, it is hard to see a coincidence in the timing of Netanyahu’s presentation.

“Mr Netanyahu’s presentation was targeted at an audience of one and that was certainly President Trump,” Geranmayeh says.

French President Emmanuel Macron sought to keep Trump on board with the deal during last week’s state visit to the US, although the French government suggested the revelations could serve as the basis for modifying the deal, as Macron has proposed.

“This information should be studied and evaluated in detail,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll said in a statement.

“The new information presented by Israel could also confirm the need for longer-term assurances on the Iranian programme, as the president has proposed.”

If Netanyahu is under no illusions about changing the European position, the prospect of a toughened deal appears feasible in Israel as well.

“It’s possible,” says Ely Karmon, “that the Europeans will take very strict sanctions against Iran’s missile programme, because this is one of the main problems we have with Iranians, and also on the subversive terrorist and aggressive policy of Iran in all of the Middle East.”