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European leaders and others push back against Netanyahu's criticism of the Iran nuclear deal

European leaders and others push back against Netanyahu's criticism of the Iran nuclear deal
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks about Iran's nuclear program at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on April 30, 2018. (Jack Guez / AFP/Getty Images)

European leaders and other supporters of the landmark Iran nuclear deal pushed back Tuesday against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's announcement that he had documents proving Tehran lied about its attempts to build an atomic bomb.

Officials in France, Germany and Britain said their governments concluded long ago that Iran's nuclear program was not solely for peaceful uses, which was the reason for negotiating the landmark 2015 deal in the first place. Although they said they would need to study the documents obtained by Israel, they said Netanyahu had not presented any evidence that Iran was in breach of its obligations.

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The International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors Iran's compliance, reiterated Tuesday that it had "no credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device after 2009."

Associates of the prime minister rushed to his defense, however, saying the recovery of some 100,000 Iranian documents detailing a nuclear weapons program known as Project Amad was indeed evidence of a breach.

"People have lost their minds," said Yaakov Nagel, a former director of Israel's national security agency. "Iran promised not to seek, develop or acquire nuclear weapons, and the prime minister unequivocally demonstrated that they have failed to comply."

Though Netanyahu acknowledged in his presentation Monday that the project was shelved in 2003, he said Iran cheated by failing to disclose it when signing the deal with the United States, Britain, China, Germany, France and Russia.

President Trump, who has labeled the accord negotiated by the Obama administration a bad deal, has said he will pull out unless it can be strengthened by May 12. European diplomats have been meeting with their U.S. counterparts to try to negotiate supplementary agreements to address Trump's concerns, including the fact that some of the restrictions on Iran's nuclear program will expire and the deal does not include any mechanisms to address Tehran's ballistic missile program.

Netanyahu's presentation was seen by many as evidence that the Trump administration is preparing to unilaterally reimpose U.S. sanctions on Iran that were lifted when the country agreed to restrictions on its nuclear activities.

Supporters of the deal worry that could play into the hands of Iranian hard-liners who have been making the case in their country that the U.S. is acting in bad faith, and Tehran should walk away from the deal.

In a tweet Tuesday, Mohamed ElBaradei, a former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, suggested that, rather than signal that the United States "is fickle in its agreements & capricious in its diplomacy," the administration should use the nuclear accord as a "building block for a balanced & stable regional security structure."

"Mutual demonization & destroying [the] entire temple could have disastrous consequences!" he warned.

The French Foreign Ministry said Israel's disclosures reinforce the importance of the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The inspection system put in place by the International Atomic Energy Agency is "one of the most comprehensive and robust in the history of nuclear nonproliferation," ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll said in a statement. "It is essential that the IAEA can continue to verify Iran's respect for the JCPoA and the peaceful nature of its nuclear program."

But she said the documents acquired by Israel could confirm the need for longer-term assurances about Iran's nuclear program. "This information should be studied and evaluated in detail," she said.

Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary, echoed the sentiment in a tweet saying Netanyahu only "shows why we need Iran Nuclear deal. Iran deal based not on trust but verification, allowing the IAEA unprecedented access. Need to keep deal & build on it to take account of US & allies' concerns."

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, returning from a tour of the Middle East that included a meeting with Netanyahu, vouched for the authenticity of the documents Israel obtained, but declined to say if he believed they revealed an Iranian violation of the agreement, preferring to leave that "up to lawyers."

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"There's still a lot of work to do to figure out precisely the scope and scale of it," Pompeo said. "But it is the case [that] there is new information about that program" apparently aimed at developing nuclear weapons, which Iran has said it was not doing.

In an interview, Nagel pointed to a sentence in Netanyahu's presentation, which was amplified by dramatic graphics, video clips, and excerpts from the Iranian documents.

After stating his main thesis, "Iran lied. Big time," Netanyahu added that after signing the nuclear deal in 2015 Iran moved its nuclear weapons files to a highly secret location in Tehran in 2017.

That detail, Nagel said, proves Iran's failure to comply with the agreement under which Tehran reaffirmed that it would under no circumstances "seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons."

Transferring documents for safekeeping "reveals Iran's treachery and its brazen breach of the agreement by compiling a crazy archive filled with the details, photos, videos, technology and know-how you need to build a nuclear bomb," Nagel said.

"That is what you do when you seek a nuclear project," he said, "not to rid yourself of it."

As his office shared James Bond-like specifics of the Mossad agents' prowess — they found and retrieved an entire safe containing the documents, absconding with it as Iranian forces closed in on them — Netanyahu said in an interview with CNN that his revelations had "turned a lot of question marks into exclamation marks."

This was disputed by Ram Ben-Barak, a former deputy head of the Mossad, who now represents the centrist Yesh Atid party in Israel's parliament.

"No," he said in an interview, "we had no question marks. We had clear knowledge based on documents. Everyone from Obama to the Europeans knew, and that is the reason they made this agreement.

"Everybody who needed to know knew. They knew exactly what Netanyahu 'revealed' and they made a conscious choice to ignore Iran's lie.

"They think they signed a good deal," he said of the United States and other major powers that co-signed the deal with Iran.

"I think it is a bad deal," he said, in a sole instance of accord with Netanyahu and Trump, "but what Netanyahu and [Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor] Lieberman are doing, raising Israel's profile with talk highlighting 'belligerent Israel,' when everything is already so tense with Iran in Syria, instead of doing the job as it should be done, quietly, is bad."

Tarnopolsky is a special correspondent. Times staff writers Alexandra Zavis in Beirut and Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.

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