JERUSALEM (AP) — An Israeli Cabinet minister said Tuesday his country’s dramatic seizure of what it purports to be Iran’s nuclear program archive could help deter the Islamic Republic from trying to strike Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unveiled Monday what he claimed was a “half ton” of Iranian nuclear documents collected by Israeli intelligence, claiming it proved Iranian leaders covered up a nuclear weapons program before signing a deal with world powers in 2015.
Netanyahu’s speech was delivered in English and relied on his trademark use of visual aids. He claimed the material — some 55,000 pages of documents and 183 CDs of secret information Israeli Mossad operative obtained from a Tehran facility — shows Iran cannot be trusted and encouraged President Donald Trump to withdraw from the deal. Trump says the discovery vindicated his criticism of the deal.
Tehran, which has denied ever seeking nuclear weapons, dismissed Netanyahu’s move as a “ridiculous” show but did not address the documents produced by Netanyahu.
Israeli minister Yoav Galant told Israel’s Army Radio he suspected Trump was leaning toward nixing the deal, which would likely lead to a growing confrontation between Israel and Iran. But he said Israel was prepared and doubted Iran would challenge Israel, given the humbling blow it was delivered.
“Anyone who saw the intelligence achievement can also understand what our military capabilities are,” he said. “I assume that everyone around us will think long and hard before they try to harm Israel.”
Trump has signaled he will pull out of the agreement by May 12 unless it is revised, but he faces intense pressure from European allies not to do so. Israeli officials said the information it gathered had been shared in advance with the Americans, in an apparent hope of influencing Trump’s decision.
However, Netanyahu’s presentation, delivered on live TV from Israeli military headquarters in Tel Aviv, did not appear to provide evidence that Iran has violated the 2015 deal, raising questions about whether it would sway international opinion ahead of Trump’s decision.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman called Netanyahu’s performance a “threadbare charlatanism” show. The state-run IRNA news agency on Tuesday quoted the spokesman, Bahram Ghasemi, as saying Netanyahu’s speech was part of “fruitless efforts of a bankrupt and scandalous liar.”
Israeli commentators lauded what was being described as one of the Mossad’s greatest intelligence achievements in unmasking the true nature of the Iranian government’s intent to the world. Still, there was disappointment over the lack of a “smoking gun” proving Iran had violated the nuclear deal.
Political opponents also bristled at Netanyahu’s showmanship in presenting the find.
“I am convinced that an absolute majority of the intelligence and military officials were opposed to this presentation,” said Ram Ben-Barak, a former deputy Mossad director who currently belongs to the opposition Yesh Atid party.
“What was the point, apart from national pride, broadcasting it in such a dramatic way, as if you were unveiling a new and revolutionary telephone to the world,” he asked.
The display ratcheted up already heightened tensions between Israel and Iran. Israel considers Iran to be its biggest threat, citing Tehran’s hostile rhetoric, support for militants and growing influence in the region.
Israel has said it will not allow Iran to establish a permanent military presence in neighboring Syria, where Iran supports President Bashar Assad. Just before midnight Sunday, a missile attack in northern Syria killed more than a dozen pro-government fighters, many of them Iranians, a war monitoring group and an Iranian news agency said.
There was no official confirmation of the death toll or the target but Israel was widely suspected of being behind the attack.
Associated Press writer Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.