Netanyahu says Iran deal will lead to nuclear bomb. But what about no deal?

Israel's prime minister warned Congress that the US should not sign any nuclear deal with Iran until the Islamic Republic becomes a very different place.

Andrew Harnik/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 3. Netanyahu said the world must unite to 'stop Iran's march of conquest, subjugation and terror.'

Cheered by his supporters in Congress, Benjamin Netanyahu today attacked the notion of the Obama administration and other world powers reaching a nuclear deal with Iran as catastrophic for Israel and the world. 

The so-called P5+1 – Russia, France, US, UK, China and Germany – is negotiating with the Islamic Republic over extensive monitoring of its nuclear facilities in exchange for some sanctions relief. While no deal has been reached, Mr. Netanyahu said any agreement would pave the way to an Iranian nuclear bomb.

"The greatest dangers facing our world is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons," he told the joint session of Congress. "That, my friends, is exactly what could happen, if the deal now being negotiated is accepted by Iran. That deal will not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It would all but guarantee that Iran gets those weapons, lots of them." 

His argument was long on appeals to emotion – he pointed out Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel in the audience while calling Iran a "dark and murderous regime" – and short on facts and reasonable alternatives. 

At the core of his argument was an assertion that Iran would have to change profoundly before he would countenance any deal over a nuclear program that Iran insists is for energy production only, but Netanyahu says is driven by murderous intent. For this reason, the world "should demand that Iran do three things" before lifting any restrictions on its nuclear program. 

He then listed those three things, each punctuated with loud cheers from US legislators. 

"First, stop its aggression against its neighbors in the Middle East. Second, stop supporting terrorism around the world. And third, stop threatening to annihilate my country, Israel, the one and only Jewish state."

Practical steps

This all sounds nice. But Iran, convinced that it faces implacably hostile and powerful enemies like the US and Israel that would like to bring it to its knees, isn't about to halt its support for regional proxies. That's both for religious reasons, and political ones. The militias it supports in Iraq and Syria are fighting, at least in part, a sectarian enemy that hopes to wipe Shiite Islam and its adherents from the face of the globe. In the case of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran does see it as a way to strike back at Israel. 

How about support for "terrorism?" This is partly a problem of definition. Is Iran abetting terrorism in the wars in Iraq and Syria? There are certainly horrible atrocities being committed on all sides in these wars. If Hamas, which receives Iranian support, fires rockets into Israel from Gaza, does this count as "Iranian terrorism?" That argument could be made.

Finally, is the Islamic Republic going to suspend its hostility to Israel, a stance deeply rooted in the government's founding ideology? Certainly not any time soon.

All these things explain why Israel hates and fears Iran. But "Iran is a bad actor" is an insufficient argument against exploring ways to ensure that Iran doesn't go nuclear. That, after all, is what diplomats are supposed to do, as an alternative to military action with all its unintended consequences.  

Netanyahu is specifically opposed to allowing Iran to regain any nuclear enrichment – something that is permitted under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that Iran has signed and that nuclear-armed Israel has not. Iran insists control over its own nuclear fuel cycle is a bedrock condition for any deal.

A majority of US voters say they could live with Iran being allowed limited enrichment. The Obama administrations effort has been focused on reducing enrichment to levels that are useful for producing power, but not bombs, and hopes a strong inspections regime would ensure Iranian compliance.

Costs of failure

As for the costs of not getting a deal done, the possibility that Iran would kick out nuclear inspectors and start a race to building a bomb, these were glided over by Netanyahu. Instead, he tried to equate Shiite Iran with the Sunni jihadis of the Islamic State, a group with an apocalyptic vision to bring about the end of the world.

"Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam." he said. "One calls itself the Islamic Republic. The other calls itself the Islamic State. Both want to impose a militant Islamic empire first on the region and then on the entire world."

There is little evidence for his assertion in the case of Iran. But in equating the groups, he suggests a maniacal intent that can never be dealt with. Yet he then went on to argue that Iran is a rational actor that is concerned by the damage that international sanctions and falling oil prices have done to its economy. He called on the US to keep up the pressure on a "very vulnerable regime" and insist on a better deal. 

"Now, if Iran threatens to walk away from the table – and this often happens in a Persian bazaar – call their bluff. They'll be back, because they need the deal a lot more than you do."

Well, which is it? Genocidal clerics hellbent on world domination or canny bazaar negotiators?

Red lines in Syria

Of course, the Middle East is a complicated and messy place, and that no war should be entered into lightly. As the saying goes they're easy to get into, and hard to get out of, and usually have unpredictable repercussions.

Two years ago, was President Obama wrong not to go to war with Syria after the US accused Assad of using chemical weapons? Some say so, including many in Israel, since Obama had declared their use a "red line" in the Syrian conflict.

But what happened instead was a negotiated settlement that led Syria to decommission its chemical weapons under international supervision. Cold comfort to the victims of Syria's horrific civil war, which rages on. Still, chemical weapons that had been advertised as a particularly heinous threat to world peace were removed from the regime's arsenal. This was achieved without a shot being fired. 

Moreover, some of Netanyahu's assertions flew in the face of accepted facts. He said that Iran is "gobbling up" Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, and asked "how many more countries will Iran devour when sanctions are lifted?" 

While it's true that Iraq has been converted from an enemy of Iran to a steadfast ally, thanks to the US-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein (which Netanyahu had urged), it hasn't been "gobbled up" by its neighbor. And, yes, Iran supports the Shiite Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Assad regime in Syria.

But there are an array of militias in the Middle East with various external support. Is Saudi Arabia, which backs the Sunni Arab enemies of the Shiite Houthis, "devouring" Yemen, its neighbor? No. These are complicated regional messes with overlapping tribal, religious, and national rivalries all in play. 

The Iran nuclear issue is another complicated mess. And it's one that Obama is trying to navigate with US national interests uppermost in mind.

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