Now that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made his case on Iran before Congress, with all the circus atmosphere it involved, let’s get to the serious questions: What is America’s interest in striking a deal with Iran? Because our interests and Israel’s are not fully aligned. What is the minimum we need to satisfy our interests? And how should we balance the critiques of our policy from the serious Bibi versus the cynical Bibi?
What both the United States and Israel agree on, and I certainly do, is that Iran must be prevented from building a nuclear bomb, because it could be used to threaten the Jewish state and, once loaded onto a missile, Europe and the Arab states as well. Moreover, if Iran gets a bomb, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt would surely be tempted to do so as well, and, suddenly, you’d have a Middle East that is already full of sectarian proxy wars also full of nuclear weapons – with few of the deterrent safeguards you had during the Cold War between Washington and Moscow. There are actors in the Middle East for whom “mutual assured destruction” is an invitation to a party – not a system of mutual deterrence. Also, if Iran gets a bomb, there’s a good chance the whole global nuclear nonproliferation regime, already frayed, would totally unravel, which would be very destabilizing.
Here, President Barack Obama and Netanyahu share the same concerns. And, in fairness, I doubt there would have been the sanctions and negotiations we have today with Iran had Bibi not threatened to go full “Dr. Strangelove” on Tehran.
However, Bibi argues that any deal should eliminate all of Iran’s centrifuges and related components that can enrich material for a bomb. I don’t begrudge him that wish. Most of my Israeli friends share it. But, as Robert Einhorn, a former member of the U.S. negotiating team with Iran, observed in an op-ed article in The Times, that position “is neither achievable nor necessary” to safeguard our security or that of our Mideast allies.
Netanyahu never made a convincing argument as to why walking away from Obama’s draft deal with Iran would result in either a better deal, more sanctions or an Iranian capitulation – and not a situation where Iran would continue to build toward a bomb and our only two choices would be to live with it or bomb it, with all the mess that could entail. In that sense, Bibi’s speech was perfect for Congress: I’ve got a better plan, and it won’t cost a thing or require any sacrifice by the American people. The guy could be a congressman.
The U.S. position – shared by China, Russia, Germany, Britain and France – is: Given that Iran has already mastered the techniques to make a bomb and managed to import all the components to do so, despite sanctions, it is impossible to eliminate Iran’s bomb-making capabilities. What is possible is to demand that Iran roll back its enrichment and other technologies so that if Iran decided one day to make a bomb, it would take it a year – more than enough time for the U.S. and its allies to destroy it.
I think such a deal would be in America’s interest if – if – it includes Iran agreeing to constant, intrusive and unannounced inspections of, and limits on, all bomb-making capacities and if, even after the specified 10 years, there are more-than-the-usual inspections. I would also welcome Congress accompanying the deal by granting the president formal authorization right now to use “any means necessary” to respond should Iran try to break out of the deal.
These conditions would satisfy U.S. strategic concerns, while opening the possibility – nothing more – for Iran to become more integrated into the global system. Ultimately, the only safeguard against Iran’s nuclear ambitions is an internally driven change in the character of Iran’s regime.
My problem with Netanyahu is that he warned that the interim deal Obama negotiated with Iran - which froze and rolled back parts of Iran’s nuclear program and created these negotiations - would lead to a collapse of sanctions and be violated by Iran. None of it happened.
Moreover, Bibi’s message was that there is nothing more important than deterring Iran. OK. But, if that were my top priority, would I engineer an invitation to speak to Congress by leveraging only the Republican Party and do it without even informing the president, who is running the Iran talks? And would I do it two weeks before Israeli elections, where it looks as though I am using the American Congress as a backdrop for a campaign ad, raising the question of whether my opposition to Iran is partly a political pose? And if I needed the Europeans to be on my side for tighter sanctions, wouldn’t I announce no more settlement-building in the West Bank in areas everyone knows will be part of any negotiated Palestinian state? Such a move would cost Bibi politically with his base, but would certainly increase Israel’s support from Europe.
Alas, Bibi is Churchill when it comes to isolating Iran, but he is AWOL when it comes to risking his own political future to make it happen. I have a problem with that. I still don’t know if I will support this Iran deal, but I also have a problem with my own Congress howling in support of a flawed foreign leader trying to scuttle the negotiations by my own government before they’re done. Rubs me the wrong way.