Iran Deal Opponents Putting on a Show

Once again the ‘P5+1’ and Iran find themselves on the cusp of a deadline in the negotiations (this one is for a framework agreement) but this time there’s no talk of an extension. After a year and a half of jaw-jawing, could this finally be it? A despairing Yuval Steinitz, the Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister, is convinced the jig is up, telling Reuters “It seems quite probable it will happen, unfortunately.” Why such a Gloomy Gus? Surely Steinitz must have confidence the U.S. Congress will rush to the rescue and pass legislation that will tank the deal. Republicans still think they have a shot at rounding up enough Democrats in the Senate to pass a bill giving Congress and up or down vote on the Iran deal over a presidential veto. But Steinitz knows—like his boss Prime Mininster Benjamin Netanyahu—that this last hurrah by lawmakers who oppose the current deal will inevitably go up in smoke. They they will not be able to convince their colleagues to withstand the wrath of the rest of the world that would engulf Congress for denying a deal that’s so much in the global interest.

These Congressional opponents are also well aware of the negative geopolitical repercussions that would ensue—like the splintering of the sanctions regime against Iran for starters–and so have no intention of provoking a hostile reaction from the international community. Senator Bob Corker, who is the sponsor of the bill mentioned above, has wondered if our negotiating partners wouldn’t simply seize the initiative and conclude their own agreement with Iran if Congress’ intransigence pushed them over the edge. Israel would have its own backlash to face, as Kenneth Pollack spelled out at a Brookings Institute event a couple years ago:

“The Israelis have to very careful about how they handle this issue and they have to be very careful about it for exactly the reason that I started with: what happens if we don’t get the deal? If we don’t get the deal because the Israelis kill it and everyone else in the world, besides the Israelis and Saudis, believed it was a good deal, that’s Israel’s problem. That’s not Iran’s problem. You will see international opinion turn against Israel and potentially against the containment of Iran, and the Israelis get that and they can’t allow that to happen. By the same token, if we don’t get the deal for whatever reasons and afterwards it turns out that the Israelis were playing this very hard line position because they wanted us to go to war with Iran—wow–that would also be a killer for Israel’s relationship with the United States. The Israelis do not want to be in a position where they get blamed for an American war with Iran or they get seen as trying to push the United States into a war with Iran. The Israelis are very sophisticated about their own reputation here and about the importance of the U.S.-Israeli relationship; they don’t want that to happen either.”

The Israelis therefore can’t seriously oppose the agreement and what we’re seeing from them is a performance art. Sure Netanyahu is demanding standards for a deal that are impossible to meet but he has to because, to be in keeping with his untiring anti-Iran political persona, he can’t publicly throw in the towel. So to signal to Washington that he’s play-acting and not pushing for war he has purposely committed blunders that serve to undercut the anti-deal cause. Further, AIPAC and Republicans are taking their cues from Netanyahu and no greater evidence for this can be found than in Senator Tom Cotton’s loony letter to the Iranian leadership (which will make it that much easier for Democrats to safely side with the White House). As M.J Rosenberg notes, “47 senators are not going to undertake an initiative this serious on AIPAC’s #1 issue without the lobby’s approval.” For AIPAC and Republicans, Cotton was the perfect pick to pen the letter because now everyone will attribute the counterproductive act to the freshman senator’s inexperience and impulsiveness and no one will notice how this missive is just one more step in Netanyahu’s concentrated campaign to see the deal succeed.

The Real Reason Behind Netanyahu’s Speech

Before the Israeli Prime Minister delivered his condescending lecture to Congress, Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan sternly warned that “The risks in this confrontation are intolerable,” because Netanyahu’s over-the-top maneuver to thwart the Iran deal was so alienating to the United States that “The veto umbrella provided by the Americans could vanish, and Israel would promptly find itself facing international sanctions.” If that prospect wasn’t already more than enough to make the Israeli government sweat buckets, here’s Dimi Reider’s grim prognostication:

“But so far, the most significant—even if unintended—consequence of his address is the tidal wave of American public consternation over the speech. That will continue to stretch the boundaries of American policy debate on Israel, making uncritical and unconditional support for the Jewish state to be much less of a prerequisite for politicians than it used to be. Paradoxically, Netanyahu’s greatest American legacy might be the beginning of an irreversible, long-term erosion of Israel’s standing in the United States.”

