When politicians speak nonsense, it is a good bet that there is something else going on behind the scenes that cannot be said directly.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statements about the Iranian nuclear accord are nonsense. So what is really going on? One cannot know for sure, but things become a good deal clearer when we begin with a startling idea: Netanyahu does not care whether Iran has the bomb.
First, the nonsense. Netanyahu argues that the proposed deal will lead to a nuclear-armed Iran, which would threaten the very existence of Israel. He objects that Iran will be able to develop its centrifuge technology such that in 15 years, when the limits on nuclear production end, Iran will be in a position to quickly develop a bomb. He argues that the possibility of a 24-day procedural delay before inspectors can arrive to check out any alleged violation would allow Iran to cover up its illicit activities.
But the absurdities become apparent when you consider the alternative, Iran without an agreement. Suppose he is right that Iran can comply while still developing its nuclear knowhow, which would allow it to develop a bomb quickly at the end of the agreement. Yet without an agreement, Iran may be only months away from the construction of a bomb should it choose to go that route. How is 15 years not better than 15 months?
Similarly how is it not better to have a right to inspect — even after 24 days — than no right to inspect at all? Suppose Iran did use the delay to eliminate evidence of a violation. If there is good evidence — including intelligence — that that is what has happened, why would the United States not respond? How is it in a different position than it is now with respect to a new Iranian threat?
Then, there is the rest of the world, including the other nations involved in negotiating this agreement. Even if Netanyahu were to succeed in convincing Congress to reject the agreement, Europe and Russia are surely going to go ahead and lift their sanctions. They are not going to follow a U.S. decision that will have every appearance of having been deeply influenced by Israel. Netanyahu says “negotiate a better deal,” but our negotiating partners are done negotiating. There is no way forward to a “better deal,” which is precisely why the president explicitly says that the alternative is “some sort of war.” Surely, Netanyahu knows that the United States is very unlikely to go to war for the sake of Israel, if this deal is defeated in part because of Netanyahu’s intervention in our politics.
Things only begin to make sense when we realize that Netanyahu doesn’t care about the bomb. He knows the two essential facts about the nuclear age. First, the knowledge of how to make a bomb cannot be eliminated. The technical knowledge that Iran now has cannot be negotiated away. This means that Iran will always be a potential nuclear state. With or without a deal, Iran can always decide to become a nuclear state. The only issue is how long it will take to get there. No matter what, the answer will always be “not very long.”
Second, nuclear states are locked in reciprocal relationships of deterrence. Treaties don’t keep states from using nuclear weapons, the threat of devastating retaliation does. For this reason, nuclear weapons have been useless as offensive weapons for seven decades. Nuclear states have preferred defeat in a conventional war over raising the possibility of a retaliatory, nuclear exchange. Netanyahu does not care about an Iranian bomb because Israel already has the bomb. The same thing that prevents Iran from using biological or chemical weapons will keep Iran from using a nuclear bomb.
In short, Israel took care of the problem of a nuclear Iran decades ago when it built its own nuclear weapons. Of course, it is easy to scare people by speaking of a potential nuclear attack on Israel. Iran is painted as so irrational, so consumed with hatred, that the deterrence that works elsewhere will not work here. But this is just more nonsense. Iran pursues its interests like any other country. It has no death wish.
If the bomb is not the real worry, why the fierce opposition? The answer is that what we see as a means, Netanyahu sees as an end. We think of the sanctions as a means to compel Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Netanyahu sees the sanctions as the very point. He wants to maintain the sanctions not because they will cause Iran to do something but because they have a severe effect on the Iranian economy and its political standing. He does not fear the bomb, he fears an Iran that is back in the mainstream of nations and has ample resources to support its allies, including Hamas and Hezbollah.
Israel has real enemies and real security worries. They just don’t happen to include Iran, which is far away and unlikely to intervene directly in Israel. Israel’s immediate security concerns are in Gaza and southern Lebanon, where it has repeatedly fought Hamas and Hezbollah. Iran provides millions of dollars of support, including weapons, to Israel’s enemies. It is altogether likely that that support will increase when and if the Iranian economy improves. American-led sanctions would continue to hobble that economy.
Money and politics are what this dispute is about, not nuclear bombs. This is what Netanyahu will not say, for to focus on Israel’s real enemies is also to raise the issue of what more Israel could do to end the dispute with the Palestinians, which is at the heart of all of this.