WASHINGTON — Amid Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest accusations about Iran’s past nuclear activities, former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz warned Wednesday that dropping out of the Iran deal would isolate the U.S. from its allies.
Moniz, a key Obama administration negotiator of the deal, said that pulling out of Iran’s 2015 deal with world powers would drive a wedge between the U.S. and its European allies and “short circuit” a “deep investigation” into Iran’s nuclear activities.
“Iran is now on the spot and it would be foolish to let them off the hook,” Moniz said Wednesday on CNN’s “New Day.”
The comments came as the Trump administration is up against a mid-May deadline, weighing whether it will renew an Iran sanctions waiver and remain in the Iran nuclear agreement.
President Donald Trump, a frequent critic of the deal, said Tuesday the deal was flawed because it doesn’t ban Iran’s testing of ballistic missiles. “The Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into,” he said.
Though Netanyahu provided arguments to scrap the deal, allies are urging against that path. French President Emanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Washington last month to persuade Trump to keep the deal. On Wednesday, China reiterated that all sides should continue to uphold the agreement.
Netanyahu had presented evidence that he said shows Iran once had a nuclear weapons program. He said the documents his government obtained prove that Iran lied about its nuclear ambitions before signing the deal.
Moniz argued that Netanyahu’s presentation “did not reveal anything new at a high level” and that there’s broad agreement Iran is complying with nuclear restrictions.
“We’ve always said, and we knew quite well, that Iran had a structured nuclear weapons program until 2003,” he said. “The revelations now reaffirm that. Frankly, it reaffirms our intelligence community’s conclusion that that program, that structured program, ended around 2003-2004.”
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has supported and continues to support the deal, a spokesman told reporters Tuesday, pointing to a statement from the International Atomic Energy Agency that says it has “no credible” evidence Iran was working on developing a nuclear “explosive device” after 2009.
Still, the White House seemed to be leaning toward Netanyahu. Spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Tuesday that Iran “lied on the front end” and that its nuclear weapons-making capabilities were more advanced than Tehran had admitted.
“We think the biggest mistake that was made was under the Obama administration by ever entering the deal in the first place,” she said.
The White House was on the defensive Tuesday after it released a statement that is says has since been corrected: “Iran has a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program that it has tried and failed to hide from the world and from its own people.” Sanders called the word “has” a “typo.”
A senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Ben Cardin, said the administration has strong options outside of amending or violating the Iran nuclear deal. Congress has given Trump other tools, he argued, to sanction Iran for or its support of terrorism, ballistic missile violations and human rights violations — in concert with action for European allies.
“I think the disagreement between President Trump and our European allies, and with many of us in Congress, is the president is talking about reimposing sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program even though they’re in compliance with their nuclear commitments,” Cardin, of Maryland, told Bloomberg News. “That would isolate the United States.”
Former Secretary of State John Kerry, the top diplomat when the deal was negotiated, sought to counter Netanyahu, in a series of tweets Tuesday.
“Every detail PM Netanyahu presented yesterday was every reason the world came together to apply years of sanctions and negotiate the Iran nuclear agreement ― because the threat was real and had to be stopped. It’s working!”
The international community had no visibility and no say about Iran’s nuclear program before the deal, he said, adding: “Blow up the deal and you’re back there tomorrow!”
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis seemed to offer some defense of the Iran deal last week in congressional testimony. While he would not give his opinion about whether to stay in it, he said its provisions allow “pretty robust” oversight of Iran.
“I’ve read it now three times … and I will say that it is written almost with an assumption that Iran would try to cheat,” Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“So the verification, what is in there, is actually pretty robust as far as our intrusive ability to get in, IAEA to get in,” Mattis said. “Whether or not that is sufficient, that is a valid question.”
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.