What a double whammy that would be! Potentially losing America’s patronage in the UN should have made Netanyahu second guess himself so why did he gamble Israel’s future on the speech of his life? That’s actually the wrong question to ask because any other Israeli Prime Minister would have done the same thing in his shoes. They would have striven as hard as Netanyahu to foil the deal–and risk U.S.-Israel ties in the process–but they just wouldn’t have done it in so ostentatious and insolent a manner. Gregg Carlstrom explains that every Israeli politician is united against a deal that leaves Iran with the capacity to enrich uranium (which is another way of saying against any deal):

“If President Barack Obama is determined to sign a deal with Iran, politicians here admit that a disagreement would be inevitable, regardless of who occupies the official residence on Balfour Street. “There is consensus from wall to wall in the Knesset,” said Dov Lipman, a Knesset member from Yesh Atid… Politicians across the spectrum want a deal that leaves Iran with no enrichment capability: Former Finance Minister Yair Lapid, for example, has summed it up as “no centrifuges and no plutonium.” Instead, the argument is over tactics—speechcraft or statecraft… “Any other prime minister would go to D.C. every month and set himself up with a three-hour meeting with the president to talk about Iran and influence the decision-making,” [Alon] Pinkas said. “He would keep it between them.”

So what’s got Israelis so up in arms about an agreement where Iran retains its civilian program and is guaranteed to one day be treated like every other signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty—i.e. legitimized by the international community as a nuclear threshold state, as Netanyahu would put it? It’s not like giving Iran that long overdue approval would automatically start an arms race since Iran has technically been at the threshold for several years now without any calls from the Arab states to hurry and catch up to the Iranian program. Further, you’d think Israel getting the bomb decades ago would have long since sparked a regional arms race. No, I think the Israeli’s real fear lies in the possibility that if a nuclear threshold Iran inspires its neighbors to also get to that threshold—which could then lead to the brink of an arms race should things go south–the U.S. would then have no choice but to impose a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. That’s the real existential threat of a nuclear Iran to Israel because Israel’s arsenal has been a buffer against unpleasant consequences—like the U.S. redefining its special relationship with Israel, as Scott McConnell suggests:

“So why does the United States stay in the relationship? Surely domestic politics accounts for a good deal of the explanation. But there is another, strategic, reason that is seldom mentioned publicly. It was expounded clearly by Ariel Roth, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and an Israeli army veteran. In an essay in International Studies Perspectives, Roth argued that the key U.S. interest in the Middle East is stability and unfettered access to the region’s oil. This is indisputable; it is the point James Forrestal made to Truman more than 60 years ago. And what is the greatest threat to stability? Well, says Roth, it is Israel itself. Because of its unique history and the heavy weight of the Holocaust in the consciousness of Israeli leaders, Israel is uniquely terrified of being “alone” in the international arena. As a result, any suspicion on the part of its leaders that the United States is backing away from it might incite Israel to behave more aggressively than it already does. Those who decry the special relationship “are blinded to how Israel’s sense of vulnerability causes…behaviors that have the potential to undermine American interests.” Israel needs constant “reassurance” that it “does not stand alone.” Supporting Israel through “constant affirmation” and generous arms shipments is the best way to pursue American interests “without the fear of a panicked and unrestrained Israel bringing a cataclysm to the Middle East.” This claim is at once alarming and compelling. Roth is asserting that the principal ally of the US in the twenty-first century… is not a rational actor. The US is in the position of a wife whose spouse is acting erratically. A “panicked and unrestrained Israel,” armed with an estimated 200 nuclear weapons, could do an extraordinary amount of damage. The only conclusion one can draw is that the special relationship would now be very difficult to exit, even if Israel had no clout whatsoever within the American political system, even if the US desired emphatically to pursue a more independent course.”

The foregoing passage makes it all so clear to me that the establishment of a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone without first reaching the Israeli government’s precondition for their acquiescing to it (i.e. peace in the region) is indeed what has got Israel’s knickers in a twist because without its nukes there’s no way of scaring the U.S. into sustaining the special relationship. So there you have it, folks. In a nutshell, Netanyahu risked blowing up the special relationship in order to preserve it, thus ensuring the U.S. can’t “pursue a more independent course.”