What We Know About Iran Five Years After Netanyahu’s Speech to Congress
Five years ago last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a joint meeting of Congress about the nuclear deal then taking shape with Iran (the JCPOA). The speech remains controversial. Deal supporters still complain that the then-speaker of the House and the Israeli ambassador arranged the invitation to Capitol Hill behind the back of the White House.
In Jerusalem, this complaint always seemed rather rich. The original sin (though certainly not the last) of the American nuclear negotiations with Iran was that they began in secret, behind Israel’s back. None of the countries that Iran threatened most was told that talks were taking place. We were aghast to learn from intelligence that our greatest ally was secretly bargaining with our greatest enemy about the gravest threat facing the Jewish state. When asked directly about the meetings, our American colleagues did not reply truthfully.
In March 2015, the JCPOA was still a few months from conclusion. Deal supporters and opponents relied on prospective assessments – their best guesses – about the months and years to come. Netanyahu went to Congress to present Israel’s best guess about the implications of the JCPOA.
Netanyahu warned of three dangers stemming from the deal. First, he argued that “Israel’s neighbors, Iran’s neighbors, know that Iran will become even more aggressive and sponsor even more terrorism when its economy is unshackled….” Second, leaving Iran with an expansive and expanding nuclear infrastructure unnecessary for a peaceful energy program, as its advanced centrifuge research and development went untouched, would put Tehran “weeks away from having enough enriched uranium for an entire arsenal of nuclear weapons” when the deal’s restrictions were lifted after 10 to 15 years. Third, the deal would be “a farewell to arms control” because Iran’s neighbors would insist on having the same capabilities for themselves, potentially leading to a regional nuclear arms race.
Deal advocates bet that an engaged, enriched Iran would moderate before the deal’s restrictions would expire and was in any case obligated to forswear nuclear weapons.
Today, we no longer have to guess. We have five years of experience to compare to the competing assessments of 2015. Now we know that Netanyahu’s gloomy forecast has proven to be the more prescient.
Deal proponents claim that Iran became more aggressive after US President Donald Trump withdrew from the JCPOA. This is true, but it is also a misleading, agenda-driven starting point. It ignores the increase in Iran’s aggression throughout the region that accompanied the implementation of the deal. A financially flush Qasem Soleimani (on whom the JCPOA lifted some sanctions) led Iran’s stepped-up efforts to sow discord, terror and bloodshed in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and in the region’s waterways.
After the deal went into effect, and previously sanctioned assets were unfrozen, Iran’s defense budget (around two-thirds of which goes to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) increased by an estimated 30%-40%. The funds Iran gave to Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorist groups climbed to nearly $1 billion annually.
Iran continued to ignore its obligations on missile development and the export of weapons. The Revolutionary Guards began trying to establish a permanent military presence in Syria, from which they launched drone and missile attacks on Israel. Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia, using Iranian missiles, accelerated. Just two months after the deal was finalized, Russia deployed its forces alongside those of a newly legitimized Iran in Syria.
We can speculate what would have happened if the United States had not withdrawn from the deal in May 2018, but by then it was abundantly clear that rather than buying Iran’s moderation, the JCPOA had funded Iran’s aggression.
Former US administration as well as former and current EU officials maintain that the JCPOA was working. We agree that the deal was doing exactly what it was designed to do: it allowed Iran to continue enriching uranium, while developing increasingly advanced centrifuge technology and nuclear-capable missiles.
That’s why – before the US withdrew from the JCPOA – countries across the Middle East began jockeying for position in anticipation of a nuclear-armed Iran: Saudi Arabia has refused to commit not to enrich uranium. UAE officials expressed second thoughts about their own pledge to forswear the nuclear fuel cycle. Egypt’s and other states’ growing interest in technologies relevant for nuclear weapons has been quieter but no less genuine. Last fall, Turkey’s president expressed his desire to have not just the fuel cycle, but nuclear weapons themselves.
Most dramatically, in early 2018 Israeli intelligence acquired Iran’s “atomic archive.” Despite the promises of “robust transparency,” we now know that in the months following the JCPOA’s conclusion, Iran accelerated its efforts to collect, organize and hide this huge trove of materials detailing its extensive work to develop and produce nuclear weapons. The discovery of the archive laid bare both Iran’s long-term intentions and the JCPOA’s many flaws.
