Netanyahu and the Magic Marker

(AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel addresses the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters Thursday, September 27, 2012.

History will show that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech Wednesday at the United Nations General Assembly, which was the usual farrago of pseudo-historical philosophy and conspiratorial Zionist-bashing (and, mercifully, was the last by the term-limited president), was overshadowed by something even more cartoon-like: A drawing of a bomb, complete with lit fuse, used by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to show Iran’s progress toward a nuclear-weapons capability. Just to make sure his message was clear, Netanyahu used a magic marker to draw a red line showing where Iran’s uranium enrichment must be stopped.

Twitter lit up with mocking references to Wile E. Coyote soon after. But it remains to be seen who will have the last laugh. “Poking fun at Netanyahu's cartoon bomb is all well and good,” commented Avi Mayer of the Jewish Agency for Israel,  “but guess what: He got your attention. And that, it seems, was the idea.” Sure enough, Netanyahu and his bomb drawing dominate today’s front pages. Beyond this, though, it seems unlikely that Netanyahu’s presentation will have the desired effect of pressuring the Obama administration to state more explicitly what military action it is prepared to take against Iran’s nuclear program, and when.

As for the substance of Netanyahu’s nuclear presentation, Open Zion’s Ali Gharib noted that Netanyahu had made a mistake in where he drew his red line. “With the line at the top, that suggests Iran can enrich safely up to the 90 percent level of purity,” wrote Gharib, “so long as they don't go over—which they won't ever need to, since 90 percent purity is good enough for a bomb.” A more in-depth look at Netanyahu’s claims was offered by analysts at the Arms Control Association, who noted a number of flaws in Netanyahu’s presentation: “It makes a number of worst-case assumptions, ignores other relevant considerations, and would serve as a tripwire for a war that would likely prompt Iran to openly pursue the bomb.”

Just as troubling as Netanyahu’s loose take on Iran’s nuclear work, though, was his presentation of the current situation in the Middle East as a Manichean struggle between good and evil. “The medieval forces of radical Islam” are “bent on world conquest,” he said, sounding like a time traveler from the first George W. Bush administration, presenting the strands of radical Islam as a sort of extremist Voltron, with all Islamist groups and states (despite their many conflicting goals and ideologies) components of one big, Western civilization-threatening brute. Given the various trends and movements  competing for power in the Middle East, it’s hard to overstate how counterproductive it would be to (re-) adopt an analysis that aggregates potential adversaries instead of exploring, and possibly exploiting, divisions between them.

Dismissing the idea that a nuclear-weaponized Iran could be deterred, Netanyahu trotted out the same Bernard Lewis quote he’s been using for years. “For the Ayatollahs of Iran, mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent—it's an inducement.” As I’ve written elsewhere, this claim flies in the face of Iran’s demonstrated behavior over the last 30 years. The Islamic Republic regime is many things—aggressive, oppressive, and paranoid—but there’s no evidence that they are suicidal. (It’s also worth noting that Lewis himself opposes military action against Iran.)

The claim does raise an interesting tension in Netanyahu’s argument. If Iran is indeed governed by apocalyptic crazies, as he claims, why would the more stringent sanctions or threats that Netanyahu favors be expected to dissuade the undeterrable from their course? As a former Israeli intelligence official critical of Netanyahu’s approach put it to me this summer, “You can’t say, ‘More sanctions are good, but ineffective.’ It’s a contradiction.”

Fortunately, Netanyahu’s view is the outlier here. Both U.S. and Israeli intelligence officials have agreed that the Iranian government’s overriding concern is its own survival, not triggering the apocalypse. The current international sanctions regime, and the P5+1 negotiations process, is premised on the idea that sufficient pressure, matched to the right inducements will convince Iran to change course and address the international community’s concerns over its nuclear work. Given the Iranian regime’s decades of hostility and threats against Israel, Netanyahu has an interest in these measures succeeding. But it’s unclear what cartoon bombs and wild claims about Iranian eschatology add to the effort. 

There is one way in which Netanyahu’s speech succeeded: The almost complete lack of discussion of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s speech just moments earlier, or of the Palestinian issue in general. Similarly, when Netanyahu appeared on Meet the Press two weeks ago, the Palestinian issue was not mentioned. Netanyahu’s relentless focus on Iran has, for the moment, eclipsed Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and blunted efforts to restart peace talks.

This moment probably won't last. Speaking on Wednesday, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi criticized the failure to establish a Palestinian state and called for “immediate movement, serious movement to put an end to occupation and settlement of occupied Jerusalem.” The speech from Egypt’s first democratically elected president, a longtime member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, was a harbinger of the region’s shifting reality, in which newly accountable and assertive governments will give less privilege to U.S. and Israeli concerns. This change doesn’t have to be completely negative. Very few in the Arab world look kindly on Iran’s efforts to expand its influence, especially in light of Iran’s ongoing support for the Syrian regime’s brutality. But earning their support for blocking those efforts will require greater diplomatic creativity than in the past, and far more nuance than can be achieved with a magic marker.

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