Netanyahu and the Facts
Criticism of Benjamin Netanyahu’s March 2 speech before a joint session of Congress ranges from evasive, to merely imprecise, to outright conspiratorial. Suggestions that Netanyahu is war mongering, or that he represents some nefarious Israel Lobby’s perversion of U.S. policy on Israel’s behalf not only ignore Netanyahu’s words but the negotiations’ own history and context. None of the criticisms addresses the substance of Netanyahu’s speech which, at core, merely asked that any deal to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons actually prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
The argument that Netanyahu didn’t offer anything new is just not correct. Mr. Netanyahu made two specific points that have not been part of the discourse. First, the ten-year sunset provision legitimizes Iran’s nuclear program and guarantees it breakout capacity, which for all practical purposes is synonymous with joining the nuclear club. As a result, the sunset provision is irreconcilable with the Obama administration’s many promises to both Israel and other U.S. allies in the Middle East never to allow Iran to obtain the bomb. Ambassador Samantha Power repeated that promise Monday, saying “[t]he United States of America will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon. Period.” Mr. Netanyahu’s point that this promise and the proposed sunset provision are mutually exclusive has not been addressed.
Second, Iran is developing ICBMs whose only purpose can be to target the United States and Europe. Israel is already within range Iran’s of existing missile arsenal, and is susceptible to infiltration by Iran’s pet terrorists in Gaza, Syria, and Lebanon. According to former Director of Central Intelligence R. James Woolsey, Iran’s combined nuclear and ICBM programs pose an existential threat to the United states itself.
While there are no new facts, these are nevertheless new formulations and new analyses that deserve close consideration before adopting a deal leaving Iran’s nuclear and missile programs intact.
In addition to these two specific issues, Mr. Netanyahu also provided context that is sorely lacking in the administration’s evaluation of the negotiations’ progress and prognosis. The notion that Iran and an Iranian bomb are Israel’s problem, not the U.S.’s, Europe’s, the regions or the world’s, ignores 35 years of Iranian history and U.S. policy judgments. Iran bombed the Marine barracks, the U.S. embassy, and the French embassy in Lebanon in 1983. Hence Iran has been on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism since 1985, long before the current issue of its nuclear weapons program ever arose.
Elsewhere, Iran trained and armed insurgents killing U.S. troops in Iraq up until the U.S.’s brief withdrawal in 2011. Now, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps troops and officers fight alongside Iraq’s unready army, consolidating Iran’s influence over its fellow Shi’ite neighbor. The IRGC and Iran’s proxy Hizb’allah have been critical to perpetuating Bashar Assad’s brutal regime in Syria. The ham-handed Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States reflects the same deep sectarian enmity rending Iraq and Syria.
Separately, the uneasy U.S. allies of Egypt and Saudi Arabia are just as concerned about the Iranian bomb as Israel. As Mr. Netanyahu alluded to, Both have announced their intention to ramp up nuclear activity. Last month, Egypt and Russia announced a deal to develop nuclear energy in Egypt. Saudi Arabia’s nuclear program has been accelerating since at least 2014, and on Wednesday Saudi Arabia signed a deal with South Korea to build its first nuclear reactors. Iran’s claim that its nuclear program is for civilian energy production has long been rejected as pretense because Iran’s massive oil reserves make nuclear power redundant; Saudi Arabia’s reserves are nearly double Iran’s. This budding arms race was widely anticipated, and reflects both serious doubts about the efficacy of the proposed Iran deal and a failure of broader U.S. anti-proliferation policy.
In short, the U.S. has not struggled to prevent Iran from obtaining the bomb for fifteen years for Israel’s sake, but for a wide range of reasons deriving from Iran’s direct and indirect threat to U.S. interests and policy.
In addition to this general historical and geopolitical context, the course of negotiations belies specific criticisms leveled against Mr. Netanyahu. Netanyahu said the alternative to a bad deal is a better deal, that there is still the option to walk away from the table, reimpose sanctions, and pressure Iran to accept a more thorough and permanent nuclear rollback. Detractors implicitly rejecting this as mere puffery nevertheless accuse Mr. Netanyahu of war-mongering and demanding in so many words that the United States bomb Iran.
Even if Mr. Netanyahu’s words are not taken at face value, which itself reflects the objectors’ bias, he was only echoing the Obama Administration’s own arguments. The Joint Plan of Action signed in November, 2013, was the first formal step in the current round of negotiations. At the time, the JPA was heavily criticized for being overgenerous in giving Iran somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 billion in sanctions relief without substantive concession on Iran’s part. Speaking to a conference of international trade attorneys in December, 2013, a State Department representative asserted that it was a good deal because Iran agreed to engage in future negotiations. Critically, the Obama administration defended the JPA as a preliminary step, emphasizing that sanctions could be re-imposed if Iran was not adequately forthcoming or a deal not reached.
In the event, Iran has not been forthcoming. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has repeatedly warned that Iran is stonewalling international investigators regarding “possible military dimensions” of its nuclear program. Nor will the IAEA or any other body be able to verify Iran’s compliance with restrictions in any nuclear deal, because “key observables are easily masked.” Yet when Netanyahu repeats the Obama administration’s own defense of its negotiations, and argues there is no need to rush into a bad deal, he is vilified as demanding war.
Other criticisms reflect out and out animus. Stephen Walt’s previous exposés of “The Israel Lobby” forcing the U.S. into positions contrary to its own interests have been roundly rejected across the political spectrum. Walt’s thesis remains “shoddy scholarship” (the New York Times), “sheer recklessness” (Americans For Peace Now) and a “myth” (US News & World Report). Undeterred, Walt repeats the slur that the Israel Lobby “makes unconditional support for Israel a prerequisite for political success in Washington” and then takes the next logical step, saying a split in U.S./Israel relations would be a good thing.
Like any good conspiracy theorist, Walt leavens his story with some truth. The premise that Israel’s and the United States’ interests are not always perfectly aligned is correct. Yet on Iran and the bomb, U.S. and Israeli interests are exactly the same.
Walt himself stumbles onto this core truth, even as he maligns Israel for pointing it out. Netanyahu’s primary objection is that the deal being proposed leaves Iran an obvious and inevitable path to the bomb. Even as he attempts to drive a wedge between Israel and the U.S., Walt reiterates Netanyahu’s own premise, writing that “America’s strategic position would be enhanced if it could get a diplomatic deal that kept Iran from going nuclear and opened the door to a more constructive relationship” (emphasis added). For both the U.S. and Israel, the goal it to prevent Iran from going nuclear. The notion that reaching a deal would allow a ‘constructive relationship” with Iran is itself preposterous, but that is a separate topic.
Each of these criticisms -- that Netanyahu said nothing new, that he just wants the U.S. to go to war, that his views are being foisted upon the U.S. by a nefarious lobby -- shares a common thread. The critics do not address what Netanyahu actually said. A sunset provision really does guarantee Iran a path to the bomb. Iran really is a state sponsor of terrorism that has been killing Americans since the early 1980s and seeks regional hegemony. A nuclear Iran poses mortal danger not only to Israel, but to the U.S. and the U.S.’s Arab allies in the Middle-East. The U.S. will have far fewer options for deterring, containing or defeating a nuclear Iran.
These are facts, whether or not Benjamin Netanyahu is the one who speaks them. Saying they aren’t new facts doesn’t make them any less true or any less demanding of attention. If the facts are inconsistent with the proposed Iran deal, it is the deal that should be critiqued, not the facts, and certainly not the man who dared speak them.
Jonathan Levin is an attorney, and blogs at www.PunditryAndPontification.com