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OpinionColumnistsDan Raviv

It’s Trump’s move in Iran chess match

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presents his case

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presents his case on Iran's plans to build nuclear weapons on Monday in Tel Aviv. Credit: AP / Sebastian Scheiner

His theatrics were stunning, almost Tony-worthy, but what did Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prove this week? Assuming the documents from Iran’s secret nuclear weapons program that he displayed on a huge screen are genuine — and no one seems to dispute that — then the world now has concrete evidence that Iran has lied when it denied it wanted to build nuclear bombs.

But does that undermine the foundation of the nuclear deal reached with Iran in 2015 by the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia after complex negotiations?

Netanyahu says the deal is based on falsehoods and is thus illegitimate. President Donald Trump praises Netanyahu’s PowerPoint presentation, and Trump promises a decision on whether to pull out of the nuclear deal by the next sanctions waiver deadline, one week from Saturday.

Supporters of the deal concede that Mossad spies accomplished an impressive heist in Tehran, but they insist that they always assumed Iran had an undeclared weapons program. That, they argue, is why a deal with restrictions and inspections was needed.

President Barack Obama did not hide one of the key reasons that he made it a high priority to sign a deal with Iran: his fear that Israel would bomb nuclear research sites in Iran. Obama wanted to avert another war in the Middle East, and he also was reaching out a hand of friendship to the Islamic Republic of Iran in the idealistic hope of changing its behavior.

The Obama faction in Washington, active on Twitter and at think tanks where former officials decry the abrupt changes of 16 months under Trump, is braced for bitter disappointment if the nuclear deal is blown apart.

Yet there are intriguing hints of a possible middle ground. Trump might not withdraw completely from the Iran nuclear deal. The explanation for that is rooted in the visits to the White House last week by French President Emmanuel Macron and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. They both asked Trump to stay in the agreement, while building on it — as part of what Macron called “a mosaic” of accords to be negotiated with Iran.

Trump seemed unmoved, but on Monday it was barely noticed that after lambasting the accord, he added, “That doesn’t mean we won’t negotiate a real agreement.”

The European leaders flew home unsure of what Trump would decide. But midlevel U.S. officials and their European allies have discussed for months demands they might present together to Iran. The goals would include restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missiles and, if possible, on Iran’s support for radicals throughout the Middle East.

Iran publicly says it will not agree to negotiate any limits on its behavior, but pressure could come in the form of new European and U.S. sanctions.

It is far from certain that European countries that have enjoyed profitable trade with Iran since 2015 will shut the cash spigot just because Trump is unhappy and made a campaign promise to tear up the nuclear deal. But U.S. sanctions would likely hurt any companies that do business with Iran. If pressed to choose, the Europeans could be expected to opt for continued commerce with the mighty United States. They would cut their ties with Iran.

Would Israel be satisfied to see Western nations enter new talks with Iran? Yes, and Netanyahu sent clear signals that his main demand is to remove the sunset clauses that allow key restrictions on Iran’s nuclear work to start expiring in 2025.

The outcome of a pressure campaign coordinated by Trump and Netanyahu could be a peaceful but emphatic push to keep the nuclear deal alive — but stronger, better and permanent.

Dan Raviv, senior Washington correspondent of i24News, is author of “Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.”