Commentary Magazine

Prelude to a Showdown?

AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner

On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s revealed the results of an audacious intelligence operation that resulted in the seizure of thousands of documents related to the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Since then, the revelations about the bomb program that the Islamic Republic preserved, presumably for future use, have been met with furious spin by supporters of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), aka the nuclear deal. They’ve contended that there is nothing to see here, but they are all missing the bigger picture. And it is a sobering one.

Supporters of the 2015 nuclear agreement have alleged that information revealed by an operation involving 100 Mossad agents or assets, in which 55,000 printed pages and 183 compact discs revealing the Iranian bomb program in granular detail were spirited out of a civilian warehouse in Tehran, is no big deal. Middlebury Institute of International Studies lecturer Jeffrey Lewis called the way in which Netanyahu revealed this intelligence coup a “dog and pony show” that exposed only information already disclosed to the IAEA. NIAC chief Trita Parsi said Israel had essentially raided and plundered the IAEA, not a secret Iranian storehouse. This was all “well-known pre-Iran deal history,” according to Barack Obama’s deputy national security advisor, Ben Rhodes. Former spokesman for Obama’s national security council, Tommy Vietor, even accused the U.S. and Israel of “cooking up intel” to justify the abrogation of the JCPOA.

This all amounts to a strenuous exercise in missing the point. The documents, which cover a time span that ends prior to the adoption of the nuclear accords in 2015, might not reveal violations of the nuclear deal (by definition), but they are by no means old news. The specificity revealed by those documents, including the metallurgy work and kiloton yields sought by the regime were new to the West, and details of the nuclear test sites that Iran considered and prepared were news to Western observers. But the bombshell was not the information contained within these documents. The very fact that they exist was the bombshell, as was the fact that they were being housed in a facility designed to keep them secret from international inspectors (to the modest extent that a verifiable inspections regime exists as part of the JCPOA). Former Secretary of State John Kerry repeatedly assured the public and lawmakers that all of Iran’s past nuclear-weapons work would have to be disclosed to an international monitoring regime as part of the nuclear accords–or there would be no deal. Now we are told that the very fact that Iran has violated the spirit if not the letter of the accords is also the very reason that they are so vital.

Again, though, to focus on the intelligence Netanyahu revealed is to lose the plot. The exposure of an exceedingly complex operation that revealed these documents to the world is by itself an alarming development. According to the Israeli officials with whom Axios reporter Barak Ravid spoke, the Iranian nuclear archive was transferred to its covert home in February of 2016 explicitly to hide the military dimensions of its nuclear program from inspectors. The Israeli operation that uncovered that warehouse, which was known only to a small circle of Iranian officials, took years to prepare and involved hundreds of agents and informants. Exposing this operation has compromised all of those irreplaceable human assets and sacrificed a lot of invaluable collection capability. No government does that without performing a cost/benefit analysis. Either Israel concluded that making this operation public was worth the concrete policy objective that would be achieved by the reveal, or Netanyahu’s government determined that the value of its assets in Tehran was going to depreciate soon anyway as a result of events. And events are becoming rather ominous.

In as many months, Israel has executed three airstrikes on Iranian targets inside Syria. In February, Israel claimed to have shot down an Iranian drone originating in Syria that penetrated its airspace. In response to that incursion, the Israeli military targeted and destroyed four Iranian positions and an Iranian-operated command-and-control center from which the drone originated. One Israeli aircraft was shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft fire during that operation. In early April, Israel executed an airstrike on an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps post in Syria in which Iranian soldiers and Hezbollah were killed. And just days ago, Israel attacked two Iranian-linked bases inside Syria killing dozens of Iranian and Syrian fighters and igniting ammunition that resulted in several massive explosions. The tempo of Israeli operations is increasing and Americans sources say observers have every reason to fear the accelerating trend.

U.S. officials reportedly told NBC News that, within the last two weeks, Iran has stepped up deliveries of small arms and surface-to-air missiles to Syria as part of Tehran’s effort to “shore up Iranian ground forces and to strike at Israel.” The conspicuous reinforcement of Iranian soldiers, support staff, and weapons stockpiles might have led Israel to draw the gravest of conclusions. “The three U.S. officials said Israel now seems to be preparing for military action and is seeking U.S. help and support,” NBC News revealed.

The arguments among political factions within the United States regarding the Iran nuclear deal and various presidential legacies are peripheral to what may be the more immediate issue: the prospect of imminent hostilities between Israel and Iran, to say nothing of Tehran’s proxy forces in Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza. Seen in that light, Netanyahu’s decision to reveal the most eye-opening feat of spycraft in a generation is anything but a “nothing-burger.”

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