Netanyahu, Iran, and what he wants out of his speech to Congress

A look at some specific complaints from Israel on a possible nuclear deal with Iran.

Cliff Owen/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference today.

The partisan politics around Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's scheduled speech to Congress about Iran tomorrow has been amply covered.

Mr. Netanyahu's bid to sway Congress to oppose President Obama's effort to reach a deal with Iran on its nuclear program has been painfully divisive. It's opened up a rare if not unprecedented public rift between an Israeli leader and a US administration. But what's frequently lost in the controversy are the details of what Obama is considering, and what Netanyahu opposes.

Netanyahu – whose apocalyptic predictions date back years – gave a flamboyant preview of his Congress speech this morning in Washington, at the annual meeting of the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC. "Iran envelops the entire world with its tentacles of terror," he said.

But what are Netanyahu's specific complaints about a deal that is not yet reached?

His general position is that Iran and its "tentacles" are never to be trusted, and any deal that gives the country some sanctions relief will simply be ignored by the Islamic Republic. But "sanctions forever, no matter what you promise to do" is generally not a path to compromise.

Israeli officials have expressed the most alarm over the idea that there would be a "sunset" clause in 10-15 years in any eventual deal between Iran and the US, Germany, Russia, Britain, China, and France.

In essence, if Iran is found to be in compliance with the terms of the agreement – which will inevitably involve inspections of Iran's nuclear sites to see that it's complying, including not enriching uranium to levels that could be used to build a bomb – Iran will be declared a non-nuclear state.

Netanyahu's government has been strident on the issue. Below is a mockup of a fake newspaper in 2025, shared by the Israeli Embassy in Washington a few days ago.

The Israeli position that any deal whatsoever will amount to a complete capitulation to an Iranian nuclear bomb is sharply at odds with the Obama administration. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken said last week that the idea of a "sunset" should not been seen as alarming, and that any agreement would include "a permanent ban on Iran pursuing weapons activity:"

We will be learning about the program... every nook and cranny (and) that base of knowledge will exist beyond the duration of the agreement. And then of course we would retain the same capacity and probably a greater capacity than we have now to deal with any efforts by Iran to actually go to some kind of nuclear weapon. The Bush administration put on the table the proposition that Iran would be treated as a non-nuclear weapons state after it complied for some period of time with any agreement. And that's exactly what we're doing. That's the purpose of this very, very challenging exercise.

Unlike Israel, Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and has honored most of its obligations under it to this day, including inspections of nuclear sites. After any "sunset," the NPT and its inspections would remain in force. If inspectors found Iran in violation – or they were suddenly kicked out – the US would know about it and could respond. 

An aspect of the NPT gets at the heart of Netanyahu's alarm. It's his position that Iran should only get sanctions relief from the US and others if it completely dismantles its nuclear program. But the country has insisted that retaining its ability to produce nuclear fuel for its reactors – a right guaranteed by the NPT – is a red line. Iran says it cannot be at the mercy of foreign nuclear fuel suppliers, and that its long-term economic health will rely on nuclear power.

Netanyahu insists that Iran is lying, that inspections will be easy to cheat, and that the country will race towards a bomb when it feels the international heat is off. But getting Iran to voluntarily give up something it was promised for signing the NPT is pretty much impossible, short of a war that would be ruinous for all concerned.

These are two elements of what Netanyahu insists is a "bad deal" that will prove worse than no deal at all. But for US and other negotiators, there's the concern that Iran will simply walk away if no progress can be made – essentially leaving the choice between war and doing nothing. 

The US isn't the only country worried about Netanyahu's approach.

Also often missed in the US coverage of Iran's nuclear program is that Netanyahu appears to speak more for himself and his political party than for a consensus view of Israel's security establishment. Perhaps most prominent in the Israeli criticism of the prime minister is former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who's complained often and publicly since retiring four years ago that Netanyahu is hurting Israel's security. Mr. Dagan was the head of Israel's spy agency for eight years, serving under governments headed by both Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, and finally Netanyahu. 

While his early criticisms of Netanyahu focused on what he called the "stupid" and counterproductive public musings about a unilateral Israeli assault on Tehran (he said in 2011 that an Israeli attack would "give the Iranians the best excuse to pursue the nuclear race"), he's recently expanded his criticism to Netanyahu's entire approach.

Last week Dagan told Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth that "the person that has caused Israel the most strategic damage when it comes to the Iranian issue is the prime minister." He also says it has been unwise of Netanyahu to take such a prominent role in public over Iran's nuclear program – which it says is for peaceful purposes – given Israel's own refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and to allow inspections of its own extensive nuclear infrastructure, which includes nuclear bombs.

Dagan: A nuclear-armed Iran poses an existential threat to the State of Israel. I agree more or less with Netanyahu in this regard. Two issues in particular concern me with respect to the talks between the world powers and Iran: What happens if and when the Iranians violate the agreement, and what happens when the period of the agreement comes to an end and they decide to pursue nuclear weapons?

"Israel could have ensured American assurances of action if and when the deal is broken. Given the current state of relations, however, I doubt that's achievable now. 

"Netanyahu is focusing all his efforts on the Americans. He's not reaching out to the other countries. He should have gone to see (Angela) Merkel, (David) Cameron, (Francois) Hollande and (Vladimir) Putin, who he claims to be friends with, and the Chinese. By behaving in the way he is towards the US administration, he is single-handedly motivating the Americans into rushing to reach an agreement. How would Obama explain his failure to reach a deal? That he gave in to Netanyahu? Or the Republicans?"

... I wouldn't have got involved in an internal American conflict, against the president. Congress will applaud Netanyahu, but the power is in the hands of the president. What will Netanyahu gain from this trip? I just don't get it. What's his objective – applause? This trip is a failure waiting to happen.

On Sunday, Dagan got backing from others in Israel, with more than 180 former commanders of the Mossad, the Shin Bet internal security service, the national police, and the Israel Defense Force, signing a letter urging Netanyahu to cancel his speech.

"We called this press conference in order to call on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cancel his upcoming speech to Congress and to stop before it is too late," said Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Amnon Reshef, an important battlefield commander in the 1973 Yom Kippur war with Egypt and Syria and a former head of the IDF's Armored Corps. "It is no longer possible to hide the rift with the Americans, a rift that cannot be accepted. We believe that this poses a clear and present danger to the security of the State of Israel," Reshef said.

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