The archive materials meticulously document Iran’s nuclear weaponization project, which was more advanced than previously understood. Yet the 159-page JCPOA addresses weaponization in a section just half a page long and devoid of operational language regarding inspection or penalties for violations. The section is utterly toothless, just one of the gaping holes in the deal’s “unprecedented inspections.” More than a year and a half after the deal was implemented, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency diplomatically said that the tools to verify this section were “limited.” Given the elaborate operational detail in other sections of the JCPOA, it appears that the agreement’s authors intended for this critical section to be declarative, not enforced. The thousands of pages from the archive show just how reckless that was.
The accuracy of Netanyahu’s predictions was not the result of good intelligence, a more profound understanding of Iran or any special diplomatic insights. He simply recognized that the United States had moved the goalposts. Senior administration officials continued to tell their Israeli counterparts that the goal was to dismantle Iran’s nuclear weapons program. It had become clear, however, that the White House’s goals were much more modest: to conclude a deal as a legacy diplomatic achievement and to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons in the short term. Solving the Iranian nuclear problem had given way to postponing and monitoring it while it grew and gained international legitimacy. The evidence of this policy change was gradual in coming, but ultimately overwhelming.
There were many indications of the symbolic importance the White House attributed to reaching a deal with Iran. In January 2014, for example, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes reportedly told a group of progressive activists, “This is probably the biggest thing president Obama will do in his second term on foreign policy. This is healthcare for us, just to put it in context.” Iranian nuclear negotiators reading Rhodes’s quote undoubtedly knew how to put it in context, too: Despite all the pressure on Tehran, it was clear that the US wanted an agreement even more than Iran needed one.
Perhaps the most damning proof of the White House’s changing priorities could be seen in the falsehoods administration officials told us as they conceded their most fundamental negotiating positions to the Iranians. While we were repeatedly promised that any final deal would leave Iran with zero enriched uranium and zero centrifuges, the president already had decided to meet the Iranian demand for uranium enrichment. A senior White House official later came to Jerusalem and assured Netanyahu directly that Iran’s nuclear breakout time would be measured in years (the official emphasized the plural). Yet the JCPOA’s authors would later boast of the one-year breakout time the agreement had dubiously guaranteed. We had been told on many occasions, including by the president himself, that “no deal was better than a bad deal.” Now the US negotiating team was plunging headlong into a bad deal by America’s own standards.
The dramatic concessions made it clear to the decision-makers in Israel that the administration had sanctified making a deal at the expense of its effectiveness. The lies were intended to keep Israeli opposition to the deal in check until it was too late.
All of this pointed to a deal that would not solve the Iranian nuclear challenge, but make it someone else’s bigger problem down the road.
The president himself confirmed Israel’s assessment and its concerns, telling NPR about a month after the speech, “What is a more relevant fear would be that, in year 13, 14, 15, they have advanced centrifuges that can enrich uranium fairly rapidly. And at that point, the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero.” The prime minister had read it right.
The American political fallout from the speech was seen as the regrettable side effect of a decision with life or death implications for Israel. In this sense it was akin to Menachem Begin’s 1981 decision to destroy the Osirak reactor in Iraq. The importance of preventing Saddam Hussein from acquiring nuclear weapons led Begin to risk and contend with the American administration’s (and others’) scathing criticism after the strike. Begin believed he had no choice.
Netanyahu also had no choice. After the US administration had given in to Iran’s demands, repeatedly tried to deceive Israel and ignored the prime minister’s private and public warnings about the direction the JCPOA was headed, he was duty bound and morally obligated to give the speech. He had to do his utmost to prevent further Iranian aggression and a regional arms race and most of all to keep a regime that calls for Israel’s annihilation from acquiring the means to turn those murderous designs into action – not just now, but for the very long term. No responsible leader could pass up the opportunity to make a last-ditch effort, from arguably the most important stage in the United States and even the world, to avert what his or her country saw as a looming disaster.
At the time, deal proponents coined the catchy sound bite that the alternative to the JCPOA was war. They were wrong about that, too. The prime minister understood that this bad deal would make war more likely in the Middle East and increase the danger that eventually the Iranian nuclear weapons program would have to be destroyed by force. He knew that if that terrible day should come, regardless of who leads Israel, he or she would have to be able to point to the speech and say we did all we could to avoid this tragically predictable outcome.
IDF Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror is a Distinguished Fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy. He is the Anne and Greg Rosshandler Senior Fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies (JISS). Amidror was formerly the national security advisor to the prime minister of Israel, as well as the head of the National Security Council from 2011-13.
Jonathan Schachter was the foreign policy adviser to the prime minister of Israel from 2015 to 2018.
Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Prof. Jacob Nagel, a visiting senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a visiting professor on the Technion Aerospace Engineering Faculty, was the national security adviser (acting) to the prime minister of Israel and head of the National Security Council from 2016 to 2017.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post