Netanyahu speech on Iran: Did it put Obama on the back foot?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered his plea against an Iran nuclear deal to Congress, but the fault lines of the debate appear to be the same as before.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
President Obama speaks about Iran and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress, Tuesday, during a meeting with Defense Secretary Ash Carter in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP
President Obama speaks about Iran and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress, Tuesday, during a meeting with Defense Secretary Ash Carter in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress Tuesday laid out a starkly different vision from President Obama’s for preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon – a goal both leaders say is their nonnegotiable guiding priority.

The deal that international powers are negotiating with Iran – a process that Mr. Obama supports – “doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb,” Mr. Netanyahu said, “it paves the way to the bomb.”

The speech was the Israeli leader’s attempt to halt the deal taking shape by convincing US leaders and public opinion that his vision is right. Never before had a House speaker invited a foreign leader to speak before a joint session of Congress to lay out a case against the president’s foreign policy.

Response to Netanyahu’s speech was predictably mixed.

Netanyahu “has rhetorically trumped the president and put the president and his negotiators in a bad place,” says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington.

Netanyahu laid down a number of “red lines” for reaching a deal, including not leaving almost all of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure in place and not lifting limits on Iran’s nuclear activity after about a decade of restrictions. “The administration has avoided those issues because they know they can’t answer them,” Mr. Sokolski says.

Others counter that Netanyahu offered no viable alternative to Obama’s diplomatic path.

“This speech was nothing new. The Obama administration agrees that a nuclear Iran would be unacceptable,” says Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a liberal Washington advocacy group that seeks to promote Israel’s security. “The difference is that [the administration] is pursuing serious diplomacy to prevent that outcome,” he adds, “and Netanyahu has refused to offer credible solutions.”

Obama suggests that the diplomatic approach he is pursuing – if it can deliver a strong and verifiable accord, something he says is not yet guaranteed – offers greater security and places higher obstacles on the path to a nuclear Iran than the alternatives. And he says that holds true for Israel as much as for the United States and the rest of the world.

“If, in fact, Iran is willing to agree to double-digit years of keeping their program where it is right now and, in fact, rolling back elements of it that currently exist … – if we’ve got that, and we’ve got a way of verifying that, there’s no other steps we can take that would give us such assurance that they don’t have a nuclear weapon,” Obama said in an interview with Reuters Monday.

Nonproliferation experts who support Obama’s diplomatic effort say sabotaging the emerging deal would have nothing but negative impacts

“If the Congress rejects an effective nuclear deal it would only help Iran’s hardliners, invite Iran to expand its nuclear program, and dissolve international sanctions pressure,” says Kelsey Davenport of Washington’s Arms Control Association. “Israel and the world would be less secure.”

One difference between the Obama and Netanyahu visions for preventing a nuclear Iran seems virtually irreconcilable, and that is the reliability of Iran as a negotiating partner.

By the very fact that the administration is negotiating with Tehran, Obama is signaling that he holds to President Reagan’s “trust but verify” formula for dealing with a diplomatic foe.

At the White House Tuesday, spokesman Josh Earnest said any deal would include an “in-depth, rigorous inspection regime” to ensure compliance.

But Netanyahu, citing the Iranian regime’s bellicose rhetoric toward Israel, its record of sponsoring terrorist activity, and its design on expanding its regional power, says Tehran can’t be trusted to uphold an agreement.

He also warns that even if Tehran decided to observe the deal’s limits, it would be free in about a decade under terms now under discussion to unleash its nuclear program.

Sokolski agrees, saying such a deal would basically trust Iran to act as reliably as Japan (which has the wherewithal to develop nuclear weapons but hasn’t). Ms. Davenport disagrees, saying Iran would remain under inspection obligations even after a deal expired.

Critics of Netanyahu’s position say its major weakness may be that the only path forward is the military option.           

But airstrikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities would not end Iran’s nuclear capabilities, experts say, and would probably only prompt it to move quickly (and perhaps clandestinely) toward building a bomb.

“You cannot bomb away Iran’s knowledge” or the “nuclear weapons capability that some are saying must be eliminated,” says Davenport. “The reality is that it would be much easier with no deal for Iran to pursue a nuclear weapon.”

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