Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu theatrically revealed a library of files and CDs Monday that he claimed was secretly obtained from Tehran and showed Iran lied about its atomic bomb ambitions prior to the 2015 nuclear deal, adding a new layer of complexity to President Trump’s looming decision over the future of the deal while heightening fears of an imminent military clash between Tehran and Tel Aviv.
Using PowerPoint and pacing the stage with a handheld microphone, Mr. Netanyahu said the intelligence haul showed Iran has worked to “expand its nuclear weapons knowledge” since signing the deal with the Obama administration and other world powers.
He made the sobering claims as Mr. Trump faces a May 12 deadline on whether to take Washington out of the pact.
Mr. Trump refused again in a Rose Garden press conference Monday to tip his hand, but he told reporters in Washington that Mr. Netanyahu’s revelations show “I’m 100 percent right” in denouncing the accord and demanding a tougher agreement with Tehran.
Iranian officials scoffed at the developments. They asserted that Mr. Netanyahu revealed nothing to prove they are not in compliance with the nuclear deal.
Meanwhile, wider regional tensions between Tehran and Jerusalem soared to new heights amid fears that Iran-backed proxies are poised to use Syria as a staging ground for attacks against Israel.
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Mr. Netanyahu’s claims against Iran came just hours after it was revealed that Israeli defense officials had warned their American and Russian counterparts that if Iran-backed forces carry out such attacks from inside Syria, then Israeli forces will not hold back from retaliating with direct strikes against Tehran or other targets in Iran.
There were also reports Monday that missile strikes had killed several Iranian troops working at a base inside Syria in support of the government of President Bashar Assad, a key Iranian ally.
No outside power claimed responsibility for the strikes, and Iranian state media quickly asserted that “no Iranian advisers” had been killed. But a top monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Israel likely carried out the attack.
“Given the nature of the target, it is likely to have been an Israeli strike,” Rami Abdul Rahman, who heads the Britain-based group, told Agence France-Presse.
Israel, which enjoys robust support from Washington, has sporadically bombed Iranian positions in Syria over the past three years. But Israeli and American officials denied any involvement in Monday’s strikes.
Defense Secretary James N. Mattis went so far as to rule out any scenario in which Washington would support more aggressive military action by Israel in Syria — or against Iran directly — in response to Tehran’s growing regional influence.
But, Mr. Mattis said, “Israel is a sovereign nation, and I do not see us playing a role in their sovereign decisions” with regard to military action. He stressed that U.S. and Israeli concerns over Iran’s activities are shared by other regional partners, with Saudi Arabia leading a chorus of criticism from leading Sunni Arab states.
“Everyone in the region is concerned about what Iran is doing,” the defense secretary said.
Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement — Tehran’s most potent ally and military proxy in the region — have been emboldened as Mr. Assad’s forces appear to have turned the tide in the 7-year-old Syrian civil war. Israel fears that Iran will use its foothold in Syria as another staging base for its forces and its allies to pressure Israel across the border.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported Monday that officials from the defense ministry had told Washington and Moscow that Israel is prepared, if necessary, to carry out strikes against Tehran directly, as well as against proxies in Syria.
The main target, the paper reported, would be bases where Iranian forces have been located since the Syrian civil war began. Israel claims that the bases serve as conduits to transfer weapons and gear up for further Iranian establishment in Syria.
The nuclear deal
In his heavily hyped presentation, Mr. Netanyahu claimed that Israeli intelligence had obtained “a half a ton” of files proving that Iran pursued nuclear weapons prior to the 2015 agreement, despite Tehran’s long-held claim that its nuclear program was always purely for peaceful energy purposes and that it was against its Islamic founding principles to seek a nuclear bomb.
“Iran lied,” the Israeli prime minister said. “[And] 100,000 secret files prove it did. Second, even after the deal, Iran continued to preserve and expand its nuclear weapons knowledge for future use.”
Citing photos he said were of secretive nuclear facilities in Iran, Mr. Netanyahu said Tehran “lied again in 2015 when it didn’t come clear” about its activities to U.N. nuclear inspectors, as required under the nuclear deal.
He asserted that a clandestine Iranian nuclear project, code-named Amad, had been officially shelved more than a decade ago but that fieldwork on the project had secretly continued.
The assertions dovetailed with accusations from a leading Iranian opposition group that claimed last year to have intelligence showing Tehran was conducting research into nuclear weapons components such as bomb triggers and enriched uranium.
The Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran and its main operational arm, the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran, said the research was being kept secret and violated the 2015 nuclear accord, under which Washington and other world powers agreed to give Iran relief from powerful international sanctions in exchange for limits to its nuclear activities and transparency to U.N. inspectors.
Iranian officials, who say international inspectors have repeatedly ratified their adherence to the 2015 deal, bristled at Mr. Netanyahu’s presentation.
“The boy who can’t stop crying wolf is at it again,” tweeted Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. “You can only fool some of the people so many times.”
The chief of Iran’s internal atomic energy organization on Monday said Tehran is fully prepared to begin enriching uranium — the process used to make material for bombs — at a level “higher than we used to” if the Trump administration pulls out of or undermines the 2015 nuclear deal.
Iranian state media quoted the Iranian atomic chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, as saying he “hope[s] Trump comes to his senses and stays in the deal.”
Not everyone was persuaded by Mr. Netanyahu’s evidence, some of which dates back to the turn of the century.
Trita Parsi, who heads the National Iranian American Council, a U.S.-based group that supported the nuclear deal, said in a statement that Mr. Netanyahu’s “desperation to kill the Iran deal and drag the United States into war with Iran was on full display today.”
“Netanyahu played a key role in helping con the American people into the war with Iraq and is now pulling out all the stops to do the same with Iran,” Mr. Parsi said. “[He] revealed nothing that indicates Iran is not upholding its obligations under the nuclear deal.”
But it remains to be seen how the developments might effect Mr. Trump’s calculus on whether to pull out of the deal.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, predicted that Mr. Netanyahu’s claims will not have a big impact on Mr. Trump’s decision. He said Western negotiators never took many of Iran’s old promises seriously.
“It’s nothing new,” Mr. Corker told Bloomberg TV. “It’s not groundbreaking. We’ve known about this for some time.”
Mr. Trump “decertified” the nuclear deal as being against the U.S. national interest in October. Decertification was a mainly rhetorical step that set the stage for a full withdrawal.
Now Mr. Trump faces a May 12 deadline to approve another round of U.S. sanctions relief for Iran. Analysts say that if the president chooses to deny the renewal, then it will amount to a formal pullout of the accord, which was signed by the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia together with Iran.
Mr. Trump, who vowed on the campaign trail in 2016 to pull Washington out of the deal if he became president, laments that the agreement has no restrictions on Iranian ballistic missile activities. He also has criticized the deal’s “sunset” clause, which would allow Iran to ramp up its nuclear activities beginning in 2025, seven years from now.
“Seven years is tomorrow. That’s not acceptable,” he said Monday.
But the president played coy on his plans. “I’m not telling you what I’m doing,” he told reporters. “That doesn’t mean we won’t negotiate a real agreement.”
Russia opposes Mr. Trump’s push to end the nuclear accord. Russian state media reported Monday that Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron had spoken by phone and vowed to preserve and implement the existing deal in full.
Mr. Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Washington last week in separate bids to persuade Mr. Trump not to pull out of the deal.
• Dave Boyer contributed to this article.