Analysis

'Smoking gun' or 'warmed-over noodles'? Either way, Netanyahu's Iran show seems aimed at Trump alone

Israel’s prime minister issued a blistering attack against Iran using a PowerPoint presentation, accusing Tehran of lying about its nuclear program. But as Derek Stoffel writes, there’s much more at stake for Benjamin Netanyahu than the Iran nuclear deal.

Israel's diplomatic attack comes as worries grow that military confrontation with Iran lies ahead

Israel's prime minister gave a PowerPoint presentation at the country's defence headquarters in Tel Aviv on Monday night. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

Now that the binders and computer discs filled with stolen documents have been safely locked away in the vaults of Israel's intelligence agency, the conclusion many nuclear experts and diplomats have come to is there was no "smoking gun" in Benjamin Netanyahu's showy presentation on Monday about Iran.

But perhaps the Israeli prime minister didn't need to offer conclusive proof that Iran misled the world about its nuclear intentions; while many dismiss his conclusions, Netanyahu's presentation seems aimed at an audience of one — Donald Trump.

Days before the U.S. president is expected to decide whether to pull out of the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, Netanyahu showed off what he called the country's secret "atomic archive." He concluded that the trove proves "Iran is brazenly lying when it said it never had a nuclear weapons program."

In Israel, the country's espionage agency, Mossad, is being celebrated for its role in an episode of tradecraft seemingly ripped from the best spy novels: It's believed Israeli operatives broke into a warehouse in Tehran early this year and smuggled the documents back to Israel.

Netanyahu unveiled what he said were 100,000 files stolen by Israeli operatives from a secret Iranian storage facility. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

What's in the files?

Netanyahu, long regarded as one of the world's best political showmen, seemed to revel in his presentation at Israel's military headquarters in Tel Aviv, bounding around the stage in front of a large screen displaying photos, charts and video clips.

At the centre of the prime minister's presentation was "Project Amad," an Iranian project with the goal, according to Netanyahu, of developing up to five nuclear warheads, each five times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. 

Despite offering no evidence showing those plans were pursued, Netanyahu said: "Iran lied about never having a nuclear weapons program: 100,000 secret files prove that they lied."

But Iran's nuclear weapons program was never a secret. It was the global concerns over the country's nuclear ambitions that led six world powers to negotiate the 2015 agreement in the first place.

Documents seen before

And the documents Netanyahu showed off are not the first glimpse of Iran's nuclear files. 

The UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), first saw the documentation as early as 2005. The IAEA concluded that Iranian scientists stopped work on the nuclear weapons program after being given a "halt order" from senior Iranian officials in 2003.

An International Atomic Energy Agency inspector, in blue, working in Iran in 2005. The IAEA has produced several reports examining Iran's nuclear activities. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)

Despite those conclusions, there are some who believe that Netanyahu was successful by proving Iran is a regime that cannot be trusted.

"There is a great difference between saying to the world that the Iranians are lying and proving —  by means of documents and videos — the depth of their lie," wrote Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, who concluded "no fundamental change can be expected" from Iran.

'Warmed-over noodles'

Other analysts, however, concluded that Netanyahu failed to show that since 2015, when the international agreement was signed, Iran is working on developing nuclear weapons.

"These are warmed-over noodles that serve the prime minister's domestic image, making him out to be a resolute and consistent warrior for Israel's security," wrote Israeli military commentator Alex Fishman.

"What the prime minister revealed was that the same scientists who worked on developing the military nuclear project did not turn, as of 2015, into sisters of mercy."

International support for deal

Supporters of the agreement with Iran say Netanyahu's presentation did prove one thing: the need for the deal to continue, as it allows IAEA inspectors to carry out snap inspections at key Iranian nuclear sites. 

Gerard Araud, the French ambassador to Washington, wrote on Twitter that previous information about Iran's nuclear activities are "a very convincing argument" for keeping the agreement "with its strong monitoring mechanism."

Even Israel's top military commander is at odds with Netanyahu. Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, the chief of staff of the Israel Defence Forces, told the Haaretz newspaper in March that despite "all its faults," the Iran agreement "is working."

The situation in Syria

Netanyahu's show and tell came a day after some inside Syria accused Israel of carrying out yet another covert strike against military facilities inside Syria. 

Monitoring groups says dozens were killed — including some Iranians — when military sites were bombed on Sunday night. It's not known who carried out the strikes. 

While Israel's official policy on these events is one of no comment, Israeli leaders — including Netanyahu — have repeated they will not allow Iran to establish a foothold in Syria from which attacks on Israel can be launched.

While Netanyahu, like Trump, has called for the Iran nuclear deal to be torn up, the prime minister has also stated he'd accept an amended agreement. A "win" for Israel would to be evidence of the withdrawal of all Iranian military assets in Syria.

An 'explosive' May

That, however, is unlikely, which has many Israelis on edge that a war with Iran is looming. It's believed the first direct military confrontation between the two longtime foes took place last month, when Israel reportedly carried out strikes on an Iranian base in Syria.  

Israeli soldiers take a break during a recent training exercise in the Golan Heights. Israel's army is on high alert in the north as tensions with Iran remain high. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Israeli security forces are preparing for a potentially volatile month of May, with Palestinians in Gaza set for a major march toward the security fence separating the strip from Israel on May 15. In five weeks of demonstrations at least 46 Palestinians have been killed, most shot by Israeli forces as they approached the barrier. 

Still, it is the Iranian threat that has Israeli's military on high alert on the country's northern border.

"The next weeks will represent one of the most explosive regional situations that involve Israel," said Ely Karmon, a scholar with the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, at Israel's Interdisciplinary Center.

"The Israeli-Iranian tensions remain the most serious trigger for a direct confrontation in the short term."

About the Author

Derek Stoffel

CBC News Middle East correspondent

Derek Stoffel is the Middle East correspondent for CBC News. He has covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war and covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.