It was a memorable address: Wielding a cardboard cartoon of a bomb with a lit fuse, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the 2012 gathering of the United Nations General Assembly that Iran was 70 per cent of the way to developing nuclear weapons – and time was running out to stop it.
However, top-secret cables from Israel's Mossad spy agency, leaked to Al Jazeera, now reveal that the country's intelligence officials did not support that number or the dire conclusions drawn by Mr. Netanyahu. The revelation has the potential to embarrass not only the Israeli leader but those of other countries, such as Canada, who are strongly critical of Iran.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been one of the world's strongest supporters of Israel and has backed Mr. Netanyahu's warnings about Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.
The combative stand from Mr. Netanyahu at the UN put Mr. Harper in a squeeze between two allies, Israel and the United States – when the latter wanted to seek a diplomatic solution with Iran, rather than threaten immediate war.
The Israeli leader is already at the centre of a political storm in Washington over a controversial address he is to make March 3 to the Republican-controlled Congress on the subject of Iran's nuclear threat. President Barack Obama – tensions have long existed between the two leaders – has refused to meet with Mr. Netanyahu on this visit, pointing to a long-standing tradition of steering clear of foreign leaders in close proximity to elections.
Meanwhile, nuclear talks continue between the U.S. and Iran. On Monday, officials from the two countries ended a round of talks in Geneva in which the parties are reportedly considering a proposal that would strictly limit Iran's ability to produce nuclear material for at least 10 years.
In the September, 2012, UN speech, Mr. Netanyahu had drawn a bright red line across the neck of that bomb, declaring that Iran was 70 per cent of the way to completing its "plans to build a nuclear weapon." However, a Mossad cable, one of many obtained by the Al Jazeera satellite news network, concluded that Iran was "not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons."
Whereas Mr. Netanyahu warned the world that "by next spring, at most by next summer" Iran "will have finished the medium enrichment and move on to the final stage," of producing weapons-grade uranium, the top-secret cable, relayed to South Africa's State Security Agency just four weeks later, refutes such a determination.
"Even though Iran has accumulated enough 5 per cent enriched uranium for several bombs, and has enriched some of it to 20 per cent," the cable states, "it does not appear to be ready to enrich it to higher levels" necessary for weapons.
A senior Israeli official told reporters Monday there was "no discrepancy" between Mr. Netanyahu's warning that Tehran was close to fielding nuclear weapons and Mossad's assessment.
In a CBS News interview earlier in 2012, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, warned at overstating the danger of Iran's nuclear program. It would be "stupid," he said, to put Israel on a path to war unnecessarily.
The Israeli cable was part of a cache of documents apparently leaked to the Qatar-based Al Jazeera by parties unknown. The so-called "Spy Cables," as Al Jazeera calls them, were independently authenticated by the Guardian newspaper, with which Al Jazeera shared the documents.
The material includes briefings and analyses written by South Africa's Security Agency in connection with meetings involving Israel's Mossad, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Britain's MI6, Russia's FSB and other intelligence agencies between 2006 and 2014. Almost all were marked as "confidential" or "top secret."
Other files within the trove reveal that the CIA attempted to establish contact with the Palestinian resistance movement Hamas in spite of a U.S. ban against such a meeting; that South Korean intelligence targeted the leader of Greenpeace and that South African intelligence spied on Russia over a controversial $100-million joint satellite deal.
The disclosure on Iran's lack of weaponization is likely to embarrass the Israeli leader as he faces an election in three weeks' time, said Michael Bell, a former Canadian ambassador to Israel.
"It's been clear for some time that Israeli intelligence did not agree with Netanyahu's statements about Iran's intentions," said Mr. Bell, adjunct professor of political science at the University of Windsor. "This revelation will now put Republicans in the U.S. and Netanyahu and his supporters in Israel on the defensive."
All this has been happening while the P5 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council) plus Germany pursue a framework for a permanent deal with Tehran that will keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
"What people need to remember," Mr. Bell said, "is that Iran wants to be integrated into the international system. And I think we can trust the P5 countries to make sure any deal with Iran won't allow it to develop nuclear weapons."
Over the years, Canada has been somewhat vague about a timeline for Iran getting the bomb. Then-foreign affairs minister John Baird more than once argued that Iran had not made the decision to build nuclear weapons. But if it did, it would not be long before it would be in a position to "sprint" to nuclear-weapons capability within a period of months – nine to 18 months, he said in May, 2012.
Mr. Baird said last year that Iran could get to that "sprint" capability quickly – and if it did, that could launch a nuclear arms race across the Middle East.
Mr. Harper has consistenly supported Mr. Netanyahu, but even he did not subscribe to the immediacy of the threat asserted by the Israeli leader. "Our country has not been shy about warning the world about the danger that the Iranian regime ultimately presents to all of us," he told Mr. Netanyahu when he met him in New York just after the UN speech in 2012. "As you know, we want to see a peaceful resolution to all this."
With reports from Campbell Clark in Ottawa and Paul Koring in Washington.