Viewpoints

Trudy Rubin: Wrong time for Bibi’s politics

Benjamin Netanyahu did a disservice to the U.S.-Israel alliance and the goal of preventing an Iranian bomb by his political grandstanding before Congress this week.

If his real goal was to prevent Tehran from getting nukes (and not just to boost his re-election odds or trash President Barack Obama), then he undercut it. Let me count the ways.

First: By accepting a Republican invitation to address Congress issued behind Obama’s back, the Israeli premier transformed a serious issue into a partisan slugfest. Republicans welcomed the Israeli leader as if he were Ronald Reagan delivering the State of the Union; their whoops and cheers for his not-so-subtle attacks on Obama’s Iran diplomacy turned a serious debate into a political circus.

Second: Although Netanyahu raised valid concerns about the supposed terms of the deal under negotiation with Iran by the so-called P5+1 (the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China) – his actual goal seemed to be to torpedo any deal rather than make its terms stronger. (Keep in mind that no one yet knows the final terms of any deal.)

The Israeli leader didn’t openly say he wanted to doom the negotiations, but he put forward conditions that would do so. Bibi (the nickname used by most Israelis) argued that a deal would leave Iran with thousands of centrifuges used to enrich uranium, which could one day be used to make a bomb. He wants to eliminate all of Iran’s nuclear program.

That would be great if it were achievable, but it isn’t, as I was told by Robert Einhorn, a former member of the U.S. team negotiating with Iran. The alternative being pursued by the P5+1 is to sharply limit the number of centrifuges, transfer most of Iran’s enriched uranium out of the country, and impose a U.N. inspection regime that’s tougher and more intrusive than that required of any other country. The goal: to ensure that, if Iran wanted to “break out” of a deal, it would take it at least a year to gear its program back up, enough time for inspectors to discover the breach and for the outside world to take action.

There are other concerns about the deal – like leaked reports of a sunset clause – that need addressing. But rather than focus on making the deal better, Netanyahu seemed bent on heading it off.

Third: Having trashed Obama’s diplomacy, Netanyahu never clarified what he thought would – or should – happen if the diplomatic option is torpedoed. Instead, he insisted limits on Iran’s nuclear program be kept so long as Tehran “continues its aggression in the region and the world.”

That bravura elicited cheers in Congress but did little to tell us how Iran’s nuclear program will be curbed. If Bibi can lobby Congress to block anything less than a perfect deal, most of the P5+1 are likely to blame Washington for the debacle. International sanctions against Iran are likely to collapse, and the regime will roar ahead with production of advanced centrifuges.

Then, no doubt, Bibi will once again be urging the United States to join Israel in a military strike on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, as he has done in the past.

Fourth: Netanyahu’s speech – which exaggerated Iran’s threat to the West – aimed to whet Congress’ appetite for a future U.S. military strike on Iran.

Israel has very legitimate reasons for concern about the nuclear intentions of the ayatollahs. But Bibi’s efforts to compare the Tehran regime’s threat to the West with that of the Islamic State is counterfactual fear mongering.

Iran is a real state, not a roving terrorist gang. Its leaders are quite worldly and know a nuclear strike on Europe or the United States (or Israel for that matter) would ensure its destruction. It can’t threaten the West directly.

True, Iran is a nasty Mideast player, and its regional behavior is unlikely to improve with a nuclear deal. If the goal, however, is to slow Iran’s march toward the nuclear threshold (many experts think Tehran wants capacity, not the actual bomb), then diplomacy still holds the best potential. Most experts think airstrikes would only set Tehran’s program back a few years, but would convince the ayatollahs that they need an actual weapon.

I agree heartily with Daniel Kurtzer, one of our smartest Mideast experts and a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, who wrote in Politico: “If a negotiated agreement, designed to last for 10 years, is not sufficiently attractive to Netanyahu, why would a setback of fewer than 10 years be more attractive?

“A military strike will destroy some physical facilities, but it certainly won’t impact Iranian know-how, and it might just impel the Iranians to unify ranks behind a serious, clandestine breakout program. Is this what Netanyahu has in mind?”

So, if he really wanted to slow Iran’s nuclear march, Bibi would be conferring with Obama on realistic ideas to make a deal tougher. For example, longtime U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross suggests spelling out in advance the consequences for “all classes of violations of the agreement” – including the use of force if Iran tried to break out and develop a weapon.

Instead, Netanyahu chose theatrics and pumping up his congressional allies toward endorsing another Mideast war in the future. That’s fine for television drama, but it’s bad for U.S. interests – and bad for stopping Iran’s march toward a bomb.

Trudy Rubin’s email is trubin@phillynews.com.

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