Image: U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., March 5, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
By Maayan Lubell, Dan Williams and Jonathan Landay
JERUSALEM/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Israel said on Tuesday it does not seek war with Iran and suggested U.S. President Donald Trump backed Israel’s latest attempt to kill the 2015 Iran nuclear deal by disclosing purported evidence of past Iranian nuclear arms work.
A senior Israeli official said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had informed Trump at a March 5 meeting about alleged evidence seized by Israel in what Netanyahu on Monday presented as a “great intelligence achievement”.
U.S. and Israeli officials said the information showed Iran had lied about its past work to develop nuclear arms but intelligence experts said there was no smoking gun showing that Tehran had violated the nuclear deal under which it curbed its atomic programme in return for relief from economic sanctions.
Tehran, which denies ever pursuing nuclear weapons, dismissed Netanyahu as “the boy who cried wolf,” and called his presentation propaganda.
Trump agreed at the March meeting that Israel would publish the information before May 12, the day he is due to decide whether the United States should quit the nuclear deal with Iran, an adversary of both countries, the Israeli official said.
Word of the consultations between Trump and Netanyahu serves to underscore perceptions of a coordinated bid by both leaders to bury the international agreement, which Trump has called “horrible” and Netanyahu has termed “terrible.”
Others briefed on the material in March included Mike Pompeo, who was then CIA director and is now secretary of state; Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and former White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, a former U.S. official said.
Trump gave Britain, France and Germany a May 12 deadline to fix what he views as the deal’s flaws – its failure to address Iran’s ballistic missile programme, the terms by which inspectors visit suspect Iranian sites, and “sunset” clauses under which some of its terms expire – or he will reimpose U.S. sanctions.
Trump has yet to say whether he will withdraw from it.
While nonproliferation experts and a U.S. official said it was clear Netanyahu wanted to undermine the deal, they said Trump could also choose to use the Israeli information to demand deeper inspections of Iran’s nuclear programme.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear watchdog, has the right under the 2015 deal to seek access to suspect Iranian sites and the Israeli claims could provide it a roadmap.
Olli Heinonen, a former IAEA deputy director, said the purported records seized by Israel appeared to show Iran failed to disclose all aspects of its nuclear weapons programme to the agency as required by the Iran nuclear deal.
“They were supposed to tell everything to the IAEA,” he said. “Now I have to raise the question: did they really comply with these requirements? The IAEA has to go back to see how far they really got in this programme and was it really stopped.”
The U.S. intelligence community and the IAEA have previously concluded that Iran, despite its denials, had a nuclear weapons programme that it largely stopped in 2003, although some activities continued. In December 2015, the IAEA said it had no indications any such activities took place in Iran after 2009.
Israeli officials on Monday briefed nonproliferation experts about the material they say they seized but did not say whether they believed it proved Iran had violated the nuclear deal, several people familiar with the briefing told Reuters.
In his televised presentation, Netanyahu said Israel had obtained tens of thousands of pages of what he described as Iran’s “secret atomic archives” from what looked from the outside to be a dilapidated Tehran warehouse.
The senior Israeli official said Israel knew about the Iranian archive for a year, got hold of it in February and informed Trump about it at a meeting in Washington on March 5.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters that the Israeli announcement offered proof that the Iran deal was made “under false pretences” as Trump decides whether to withdraw the United States.
“The president has been very clear that he thinks the deal is one of the worst that we’ve ever seen and we’ll keep you posted on when he has made a final decision,” she said.
On Tuesday Netanyahu told CNN that “nobody” sought a conflict with the Islamic Republic, a prospect seen by some as a possible result of the deal’s collapse.
Asked if Israel is prepared to go to war with Tehran, Netanyahu said: “Nobody’s seeking that kind of development. Iran is the one that’s changing the rules in the region.”
But Netanyahu’s presentation said the evidence showed Iran lied going into the deal, a landmark agreement seen by Trump as flawed but by European powers as vital to allaying concerns that Iran could one day develop nuclear bombs.
Iranian officials rejected the Israeli claims.
“We warn the Zionist regime and its allies to stop their plots and dangerous behaviours or they will face Iran’s surprising and firm response,” Iranian Defence Minister Amir Hatami was quoted as saying by Iranian news agency Tasnim on Tuesday. Hatami called Netanyahu’s accusations “baseless”.
Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a series of tweets on Tuesday, said the information disclosed by Israel was proof of why the agreement should be retained.
“There was no negotiation – and all of that changed with (the deal). Blow up the deal and you’re back there tomorrow!” said Kerry, who negotiated the pact.
(Writing by Maayan Lubell and Arshad Mohammed; Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem, François Murphy in Vienna, Mark Heinrich in London, Alastair Macdonald in Brussels, Bozorgmehr Sharefedin in London and Steve Holland, John Walcott and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by William Maclean and James Dalgleish)