The weeks leading up to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday had been the most positive between the U.S. and Iran in decades. Conciliatory gestures from both sides, as well as a reportedly productive meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, culminated in a phone call between Presidents Obama and Rohani, the first ever between a President of the United States and a President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, on Friday. Netanyahu clearly saw it as his job to put the brakes on, like a sitcom father dashing down the stairs to stop the kids from making out on the couch.
Except that Rohani hasn’t even gotten to first base. While Obama’s speech at the UN made clear that the U.S. desires a diplomatic solution, with the possibility of a better U.S.-Iran relationship in the future, he has also made clear that Iran’s deeds will matter more than its words. "It is absolutely clear that words are not sufficient, that we have to have actions that give the international community confidence that, in fact, they are meeting their international obligations fully and they are not in a position to have a nuclear weapon," Obama said with Netanyahu sitting next to him after a meeting in the White House on Monday.
Israel clearly has legitimate concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, but in failing to even acknowledge the possibility that the shift in Iran’s could augur something real, Netanyahu gave off the petulant air of a man who refuses to take yes for an answer. Over the past years, Israeli officials have devoted a considerable amount of time to establishing that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a threat to the world, not just to Israel. Netanyahu’s speech set that effort back. This time, there were no drawings of Wile E. Coyote bombs. There were no nuclear ducks, or insatiable crocodiles of militant Islam. There was only the clanging gong of Bibi’s bluster.
After listing off the reasons why Rohani shouldn’t be trusted (Mahmoud Abbas could make a similar list about Netanyahu), he laid down his ultimatum. “I want there to be no confusion on this point,” Netanyahu said. “Israel will not allow Iran to get a nuclear weapons. If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone.”
I recently noted that a key divide exists between those in foreign affairs who recognize Iran has politics and those who don’t. There are those who recognize that even though Rohani is himself a regime insider, he still must contend with more hardline critics who are hoping for him to fail, and that some amount of Western reciprocity is necessary to help him navigate those domestic currents successfully. And then there are those who think this whole debate is based on a childish fiction. Obama falls into the former camp, while Netanyahu clearly falls into the latter. “Netanyahu's comments were intended for domestic consumption, and to put pressure on the international community,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-Israeli analyst based in Tel Aviv. “He couldn't care less about the impact inside Iran.”
The problem is that while this sort of thing might score domestic points for Netanyahu, it could potentially harm efforts by the U.S. and its partners to achieve a negotiated end to the nuclear standoff. In his speech last week, Obama cited a past statement from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei that nuclear weapons are un-Islamic, and pledges from other leaders, including Rohani, that Iran does not want nuclear weapons. While it’s tempting to criticize this as overly credulous, it’s a very smart move.
Mehdi Khalaji, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who spent years studying at Iran’s seminaries, pointed out that by citing Ayatollah Khamenei’s statement, Obama ties Khamenei’s own religious reputation to the pledge. He also makes it easier for Iran to save face in agreeing to international demands on its nuclear program. After all, if the Iranians have already said they don’t want nuclear weapons, agreeing not to have nuclear weapons can’t be seen as a concession made under Western pressure. By acknowledging Iran’s promise to forgo nukes, Obama makes it politically easier for Iran to do so. On the other hand, by threatening that Israel will not allow Iran to possess nukes, Netanyahu makes it more difficult.
It’s important to step back and remember what the actual goal of the administration’s two-track engagement/pressure policy is: bring Iran into verifiable compliance with its commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treat, and ensure that they will not obtain a nuclear weapon. By insisting upon conditions that no serious analyst believes Iran will agree to—such as a complete end to domestic uranium enrichment—Netanyahu makes such an agreement less likely. This may stick in the craw of Iran hawks, but any agreement will have to be one that Rohani can plausibly present as a win back in Tehran. As the Brookings Institution’s Ken Pollack outlined recently, this will have to involve some amount of (heavily monitored) enrichment. If victory is only defined as “Iran’s complete capitulation,” then Netanyahu and his supporters are going to be disappointed.
One of Netanyahu’s own domestic critics recently suggested that capitulation is what Bibi is after. “Netanyahu needs to make the Iranians publicly surrender, to beat them, to humiliate them,” wrote Merav Michaeli, a Labor Party Member of the Knesset and increasingly prominent figure on the Israeli progressive left, on Facebook. “Netanyahu wants to see the other side on their knees. Not only Iran, but the Palestinians too. Netanyahu doesn't recognize that no good has ever come out of having anyone on their knees.”
You might think that Netanyahu would just congratulate himself for keeping the Iranian nuclear issue on the international agenda, and pause to see if negotiations can produce results. But he’s giving no sign of relenting. In an interview yesterday with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, he insisted that Iran is ruled by “a messianic, apocalyptic, radical cult.” This claim, a favorite of Bibi’s, is both false and offensive (and Mitchell should be ashamed of letting him peddle it unchallenged), but it also reveals a tension in Netanyahu’s argument that Iran must be pressured until it relents on its nuclear program. After all, if Iran is dead-set on triggering the apocalypse, as he claims, why would economic difficulties deter them?
To be fair, it’s unclear how seriously Iranian leaders take Netanyahu’s comments. But it’s very hard to believe they are at all helpful to goal of a negotiated agreement over Iran’s nuclear program. “Israel has a very legitimate case against the Iranian regime’s current nuclear program,” wrote Javedanfar of Netanyahu’s UN speech. “It’s just unfortunate that Benjamin Netanyahu has to present it.”