If you want to play along with the fiction that Benjamin Netanyahu’s big speech before Congress today had to do with anything apart from helping to goose Benjamin Netanyahu’s suddenly waning reelection chances, then as I see it he had two main goals:
- Make the case that Iran wants a nuclear weapon and that a nuclear-armed Iran is an existential threat to Israel’s existence, and
- Convince enough wavering Democrats that the current nuclear deal being negotiated with Tehran (whatever that deal may entail) is A Bad Deal, such that those Democrats would help override a presidential veto of a new, negotiations-killing sanctions bill
Number 1 is easy, particularly given the audience. Usually if you mention “Israel” on the floor of either house of Congress it generates a mad scramble as Senators and Congresspersons search frantically for a camera into which they can proclaim their unsurpassed devotion to Israel’s security. Number 2 is slightly complicated by the need to show those wavering Democrats that your opposition to this deal is just to this deal (in spite of the fact that you have no real idea what this deal entails yet, as at the moment there is no this deal), but not to any deal, and that you certainly aren’t gunning for war with Iran or anything like that. Those wavering Dems aren’t particularly fond of the talks or of appearing weak on Israeli security, but they’re also not about to be seen as contributing to yet another major US military engagement in the Middle East, particularly not when about 3/5 of the US public seems to be supporting the talks.
Unfortunately for him, Bibi rolled a snake eyes on both of these goals. As to his first requirement, it would take a significantly defter touch than Netanyahu has ever shown to pull off arguing, in the same speech, all three of these points:
- Iran is a regional superpower on the ascent, “devouring” country after country in the Middle East, and
- Iran is run by a death cult of apocalyptic Shiʿa mullahs who are intent on destroying Israel to bring about the return of the Mahdi and the Final Judgment, yet
- Iran, regional titan run by suicidal maniacs, is on the brink of caving to US and Israeli demands on its nuclear program because oil prices are low
Bibi never really squared that circle. Now, I suppose this may not matter, since he was talking to Congress as opposed to an audience of deep thinkers, but I think he really messed up here on what should have been an easy argument for him. His rhetoric is hamstrung by the fact that his own national security apparatus fundamentally disagrees with him on the issue of whether or not Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon and on the nature of the Iranian regime. His argument that Iran’s regional influence is growing is also undercut by the fact that one of the Iranian allies he cites, Syria, is less under Iran’s sway right now than it was before the civil war started, and that one of the other Iranian allies he cites, Iraq, is today an Iranian ally precisely because of a war for which Bibi himself pushed.
As to the second point — look, like the title says, this ain’t rocket surgery. If you want to make an argument against these talks without looking like you’re just after a US war with Iran, then you have to make the case for some alternative to the talks that does a better job of limiting and monitoring Iran’s nuclear program but falls short of that war. Here, Bibi offered…absolutely nothing. This, verbatim (with all the insipid applause breaks removed), is what he said by way of offering an alternative to the current Iran-P5+1 talks:
Now we’re being told that the only alternative to this bad deal is war. That’s just not true.
The alternative to this bad deal is a much better deal. A better deal that doesn’t leave Iran with a vast nuclear infrastructure and such a short break-out time. A better deal that keeps the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in place until Iran’s aggression ends. A better deal that won’t give Iran an easy path to the bomb. A better deal that Israel and its neighbors may not like, but with which we could live, literally. And no country…no country has a greater stake — no country has a greater stake than Israel in a good deal that peacefully removes this threat.
Oh, OK, sure, the alternative to this deal (again, whatever “this deal” might be) is a better deal. It’s so simple, I can’t believe nobody thought of it already! And, hey, Israel may not like that better deal, but it could at least live with it, hypothetically, whatever it might be! It’s not true that Bibi Netanyahu would reflexively oppose any deal with Iran short of war, and you can believe that because he just told so in the most ambiguous terms possible.
The possibility that this deal, should one be reached and whatever it might look like, is the best possible deal the P5+1 could reach, the one that does the best job of instituting real limits on Iran’s nuclear program while enabling the most intrusive inspections regime possible, well that just can’t be true. It likewise can’t be true that this deal, if there is one, could begin the process of bringing Iran back into the international community in ways that could eventually open up and moderate Iranian politics and society, which is ultimately key to long-term stability in the Middle East. Contrary to Netanyahu’s rhetoric, nobody here in the US who supports these talks is under any illusions that Iran is actually a force for stability in the Middle East or around the world, or that it doesn’t engage in lots of bad actions, from supporting terrorism abroad to violating human rights at home. It’s just that, if you’d like to see Iran stop doing those things someday, then isolating, threatening, and attacking it have shown, over the past 36 years, that they’re not the way to get there. Maybe it’s time to try something else.
But Bibi said these things can’t be true, and he’s not here to play national security politics back home or to divert attention from his own misdeeds with respect to the Palestinians. No, he’s just telling it like it is. Trust him.
Overall I’d say this speech met cynical expectations but failed to match the hype. If he’d been trying to convince any body other than the US Congress I’d say he probably failed miserably. As it is, I give it a 50/50 chance he managed to sway enough votes his way to quash the deal, though given that the deadline for reaching a political agreement is only 3 or so weeks away, I think we’ll still reach that point without Congress having a chance to screw things up. And if a deal is reached, given the US poll numbers in favor of a settlement to these talks it will be very hard for legislators to try to muck it up.