— In the address on Tuesday to the United States Congress by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, we witnessed a new peak in the long-running hype over Iran’s nuclear energy program. Yet all his predictions about how close Iran was to acquiring a nuclear bomb have proved baseless.
Despite that, alarmist rhetoric on the theme has been a staple of Mr. Netanyahu’s career. In an interview with the BBC in 1997, he accused Iran of secretly “building a formidable arsenal of ballistic missiles,” predicting that eventually Manhattan would be within range. In 1996, he stood before Congress and urged other nations to join him to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear capability, stressing that “time is running out.” Earlier, as a member of Parliament, in 1992, he predicted that Iran would be able to produce a nuclear weapon within three to five years.
In front of world leaders at the United Nations in September 2012, Mr. Netanyahu escalated his warnings by declaring that Iran could acquire the bomb within a year. It is ironic that in doing so, he apparently disregarded the assessment of his own secret service: A recently revealed document showed that the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, had advised that Iran was “not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons.” The United States intelligence community had reached the same conclusion in itsNational Intelligence Estimate.
Despite extensive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, no evidence has ever been presented to contradict the clear commitment by Iran’s leaders that they would under no circumstances engage in manufacturing, stockpiling and using nuclear weapons. In 2013, for example, only Japan, which has many more nuclear facilities than Iran, was subject to greater agency scrutiny.
Yet, in his speech this week, Mr. Netanyahu claimed the agency had determined that Iran had “a military nuclear program.” This is a gross distortion of the agency’s position. The “possible military dimensions,” which Mr. Netanyahu amplifies on every available occasion, are based not on the agency’s findings but on referrals by other member states with their own political agendas. In one case, in 2012, a former agency director dismissed such a report “because there was no chain of custody for the paper, no clear source, document markings, date of issue or anything else that could establish its authenticity.”
Iran has also alerted the agency to many errors in the relevant documents, and our position has been confirmed by independent nonproliferation experts. We will nevertheless continue to work with the agency to resolve this issue — despite our skepticism, which leads us to recall the notorious forged document about Niger’s “yellowcake” uranium that was used to coax the Security Council into authorizing the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
As one side of the talks that continue in Geneva, Iran can also bear testimony to the campaign of misinformation by Mr. Netanyahu to mislead the global public about the details of those nuclear negotiations. When the parties were finalizing the interim agreement in 2013, Mr. Netanyahu claimed that it would involve Iran’s receiving $50 billion in sanctions relief; the actual amount was about $7 billion. And as for his prediction that Iran would never abide by the terms of the accord, Iran has dutifully stood by every commitment — as the International Atomic Energy Agency has reported.
In our view, Mr. Netanyahu has consistently used these false alarms and outlandish claims both to serve his domestic political maneuvering and to create a smoke screen that relegates the Palestinian question to the margins. We have noted how his rhetoric has intensified in proportion to the international pressure on Israel to stop the settlement activity and end the occupation of the Palestinian territory.
The paradox of the situation is that a government that has built a stockpile of nuclear weapons, rejected calls to establish a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East, made military incursions into neighboring states and flouted international law by keeping the lands of other nations under occupation, now makes such a big fuss over a country, Iran, that has not invaded another country since America became a sovereign nation.
Mr. Netanyahu seems to be in a state of panic at the prospect of losing this tool with which to attack Iran, as we do all in our power to address the genuine concerns of the international community and arrive at a settlement over our country’s nuclear energy program. Iran’s efforts, epitomized by the 2013 interim agreement, aim to resolve the issue with the P5-plus-1 group of countries (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany). Since Israel’s prime minister appears to be a person who thrives on chaos and conflict, we fear that he may have further plans to poison the atmosphere and sow discord among those involved in this historic effort.
There are other great issues at hand in the Middle East. The violent extremism we see in Syria and Iraq is one, and to fight it effectively, we need to ease international tensions. We must all address the problem of the breeding grounds that are delivering fresh recruits to the terrorist cause. Israeli aggression and the occupation of Palestinian territories have always been of major propaganda value for extremist recruitment.
During the quarter-century that Mr. Netanyahu and his allies have tried to keep Iran’s nuclear program at the forefront of the global agenda, they increased the number of illegal settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to more than 750,000 from about 300,000. At the same time, Palestinians have continued to be evicted from their homes and land. This historic wrong, coupled with the blockade of Gaza, is the real ticking bomb in the Middle East. The whole world should work to defuse it by rising above petty politics and the lobbying of arrow-minded pressure groups.
Note: this article was first published in New York Times