ON MARCH 3, 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a speech to Congress that was a disturbing spectacle. Much of the media has focused its attention on the circumstances of Netanyahu’s trip to Capitol Hill. Netanyahu shrewdly accepted an invitation from Republican House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to address a joint session of Congress just two weeks before Israeli elections. The invitation was not coordinated with the White House, and it was widely seen as a Republican attempt to enlist Netanyahu in the dispute with President Barack Obama over new Iran sanctions.
It is a mistake to think, however, that the real issue is hurt feelings between Netanyahu and President Obama. The content of Netanyahu’s speech was even more disturbing. Last Tuesday, the Israeli prime minister stood before Congress and pretended to criticize the specific deal that the “P5 + 1” (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany) is currently negotiating with Iran. But what Netanyahu was really doing was agitating for outright war.
Let me explain.
In general, Netanyahu’s objections to the nuclear deal are threefold. First, it relies on international inspectors to detect cheating. Second, the deal has a 10-year expiration date. (These first two “objections,” it should be noted, are things that have been included in almost every arms-control accord ever negotiated, with the exception, perhaps, of treaties of surrender at the end of a war.) And third – and this is key – the deal doesn’t obliterate Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. In the world Netanyahu envisions, a “much better deal” doesn’t merely freeze and inspect Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, but dismantles it – completely.
This is a nice world that Netanyahu envisions. But it isn’t going to happen, and Netanyahu knows it. That is why Netanyahu has repeatedly stressed that “no deal” is better than the current deal. In fact, it is becoming increasingly apparent that Netanyahu believes that only a return to coercive pressure and isolation will ensure the elimination of the entire Iranian nuclear capability – that is, he actually prefers “no deal” to virtually any deal. “If Iran threatens to walk away,” he told Congress, “call their bluff. They need this deal a lot more than you do. By keeping up the pressure on Iran, you have the power to make them need it even more.” This is nonsense, and it is the clearest sign that Netanyahu’s intentions and arguments are insincere.
Certainly, turning back the clock and eliminating every aspect of nuclear know-how in Iran would be desirable. But proponents of stiffer negotiating terms and a return to the imposition of international sanctions must recognize that if they get their wish, and Iran walks away from the talks, such a situation may create a security threat far greater than the more limited threat these talks are now trying to prevent.
Over the course of eight successive American administrations, and four presidents in Iran, it has been the policy of the U.S. government to subject Iran to a wide variety of economic sanctions and pressures over the nuclear program. These sanctions have had noticeable effects – primarily, they have been enormously effective at inflicting economic consequences on the Iranian economy. What they have not been effective at doing, however, is stopping the Iranian regime from advancing its nuclear program. Rather, with sanctions increasing almost by the day, Iran’s nuclear program has steadily increased.
With this experience as the backdrop, it is rather clear that, if we escalate the sanctions against the Iranian regime and let Iran walk away from diplomacy, there are two predictable consequences: (1) the Iranian elite would use the collapsed talks to justify nationalistic fervor among its people, and seek to re-direct the anger that many Iranians feel toward the oppressive regime of the mullahs against Israel and the U.S.; and (2) Iran would move quickly to escalate its nuclear capacities and turn them toward military use, largely out of fear that military attacks from Israel or the U.S. were imminent.
In short, abandoning diplomacy and escalating sanctions would actually create the very situation Netanyahu says he fears, but which does not currently exist. At such a juncture, there would be enormous pressure on the U.S. to act militarily, and ignite another unwinnable war in the Middle East.
Netanyahu’s hardline stance shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Mr. Netanyahu is not generally known for his measured rhetoric, and he has never seen a war he didn’t want the U.S. to fight. In fact, he has quite a history of making exaggerated predictions of doomsday scenarios that have been wildly untrue. For example, in 2002, while pressing the U.S. to invade Iraq, Mr. Netanyahu went before Congress and “guarantee[d]” that such a war would “have enormous positive reverberations on the region.”
When it comes to the Iranian nuclear program, Mr. Netanyahu has been consistently wrong on this whole issue. Over the course of more than 20 years, Netanyahu has made false claims about nuclear weapons programs, invented imaginary timelines for their development, and made public statements that contradicted the analysis of his own intelligence advisers. In 1992, for example, Mr. Netanyahu advised the Israeli Knesset that Iran was “three to five years” away from reaching nuclear weapons capability, and that this threat had to be “uprooted by an international front headed by the U.S.” Apparently unaware of the expiration of his previous deadline, Netanyahu once again asserted that Iran would have a nuclear weapon in “three to five years” in his 1995 book, Fighting Terrorism. And in 1996, Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress where he warned, “If Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, this could presage catastrophic consequences, not only for my country, and not only for the Middle East, but for all mankind,” adding that, “the deadline for attaining this goal is getting extremely close.”
More recently, in 2012, Netanyahu gave an address at the United Nations in which he alleged that Iran was roughly one year away from reaching nuclear weapons capability, while using a printout of a cartoon bomb to illustrate his point. This heady rhetoric, it turns out, was at odds with analyses made by Netanyahu’s own intelligence agency. According to leaked intelligence cables reported by Al Jazeera, at roughly the same time in 2012 that Netanyahu brandished his cartoon bomb, Israeli intelligence had actually determined that Iran was “not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons.”
“Any Israeli leader has good reason to fear Iran, to distrust Iran’s intentions, and to cock a skeptical eyebrow in the direction of any agreement that Iran’s leaders deign to sign,” Fred Kaplan wrote in Slate. And there is no doubt that, in his speech to Congress, Netanyahu was correct on a number of fronts: Iran supports terrorists; it seeks to expand its influence in the region; and it still shouts slogans of death to America and Zionists. But what do these claims have to do with the nuclear deal on the table? Absolutely nothing.
Netanyahu has made his position on the current Iranian nuclear negotiations clear: he opposes any deal that falls short of complete disarmament and regime change. But at what point does Netanyahu cease being a credible voice on this issue?
“The painful truth is that after the applause, Netanyahu was left alone,” Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog said last Wednesday. “Israel was left isolated. And the negotiations with Iran will continue without any Israeli involvement. The speech badly damaged U.S.-Israel relations. It won’t change the administration’s stance but will only widen the rift with our greatest friend and strategic ally.”