For all the flak Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is taking over his controversial address to Congress on Tuesday, he could carry the day should conventional wisdom deride the politics of the speech but accept its premise that the nuclear deal being negotiated by President Barack Obama and world powers with Iran is a dangerous one.
Netanyahu is taking a calculated risk that despite the controversy over his partisan political behavior, he will nonetheless be able to set the terms of discussion on the putative nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1. Many of his Israeli critics have criticized Netanyahu for being reckless with Israel's most important strategic relationship, but at the same time conceded that he raises valid concerns about nuclear compromise with Iran.
That’s precisely where Netanyahu wants the argument to conclude. Bibi is gambling that a domestic debate focused on national security issues (rather than, say, socioeconomic issues) will strengthen his re-election prospects. His second bet is that the damage to the overall U.S.-Israel relationship from his latest incursion into partisan American politics will be manageable.
Obama’s own commitment to Israel’s well-being despite his differences with the prime minister gives Netanyahu confidence that, backlash notwithstanding, Israel can expect U.S. military and diplomatic backing to remain unchanged in the short term.
The speech controversy may accelerate longer-term trends that have Americans questioning the exceptionalism of the U.S.-Israel relationship, but that is for another day. More immediately, the Israeli debate will revolve around whether the greater cause for concern should be the U.S. relationship or the Iran nuclear deal.
Netanyahu will invest all his rhetorical and persuasive talents on the latter. And if he can convince even some of his critics that the P5+1 nuclear agreement with Iran poses an “existential threat” to Israel, they could still get behind his efforts to sabotage the deal. Many U.S. and other Western officials have warned that rejecting the deal currently on the table, as Netanyahu urges, will put the U.S. on a path to war with Iran. The Israeli leader insists this is a false choice, and that a better deal is possible — if Obama were willing to escalate sanctions and threats of force, Iran would capitulate to a deal on Israel's terms.
There’s little evidence from years of accumulated international experience in dealing with Iran’s nuclear efforts, however, to support the theory that escalating pressure will force Tehran to accept more painful and lop-sided terms.
Iran offered a deal to cap its enrichment efforts more than a decade ago, but at that stage Western powers still hoped to force Tehran to refrain from developing even the enrichment capacity it would be allowed as a signatory to the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty. That effort failed, and even as sanctions escalated, Iran’s enrichment program was broadened and deepened. Demanding recognition of its rights as an NPT signatory is a rare point of consensus in Tehran’s fractious political system, and by establishing enrichment as a fact on the ground, Iran has induced world powers to pursue the more realistic goal of ensuring a combination of tougher limitations and verifiable safeguards in addressing concerns over a possible weaponization of nuclear material.
The deal currently taking shape is designed to significantly strengthen safeguards against Iran using its nuclear infrastructure to produce weapons. Any state with a full fuel cycle nuclear energy program is, in effect, a nuclear-threshold state — uranium enrichment technology can be repurposed to make bomb materiel. Current negotiations involve Iran accepting additional safeguards against weaponization over and above those required by the NPT.
The deal being negotiated would significantly limit Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity. The number and type of operating and installed centrifuges will be capped, stockpiles will reduced, the Fordow facility will be repurposed away from enrichment while the Arak reactor will be modified away from weapons-relevant levels of plutonium production. All of this will take place under an international inspections regime of unprecedented intrusiveness — a preponderance of “verify” given the paucity of “trust.”
The goal is to verifiably limit Iran’s nuclear infrastructure to the point that should Iran break out of the deal, it would need approximately one year to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a single, untested, bomb. Turning that into a weapon, and producing more in order to test at least one would likely take many months more, if everything went smoothly. And that would give the international community ample time to react to an Iranian decision to build nuclear weapons — something intelligence agencies, Israel’s included, agree Iran has not yet done.
In short, Iran’s nuclear program would be put in a box to an unparalleled degree, with Tehran’s agreement and with incentives to keep it there. Given that Israelis have been told for more than a decade that Iran is less than a year from having a bomb, it’s hard to sustain the argument that a deal that imposes stricter limits on its nuclear work raises a new existential peril.
That’s why the White House and its allies appears to have set out its own campaign of prebuttals in a way that challenges Netanyahu less on the protocol issues of his speech, than on its substance.
Netanyahu will be challenged to explain how such a deal is not good for Israel, let alone how it threatens Israel’s very existence — a point Israel’s security chiefs have consistently rebutted.
Netanyahu will also be challenged to explain what better option he is offering within the limits of what is attainable without starting a war. A no-deal collapse in talks would likely end the limitations on Iran’s program agreed under the interim Joint Plan of Action, allowing Iran to rapidly advance its enrichment program (another reason why a 10-year-minimum time horizon on a deal is hard to reject as worse than the status quo). A military strike might set Iran’s program back for a limited duration but is more likely to reinforce an Iranian argument that it needs a bomb at any cost, not to mention triggering wider potentially destabilizing consequences.
The battle over the political wisdom of Tuesday’s speech will soon be over. Now, the debate should move to the substance of a potential nuclear deal. Many consider Netanyahu to have been foolhardy in his breach of American political politesse, but a deeper vulnerability may be exposed if all Netanyahu is seen to be offering is naysaying and scare-mongering with no plausible alternatives.