When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a speech Monday that Iran lied about the history of its nuclear weapons program, the event was broadcast to millions. But it probably had an intended audience of one: President Trump.
Israeli journalist Barak Ravid reported Tuesday that Netanyahu briefed the American leader on the files two months ago. According to one Israeli official who spoke to Ravid, the decision to publicly release the information was specifically timed to influence Trump as he approaches the May 12 deadline on whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran and probably kill the nuclear deal struck with Tehran in 2015.
Many world leaders have tried to influence Trump since he entered office last year, but Netanyahu knew his audience better than most. An experienced prop user, the Israeli leader brought out a number of visual cues during his presentation, including a cabinet full of binders and compact discs supposedly holding 100,000 documents on Iran’s nuclear program. An accompanying slide show hammered home the point in stark terms: “Iran lied.”
We’ve shared this material with the United States, and the United States can vouch for its authenticity. We will also share it with other countries, and we’ll share it with the International Atomic Energy Agency. pic.twitter.com/qjijiPUAo5
— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) April 30, 2018
Experts were not impressed. Joshua Pollack of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey wrote that almost all the information Netanyahu presented was already known. The only fresh tidbit, Pollack wrote for Defense One, was that Iran had envisaged only a “minuscule, unambitious” nuclear arsenal of low-yield weapons that would “make Kim Jong Un giggle.”
But Netanyahu wasn’t aiming for experts. His visual aids seemed tailor-made for a president whose love of maps and charts is well known. And Trump was clearly paying attention, if not terribly closely: On Monday night, the White House released a statement that mistakenly said Netanyahu had shown that Iran “has a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program” (the U.S. government replaced the statement a short while later, quietly acknowledging that Iran’s nuclear program was in the past tense).
Netanyahu is not the only world leader doing a good job of influencing U.S. leadership. In South Korea, President Moon Jae-in has overcome numerous ideological differences with his American counterpart to become a key partner in the push to defuse tensions with North Korea. He has followed a strategy similar to Netanyahu’s: Rather than trying to win over an entire government with facts and figures, just aim straight for Trump.
Like Israel’s prime minister, Moon has shown an understanding that Trump is big on visuals. The pageantry of last week’s inter-Korea summit appears to have been designed to sway Trump, who is suggesting he wants to host his own summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in Panmunjom, the border village where Moon and Kim met.
While almost nothing of practical consequence resulted from last week’s meeting, Andrei Lankov, a professor of Korean studies at Kookmin University in Seoul, wrote for NK News that the feel-good glitz — and positive review from Trump — was exactly the point.
“Regardless of what actually happened, the April 27 summit has to be presented as a great success, increasing the likelihood that the all-important Kim-Trump summit will start in the right environment and, therefore, will have more chances of success,” Lankov wrote.
Moon has also used flattery to his advantage. On Monday, the South Korean president suggested that Trump should get the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in solving the North Korean nuclear problem. It was just the latest suggestion from Moon, whose government has led the rapprochement with North Korea, that the American leader is the real force behind peace efforts.
In these simplistic attempts to influence Trump, world leaders are using many of the same tactics as members of Trump’s own government. Consider the National Security Council, which, according to a recent article in the New Yorker, has pared down its traditional multi-page memos to simple cards that contain just two or three points no more complex than “see Jane run.”
The most famous of those cards was undoubtedly the one that read “DO NOT CONGRATULATE,” urging Trump not to offer Russian President Vladimir Putin his best wishes on his reelection in March. Trump ignored it, but responded more positively when former national security adviser H.R. McMaster showed him pictures of a modern, stable Kabul from the 1970s, convincing the president to raise troops levels in Afghanistan.
Despite Netanyahu’s and Moon’s successes, foreign leaders have a similarly mixed record in persuading Trump. French President Emmanuel Macron had clearly hoped he could influence Trump with a combination of touchy-feely chumminess and pomp, stepping in where other European leaders like Britain’s Theresa May or Germany’s Angela Merkel had tried and failed — or not tried at all.
The visuals were there, but the results were not. By the end of his visit to Washington, the French president conceded he had probably failed to convince Trump that he should keep the Iran deal. “He will get rid of this deal on his own, for domestic reasons,” Macron predicted to U.S. reporters. So far, Macron’s clearest influence on Trump has been instilling a desire for military parades.
Macron isn’t alone in his disappointment. Japan’s Shinzo Abe visited Trump’s Florida resort and golfed with him twice, using the extensive time with Trump to push his views, but he has been left in the cold by the American leader on Korea and trade. Trump’s allies in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are beginning to show the strain of dealing with a world leader who often undercuts them, most notably on Syria, despite their effusive praise and lavish hospitality.
Part of the problem is simply that Trump is fickle, but another may be that with so many people trying to influence him, he can be swayed by whoever he meets last. Here, Netanyahu may be savvier than most. As an Israeli official told Barak David: “Last week was for the Europeans, and this week is our week.”