Analysis: A new confrontation between Netanyahu and Obama over Iran?

An IAEA report shows that Iran was lying about its military nuclear program, but the deal continues.

US President Barack Obama (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Barack Obama (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: REUTERS)
THE US administration is concerned about the possibility of a new confrontation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) latest report on Iran’s nuclear shenanigans. “We hope it won’t happen,” a senior US official tells The Jerusalem Report, “but if it does, it will be a completely different ball game. The administration will not sit idly by this time and it will be vindictive.”
In November, the IAEA published a report on Iran’s past nuclear activities, also known as the “Possible Military Dimension” (PMD). The long-awaited report was supposed to determine and conclude whether Iran had been actively involved in acquiring and mastering the expertise to assemble a nuclear bomb.
The report, however, is somewhat inconclusive and leaves all the parties dissatisfied.
However, one thing is certain.
The process of further implementing the nuclear deal between Iran and the world powers signed in July will not be disrupted.
According to the agreement, also known as the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPA), Iran’s nuclear program will be scaled down, restricted and limited for 10 to 15 years.
Iran must, as soon as possible – around spring 2016 – dismantle uranium-enrichment sites in Natanz and Fordow, including 14,000 centrifuges, and remain with only 6,000 spinning machines. Iran is also required to dismantle and redesign its nuclear reactor in Arak, where it intended to produce plutonium, and to fully cooperate with the IAEA and to be under its intrusive inspection regime. Accordingly, the economic sanctions – the most crippling of which were imposed on Iran’s oil and gas sector ‒ will be gradually lifted.
An important aspect of the talks that led to the JCPA deal was the PMD issue. In fact, it was because of past suspicions that Iran had carried out illegal nuclear military activities and tried to deceive the world that the UN Security Council and subsequently the international community imposed in 2006 crippling economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
Iran has claimed all these years that its nuclear program is solely for civilian purposes.
But the IAEA report’s findings show that Iran was lying. The report clearly states that Iran had a military nuclear program until 2003 and even probably beyond until 2009.
This included work in the field of “weaponization” – testing a chain reaction and detonation of explosives ‒ the last stage in assembling a nuclear bomb.
A KEY installation in the Iranian weaponization program was Parchin, a military base not far from Tehran. For years, Iran refused to allow IAEA inspectors any access to that base. Only after signing the agreement with world powers five months ago was partial and limited access permitted.
The IAEA arrived in Parchin and directed its Iranian counterparts on where and how to collect samples of soil, water and vegetation and how to seal them to prevent tampering. But the actual collection and sampling was carried out by Iranians with IAEA inspectors watching closely and filming the work.
Those who opposed the deal – Republicans in the US and Netanyahu in Israel ‒ argued that the sampling process would not be sufficiently reliable and leaves room for further Iranian cheating and deception. Yet, it turned out that, despite all that, the IAEA was not deceived and amassed enough evidence about Iran’s nuclear-military past.
For this, IAEA inspectors and analysts deserve credit for managing to piece together and decipher most of the activities that took place at Parchin despite the hurdles and obstacles put in their way.
However, the report also explains that such activities were for “scientific research” and “feasibility studies.”
In that sense, the report is comparable to a police investigation that unmasks the crime or the terrorist attack by having intelligence evidence that, unfortunately, is not admissible in court and cannot lead to a clear-cut verdict.
Yet, the report confirms Israeli intelligence assessments by the Mossad and Military Intelligence, as well as CIA estimates, that Iran was conducting weaponization tests.
Nevertheless, the IAEA report will not block implementation of the world powers’ nuclear deal with Iran. This is because the deal is not conditional on the IAEA report and doesn’t contain any clauses that categorically and unequivocally demand of Iran full transparency and revelation of its nuclear past, but only its present and future ones.
Because of its indecisive nature, the interpretation of the report depends on the point of view of the beholder.
The report disappoints Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and those in Iran who supported and pushed for the deal. They hoped that Iran would be given a clean sheet and the PMD “file” would be closed forever.
That didn’t happen.
Iran’s conservatives, who opposed the nuclear deal from the outset arguing that their country caved in to international pressure and its sovereignty was violated and became exposed to “decadent” Western economic and cultural influence, now have more ammunition with which to pick on Rouhani.
In the US, the report is providing ammunition to Republicans who opposed the deal from the outset and accused President Barack Obama of not being tough on the Islamic Republic.
The report also seems to back up Netanyahu’s claim that Iran cannot be trusted and that the nuclear deal was a historic mistake.
This is the background to fears in the US administration that sooner or later – certainly before the final implementation of the JCPA next spring – Republican lawmakers will try, once again, to sabotage the deal.
And administration sources are expressing their concern that, once again, Netanyahu will jump onto the Republican bandwagon.
Last April, three months before the nuclear deal was signed, Netanyahu, in an unprecedented move, was invited by John Boehner, then the Republican speaker of the house, to address Congress. While the Republicans just wanted to embarrass the president, Netanyahu hoped to torpedo the deal. But by dancing to the tunes of the Republican Party – its major donor is casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a friend of Netanyahu – the prime minister was thought to be interfering in US policy and siding with Obama’s opponents.
Both the Republicans and Netanyahu were outmaneuvered by Obama, who was determined to ensure that the nuclear deal happened. However, Netanyahu never publicly conceded defeat and he continues to describe the deal as a “bad” one.
IN NOVEMBER, Netanyahu met Obama in Washington and adopted a conciliatory tone, and the two seemed to mend their differences.
But “Obama didn’t forget and didn’t forgive,” US sources say. After Netanyahu’s partisan performance in Congress, Obama made a calculated decision not to retaliate against Netanyahu and Israel. Nevertheless, according to the sources, if Netanyahu repeats his anti-deal, anti-Obama behavior, “this time there will undoubtedly be a fierce reaction and retribution will follow accordingly.”
The US sources admit that even in such a worst-case scenario US military aid to Israel, currently $3.1 billion, will not be affected.
But, they point out that Netanyahu, in his meeting with Obama, asked for additional funds as “compensation” for the nuclear deal. Israel is concerned that once sanctions are lifted and money begins pouring in to revive the Iranian economy, some of it will be diverted to further sponsor anti-Israel terror groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and upgrade the Iranian armed forces.
The two leaders agreed to form a joint commission to discuss the Israeli request for additional aid. “In case Netanyahu goes wild again, we may stop or suspend or delay the talks,” the sources warned.
They also refer to events that took place 40 years ago. In 1975 after the initial disengagement agreement between Israel and Egypt, when the Labor government led by Yitzhak Rabin refused a further withdrawal from Sinai, US president Gerald Ford and his secretary of state Henry Kissinger punished Israel by halting all talks with Israel.
The US then “reassessed” its relations with Israel. This could recur. It all depends on Netanyahu.
Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at and tweets @yossi_ melman