On March 3, the US capital Washington D.C. witnessed an absurd political theatre when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared before a joint session of Congress — not the Knesset — to give a speech on the dangers of Iran’s nuclear weapons programme and used his podium in the US Congress to criticize the US President. How ironic, the political party that prides itself on being more patriotic than its rival, produced the spectacle of genuflecting to a foreign leader whose main aim was to thwart the upcoming US talks with Iran on letter’s nuclear programme. To repeated ovations from Republicans and a divided response from Democrats, the Israeli prime minister mostly explained his conviction that an agreement currently being brokered by the American government and other world powers is so bad that it “doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb; it paves Iran’s path to the bomb.”
Benjamin Netanyahu has finally given his much ballyhooed speech to the US Congress, and the heavens haven’t fallen. He issued the same ‘bloodcurdling’ warning that Iran is on the brink of getting nuclear weapons that he has been making for 20 years now. It is worth remembering, however, that Netanyahu — not generally known for his measured rhetoric — has said much of what he said in this speech before. For instance, in 1996, he addressed a joint session of Congress where he darkly 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.” Moreover, in his 1995 book, “Fighting Terrorism,” Netanyahu once again asserted that Iran would have a nuclear weapon in “three to five years,” apparently forgetting about the expiration of his old deadline. For a considerable time thereafter, Netanyahu switched his focus to hyping the purported nuclear threat posed by another country, Iraq, about which he claimed there was “no question” that it was “advancing towards the development of nuclear weapons.” Testifying again in front of Congress in 2002, Netanyahu claimed that Iraq’s nonexistent nuclear programme was in fact so advanced that the country was now operating “centrifuges the size of washing machines.”
Needless to say, these claims turned out to be disastrously false. Despite this, Netanyahu, apparently unchastened by the havoc his previous false charges helped create, immediately went back to ringing the alarm bells about Iran.
But, this time nobody in the congress called him on it. Instead, the Republican members of Congress, and those Democrats who bothered to show up, gave him the usual standing ovations. President Obama was deeply miffed by Netanyahu’s attack on his policy of negotiating with Iran, and refused to meet him. Secretary of State John Kerry was so outraged by Netanyahu’s assertion that he publicly said:
“No one has presented a more viable, lasting alternative for how you actually prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. So folks, simply demanding that Iran capitulate is not a plan. And nor would any of our P5+1 partners support us in that position.”
Through his recent speech to the US Congress, Bibi presumably intended to harden US resolve, intimidate Tehran and reap domestic rewards in elections on March 17. However, the net result instead will be to divide Israel from its indispensable ally and introduce partisanship where previously a seemingly unshakeable consensus underpinned the US commitment to Israel.
In the Cold War, Congress sometimes prodded the executive branch to launch diplomatic initiatives to buttress a fragile nuclear order. The Nunn–Lugar programme to secure and dismantle the so-called “loose nukes” problem in the territories of the former Soviet Union was an excellent example and has been an outstanding success. Today, by contrast, Congress acts as a brake on the administration’s nuclear diplomacy. Consistent with this negativism, while the administration has shifted from “no enrichment” to “no bomb,” Netanyahu remains stuck at “no deal” and “no enrichment.”
Rejecting a deal as a matter of principle leaves only two alternatives:
1. To insist that Tehran capitulates completely in return for zero concession from the West. This has zero prospects of success and makes zero sense.
2. To launch military strikes to end Iran’s nuclear programme. This might delay the programme by up to three years but will start yet another long-term war with the Middle East’s biggest and most resourceful Muslim country and guarantee an Iranian pursuit of weaponization free from the watchful eyes of international inspectors. Other countries would begin lifting sanctions if the West walked away from an achievable deal because of Israeli rejectionism.
The critical elements of a deal that can satisfy the minimum demands and concerns of both sides include the number of centrifuges that Tehran will be allowed to operate, with 6,000 the likely upper limit; the timeframe of the deal, with a decade the minimum before Iran is allowed to consider expanding capability again; and the timing of the lifting of sanctions. Because the decision requires a vote in Congress, Iran is unlikely to accept an administration promise of a deferred lifting if that has been its primary motivation in entering into serious negotiations in the first place.
Hitherto, both the US and Israel have pursued a strategy of denying to any potential adversary the capacity to resist the exercise of hegemonic power. Jonathan Graubart and David Deutsch, founding members of Jewish Voice for Peace in San Diego, California, argue that both countries have repeatedly met challenges with militarism, aggressive interventionism, and disrespect for international norms and legal principles. Israel feigns victimhood but its rhetoric and actions belie belief in being weak, helpless and at the mercy of its many real enemies. It knows, speaks and behaves in the language of the power that cannot be challenged by any adversary. A nuclear Iran would be less of an existential threat to Israel than a regional power that can no longer be attacked with impunity and defeated militarily.
Unfortunately for Israel, the global equation is changing radically for the US as it grapples with renewed and persisting tensions in Eastern Europe and attempts to pivot to Asia to check China’s growing reach and influence. Cooperation with Iran by unlocking the frozen enmity that has framed bilateral relations since 1979 would help to advance shared security goals against radical extremists in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, enabling Washington to focus more sharply on troubles in Europe and Asia.
The regional nuclear equation is defined by two core propositions. First, there is no moral or strategic equivalence between Israel and Iran having 100 nuclear bombs each. Most independent analysts and people would be far more worried about Iran. Second, nonetheless, it is simply not credible that Israel can keep its bomb forever while no one else in the region is allowed to get the bomb ever (any more than nine countries can keep the bomb indefinitely while permanently blocking anyone else from getting it. Hence the key question: How can Israel manage its present military dominance and nuclear monopoly to create a regional order in which it is comfortable living once the strategic equation has normalized?
The November 2013 interim deal has effectively slowed Iran’s march to bomb-making capability and produced IAEA-verified rollbacks of fissile material stocks. A long-term deal, by locking in the extended breakout time, would mean Obama will have stopped Iran from getting the bomb and avoided another even more destructive war in the Middle East. In effect, Netanyahu has been reduced to the role of crying wolf. In testimony to the US Congress in 2002, ahead of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, this is what the omniscient Netanyahu had to say: “There is no question whatsoever that Saddam is seeking, is working, is advancing towards to the development of nuclear weapons… If you take out Saddam, Saddam’s regime, I guarantee you that it will have enormous positive reverberations on the region.” That worked out really well.
Israel intransigence and unstopped headstrong expansion of illegal settlements in occupied Palestine have already lost much European goodwill and support. Now Netanyahu has shattered trust with the White House and risks opening a permanently damaging debate in US domestic politics about the extent to which Washington subordinates its broader, long-term, global interests to Israel. If Netanyahu has put the most critical Israeli relationship at long-term risk for domestic electoral advantage, his actions are even more reprehensible. Someone should explain to him why the boy got eaten by the wolf.