Bluster with consequences

Prime Minister Netanyahu was better today in Congress than yesterday at the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee. But still blustering.

He argued that the nuclear deal with Iran currently under consideration is bad because

  1. it leaves a lot of nuclear infrastructure in place (enabling what he regards as a minimal one-year breakout time);
  2. Iran could evade the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections or evict the inspectors, as North Korea did;
  3. It would leave Iran unconstrained in a decade.

Netanyahu wants a better agreement that continues sanctions and restrictions on the nuclear program until Iran stops its aggression and support for terror in other countries (he mentioned Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon in this connection) and ends its threat to annihilate Israel. Failing this, Netanyahu wants no deal.

Netanyahu failed to explain how the US would be able to get the kind of deal he is talking about.  The Europeans, Russia and China are unlikely to continue sanctions if the current deal is not concluded. Without multilateral sanctions, Iran would still be feeling some pressure from the oil price collapse and unilateral US sanctions, but it is hard to picture Tehran signing on to something more restrictive with a disunited international community than with a united one.

Netanyahu also said explicitly that he prefers no deal to the current deal, which he described as paving the way for an Iranian nuclear weapon. That’s loony. Without some sort of deal–at least extension of the interim Plan of Action–Iran would be free to race for a nuclear weapon without constraints other than the existing IAEA inspections. If Netanyahu thinks they are inadequate in the deal being negotiated, which beefs them up significantly, why would they be any better without a deal?

Looking beyond the bluster, there were a few interesting commissions and omissions in the speech. Netanyahu dropped the explicit threat of war. He did say Israel can defend itself and will stand alone if necessary, but he neither demanded that the US go to war against Iran nor stated clearly what Israel would do. He presumably has come to understand that the military option is a bad one:  it won’t succeed in destroying everything, it would accelerate Iran’s nuclear efforts and it would have to be repeated in a few years time. Iran’s nuclear program involves many installations, some of which are buried deep underground. Even the US would have trouble damaging it beyond repair.

I share Netanyahu’s concern with Iranian behavior throughout the Middle East (and occasionally beyond, witness the terrorism it sponsored in Argentina). I’m not sure he is correct that Iran is as radical as ever, but let’s concede that premise. He imagines maintaining sanctions will be useful in moderating Iranian behavior or bringing about regime change. There are two problems with this hypothesis. There is no reason to believe it true–countries isolated by sanctions often become more radical, not less–and there is no way to maintain the sanctions.

So what we got this morning was more classic Netanyahu:  bluster without any serious effort to explain how his newly discovered alternative, a better deal, could be achieved. I trust the speech will help him in his electoral campaign in Israel, if only because it shifts the debate there away from his vulnerabilities (economic and social policy) and towards security, which favors the Israeli right wing (though not necessarily Netanyahu himself). Here in the US, it will make life harder for the Obama Administration, as it implicitly roused the Congress to oppose any deal Secretary Kerry brings home.

I suppose Speaker Boehner, who invited Netanyahu to address Congress without informing the White House, is satisfied and hopes this show will help him face down a brewing revolt against his leadership among House Republicans. Netanyahu hopes Israelis won’t notice that he has put the country’s relationship with the United States at risk. I hope both lose those bets.

PS: Some Israelis seem to agree with me:

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