Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran on Thursday of keeping a “secret atomic warehouse” just outside its capital, despite the 2015 deal with world powers that was meant to keep it from obtaining nuclear weapons. Hours later, Iran dismissed the allegation.
Holding up a poster-board map of an area near Tehran as he spoke at the U.N. General Assembly, Netanyahu told world leaders that Iranian officials have been keeping up to 300 tons of nuclear equipment and material in a walled, unremarkable-looking property near a rug-cleaning operation.
Netanyahu’s disclosure — which he presented as a big reveal on the international community’s biggest stage — came four months after Israel announced the existence of what it said was a “half-ton” of Iranian nuclear documents obtained by Israeli intelligence in the Shourabad neighborhood near Tehran. Israel said the cache proved that Iranian leaders covered up their nuclear weapons program before signing the nuclear agreement. Iran hasn’t acknowledged the alleged seizure.
“You have to ask yourself a question: Why did Iran keep a secret atomic archive and a secret atomic warehouse?” Netanyahu asked. “What Iran hides, Israel will find.”
Netanyahu didn’t specify what the material and equipment was, and it was not immediately clear whether it proved to be a violation of the nuclear deal. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which has been monitoring Iran’s compliance with the agreement, had no immediate comment.
Netanyahu also said Iranian officials had been clearing some radioactive material out of the site, which sits a short distance from Shourabad, and “spread it around Tehran.” He then even suggested that residents of the capital might want to buy Geiger counters.
In a tweet, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif derided the Israeli presentation as an “arts and craft show” by a country that he said needed to come clean about its own nuclear program.
Israel is widely believed to have a nuclear arsenal but has never publicly acknowledged it.
Zarif said there was nothing to the Israeli allegation, Iranian state-run media reported.
“The only purpose of this is to undercut the reality that Israel is the biggest threat to the region,” he was quoted as saying. He noted that the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has certified Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal.
The 2015 deal came after years of Western sanctions over Iran’s contested atomic program. The West had feared it could be used to build nuclear bombs. Iran long has denied seeking atomic weapons.
Under terms of the deal, Iran is allowed to keep documents and other research. The deal strictly limits how many centrifuges — important equipment for making enriched uranium that can be used in nuclear power plants or in weapons — Iran can use and how large of a low-enriched uranium stockpile the country can keep.
Netanyahu said the warehouse stored “massive amounts of equipment and materiel,” and he said Israel shared the information with the IAEA. The Vienna-based agency had no immediate comment.
He noted that Israel had long opposed the multinational agreement with Iran. Israel considers Iran its biggest threat, citing Tehran’s calls for Israel’s destruction, its support for hostile militant organizations like the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah group and Iran’s development of long-range missiles.
U.S. President Donald Trump pulled his country out of the nuclear deal in May, and his administration has been re-imposing sanctions on Iran. Israel applauded the move, but many other nations lamented it as jeopardizing what they saw as the best chance to keep Iran from becoming a nuclear-armed power.
“Instead of coddling Iran’s dictators,” other countries should support the sanctions, Netanyahu said to applause. He accused Europe of “appeasement” of Iran, a word that harkens back to criticism of Europe’s approach to Nazi Germany before World War II.
Netanyahu is known for his showmanship at the U.N. In 2012, he famously held up a drawing of a cartoon bomb while discussing Iran’s nuclear program, saying “a red line should be drawn right here” and drawing it with a marker.
At the end of the day’s speeches at the General Assembly, Iran used its “right of reply” to rebut Netanyahu’s accusations.
“His fallacies and his statement confirm his pathological tendency to tell monstrous lies and distort reality,” said a representative of the Iranian delegation. “Exhibiting some photographs of Google Street View, today the Israeli showman claimed that he discovered new nuclear facilities in Iran. This is yet another false story.”
Israel did not ask for a “right of reply” to Iran’s statement.
Netanyahu’s accusation Thursday about Iran came shortly after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas criticized Israel and the U.S. in his own speech, declaring that his people’s rights “are not up for bargaining” and that the U.S. was undermining the long-discussed two-state solution. But Netanyahu devoted less attention to the long-running conflict with the Palestinians.
Abbas halted ties with Trump’s administration in December after the U.S. recognized contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and Palestinians have said a pending U.S. peace plan will be dead on arrival because of that and other recent U.S. moves that Palestinians see as favoring Israel.
“Jerusalem is not for sale,” Abbas said to applause as he began his speech. “The Palestinian people’s rights are not up for bargaining.”
He said Palestinians would never reject negotiation, but that “it’s really ironic that the American administration still talks about what they call the ‘deal of the century.'”
“What is left for this administration to give to the Palestinian people?” he asked. “What is left as a political solution?”
Netanyahu, in return, said the Palestinians’ accusations against his country were hypocritical and unwarranted.
“You condemn Israel’s morality?” he asked. “This is not the way to achieve the peace we all want and need and to which Israel remains committed.”
The Islamic militant group Hamas that rules Gaza has led protests for months along the border with Israel, aiming partly to draw attention to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed after Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007.
At least 137 Palestinians, mostly unarmed, have been killed by Israeli fire since the border protests began on March 30. During that time, a Gaza sniper killed an Israeli soldier. Hamas and Israel came close to serious conflict this summer as Gaza militants bombarded southern Israel with mortars and rockets, and Israel struck Hamas targets in Gaza.
Israel says it is defending its border against attempts by Hamas, a militant group sworn to its destruction, to infiltrate and carry out attacks. But Israel has faced heavy international criticism over the large number of unarmed protesters who have been killed or wounded.
While meeting with Netanyahu on Wednesday, Trump told reporters he believes that two states — Israel and one for the Palestinians — “works best.”
Hours before Netanyahu’s scheduled speech, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman expressed indifference to Trump’s remarks, saying Israel wants “a safe Jewish state.”
Netanyahu had reluctantly accepted the concept of Palestinian statehood but has since backtracked.
Palestinians have been split since Hamas seized Gaza in 2007, ousting forces of Abbas, who now governs just parts of the West Bank. Repeated reconciliation attempts have failed, and Abbas warned that further measures could be taken against Hamas if deadlock persists.
The Israeli and Palestinian speeches fell on the same day that members of a U.N. group of 135 developing countries formalized a decision to give the Palestinians the chairmanship in 2019. That stands to boost their aspirations for official statehood but angers Israel.
Palestinians were infuriated, and many Israelis were thrilled, by a series of decisions Trump has made, starting with his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The Palestinians also claim the holy city as the capital of an eventual state. Earlier this year, Trump followed up on the recognition by moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
His administration has also slashed aid to the Palestinians by hundreds of millions of dollars and ended U.S. support for the U.N. agency that helps Palestinian refugees.
Trump and his national security team have defended their position, saying decades of attempts to forge peace have failed.
Other leaders who spoke Thursday included Haiti’s President Jovenel Moise, who told leaders he had “spared no effort to ensure that institutions are stable and to make sure we are creating a safe and stable environment conducive to investment and to relaunching growth” in his impoverished Caribbean island country since the U.N. peacekeeping mission there wrapped up in October 2017.