PARIS -- Airstrikes in Syria reportedly hit a Syrian army base and two other military facilities Sunday night, killing 11 Iranians. It is not yet clear who was responsible for the attacks. The next day, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conducted a PowerPoint presentation claiming that Iran has been dishonest about its nuclear program. At one point, the words "Iran lied" appeared on a giant screen behind him. The response from the White House was telling, if not stunning.
Hours after Netanyahu's presentation, the White House issued a press release that read, in part: "These facts are consistent with what the United States has long known: Iran has a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program that it has tried and failed to hide from the world and from its own people."
A short time later, the same statement was revised to read: "Iran had a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program."
I'd venture to guess that the revision probably wasn't made by U.S President Donald Trump's new national security adviser, John Bolton.
I first met the plucky Bolton here in Paris in 2010 at the founding event for the Friends of Israel Initiative. Bolton has also traveled here to address Iranian opposition groups, and by his own admission, he has attended their rallies for at least eight years. Speaking at one in July 2017, Bolton made it clear that he and Trump want Iran's leadership gone.
By screwing up a single word in a press release, someone in the White House revealed the underside of the Trump administration's cards.
There didn't seem to be any new information in Netanyahu's presentation on Iran. If there hadn't been an Iranian nuclear program in the first place, the U.S., Russia, China, U.K., Germany and France wouldn't have bothered striking a deal with Iran to curtail its nuclear capabilities in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. The notion that Iran has persisted with nuclear research into either civilian or military applications doesn't seem like an unreasonable assumption.
Without maintaining the potential to mobilize in its own defense, what insurance does Iran have that it won't be attacked and its government regime-changed, as we've seen in Iraq, Libya and Ukraine? Tough guys like Bolton and Netanyahu are constantly threatening Iran. Nuclear potential means respect. It's what scored North Korea's Kim Jong Un a recent meeting with the CIA director (and potentially a future one with Trump) rather than the kind of treatment shown to former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Why is there so much more interest in Iranian nuclear capabilities than those of Saudi Arabia? Experts have told me that Saudi Arabia could order up a nuclear bomb overnight from the nuclear program it has long sponsored in Pakistan, but the only thing preventing it from doing so is the threat of ruining the Saudi relationship with the West.
Why does Israel get a pass? Just because it's an ally of the West? "Israel has been stealing nuclear secrets and covertly making bombs since the 1950s," The Guardian reported in 2014. "And western governments, including Britain and the U.S., turn a blind eye."
There are at least six countries -- those that signed the nuclear agreement -- with a vested interest in scrutinizing Iran to ensure that it holds up its end of the deal. Even as Trump has gone wobbly over the agreement, his objections have nothing to do with the nuclear aspect of it. Trump has expressed reluctance to interfere in the Middle East and has objected to the deal's failure to address Iran's ballistic missile potential.
Trump must decide by May 12 whether to continue to waive sanctions against Iran as part of the deal. With that deadline looming, suddenly Netanyahu pops up with a TED Talk-style presentation that seems tailor-made for Trump and for maximum manipulation of the president and the general public. Iran should respond with its own presentation on Israel's nuclear program. Perhaps we can make this into a global series: "Finking on my enemy."
We're still waiting for Netanyahu to publish the supporting documentation on which his presentation was based. In the meantime, let's hope Trump and other Western leader exercise skepticism and caution in light of attempts to manipulate public perception and encourage more war in the Middle East.
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