Oil was the dog that didn’t bark after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s press conference on Iran at 1 pm EST. After a brief spike to US$69.38, West Texas Intermediate crude was trading at US$68.50, unchanged on the day.
Whatever one thinks about Israel, Iran, or the Trump Administration, we can draw a number of inferences from the Israeli leader’s display of dozens of file folders and compact disks. The first is that the Israelis would not have offered the revelation unless they knew in advance that the United States would attest to the authenticity of the stolen Iranian documents (President Trump immediately indicated his approval of Netanyahu’s presentation). Least of all would they have done so hours after the departure from Israel of the new American Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. The second is that the apparent use of bunker-buster bombs against an Iranian base in Syria this morning just after Pompeo’s departure from Israel is a warning to Iran as to what will happen if it attempts to develop nuclear weapons.
Third, if the Israeli dossier stands scrutiny and receives America’s endorsement, it will wrongfoot the European chancelleries which have tried to persuade President Trump to preserve the Iran nuclear deal. It is unlikely that any of the European governments will have an independent intelligence capacity to challenge the accuracy of the Israeli claim, and none of them will have the political capacity to challenge it if America claims to have substantiated it. This is quite a different matter than a hard-to-verify poison gas attack in Syria. It is likely to be a diplomatic game-changer.
Fourth, it will give Russia an opportunity to play a more prominent role in regional diplomacy. As Maxim Suchkov wrote today in AL-Monitor, Russia is attempting to act as a buffer between Iran and Israel, which are now close to confrontation over Iran’s military buildup in Syria. Israel evidently wants Russia to be a moderating influence on Iran; its defense minister, Avigdor Liberman, yesterday described Russia as a “pragmatic actor” in Syria. Russia’s interests are best served by persuading Iran to concede critical points (e.g. on ballistic missile development) to Washington.
Finally, the physical collapse of North Korea’s nuclear testing site and North Korea’s consequent willingness to negotiate a halt to its nuclear program have broad implications for Iran. As the respected German defense expert Hans Rühle wrote in Die Welt last October, Iran and North Korea collaborated on nuclear weapons development in a “sinister alliance.” Both Iran and North Korea have used Russian components and hired former Russian nuclear scientists to advance their weapons programs. A suspension of Pyongyang’s nuclear program would starve the Iranians of some resources.
All of the above box Iran in. If the Israeli dossier is authentic, it is likely that the Mossad had some help from within the Iranian security establishment, perhaps from individuals who are not convinced of the wisdom of the Revolutionary Guards’ expansionism.
The likeliest outcome remains a negotiated settlement. Iran’s financial system is in chaos after the collapse of the national currency on the black market and the suspension of foreign currency sales to the public, which have paralyzed important industries, including automobile production. Iran may not be able to sustain a fresh round of sanctions without a high degree of internal unrest. That explains why the oil price has not moved that much (although the price of oil options has in recent weeks).