Three countries, a nuclear deal and a ‘clerical error’

How Israel presentation led to US statement on Iran nuclear programme, and why it was rephrased.

Written by Jyoti Malhotra | New Delhi | Updated: May 3, 2018 8:39:18 am
Three countries, a nuclear deal and a ‘clerical error’ Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv, Israel. (REUTERS photo)

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alleged on April 30 that Iran had lied about its pursuit of nuclear weapons, and was continuing to carry out a clandestine programme. Soon after, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a written statement (at 7.30 pm, or 5 am IST, May 1), saying “Iran has a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program”. But within two hours, the White House issued a changed statement online, now saying “Iran had a.”

The White House waved away the change in tense as a “clerical error” — but not before a furore had broken out on the possible policy implications of the statement and the change.

Read | Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu says Iran lied about not pursuing nuclear weapons

Policy implications

US President Donald Trump has been talking about pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, brokered by President Barack Obama and European nations like the UK, France and Germany, as well as China and Russia. On their recent trips to the US, both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel pleaded with Trump to keep the deal with Iran. It is widely speculated that Netanyahu’s declaration in Tel Aviv was done in coordination with the White House.

Netanyahu’s objectives

The Israeli PM is clearly wants Trump to dump the deal. His PowerPoint presentation was delivered from the Ministry of Defence in English: “Tonight I am here to tell you one thing. Iran lied — big time,” he said, referring to 100,000 files pertaining to Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, kept in an “innocent-looking compound” in Tehran’s Shorabad district. The files, he claimed, contain “blueprints, charts, photos, videos and presentations dealing with nuclear weaponry. The data dump was now in a “safe place”, Netanyahu added, implying that Israel — and possibly the US — had them. “The presentation seemed intended to create the impression of a shocking Iranian violation in how it portrayed a handful of obscure and technical issues related to the deal,” The New York Times said in the column ‘The Interpreter’.

Read | Benjamin Netanyahu told Donald Trump about Iran claims in March: senior official

Why Israel chose to act now

Trump needs to make a declaration by May 12 to prevent international sanctions from being applied on Iran. Trump’s recent appointees, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, are self-declared hawks on Iran. In the wake of the Israeli PM’s press conference, Pompeo said, “Now that the world knows Iran has lied and is still lying, it is time to revisit the question of whether Iran can be trusted to enrich or control any nuclear material.”

How the world reacted

America’s European allies — UK, Germany and France — which helped broker the highly intrusive verification of Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, are upset at Israel’s attempt to scuttle the deal. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the Israeli PM’s claims only underlined the importance of keeping the “constraints” on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. The French said the inspections were “most exhaustive and robust” while the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is charged with keeping tabs on the spread of nuclear weapons across the world, declared “it had no credible indications” that Iran was developing a nuclear device since 2009.

Read | Israel says Iran lied on nuclear arms, pressures US to scrap deal: What we know so far

What happens now

Trump can refuse to sign a waiver of sanctions on May 12, effectively dump the deal and announce his determination to sign a tougher new agreement. If he does this, new uncertainties will unfold. With Islamic State barely vanquished in Iraq, terrorist groups in the Middle East may feel emboldened to unleash a new wave of anti-US actions. China, always on the lookout to present itself as a responsible global power, could indicate that it is willing to shoulder the extra burden of bringing Iran to the negotiating table — just like it did with North Korea.

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