A few days ago, Israel Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress at the invitation of the Speaker of the House — without informing the White House. Since the President, by tradition and Constitutional authority, has the lead in foreign policy, this was obviously an unusual — and in fact unprecedented — event. As expected, Netanyahu used the podium to excoriate current U.S. nuclear negotiations with Iran. Iran, Netanyahu declared, is on a “march of conquest, subjugation and terror” with a voracious and growing “appetite for aggression.” Negotiations should be abandoned and pressure (sanctions) ratcheted up to force a “much better deal.” If that deal is not forthcoming almost immediately, the implication was clear; Iran’s nuclear facilities must be bombed and destroyed. Since Israel lacks the military capability to destroy deeply buried facilities, guess who is expected to conduct those attacks?
The speech invites analysis on two dimensions — as an event and as a substantive argument.
Consider the event. A foreign leader is invited to address Congress to condemn a major aspect of American foreign policy. He also lays claim to the loyalty of a segment of the U.S. electorate: Jewish Americans. Imagine a comparable case. A Republican president is trying to resolve the ongoing controversies in U.S. immigration policy. A Democratic speaker of the House invites the president of Mexico to give a speech before Congress trashing the U.S. president’s proposed immigration initiatives — and at least by implication calling for the support of Hispanic Americans. The same lawmakers who stood and cheered Netanyahu would be the first to condemn the presence of the Mexican leader. In sum, Speaker Boehner’s decision to invite a foreign leader to use the congressional podium to take sides in a U.S. policy debate was not just inappropriate; it was grotesque and dangerous to the future of the American political system.
As for substance, an immediate critique of the speech came from President Obama who noted that Netanyahu had no viable policy to offer in place of ongoing negotiations. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi described it as “an insult to the intelligence of the U.S.” If nothing else, it certainly was brazen (chutzpah might be more appropriate). Netanyahu’s working assumption is that U.S. power should be used first and foremost to further Israel’s strategic interests. If that happens to fit U.S. interests, too, well and good — but the priority is to serve Israel. The image Netanyahu presents of Iran is a cartoon — a bloodthirsty aggressor salivating at the prospect of mounting a nuclear attack on Israel. It is a caricature that utterly ignores the current elected government of Iran Prime Minister Rouhani that is, by every measure, modernizing and cosmopolitan. Rouhani and his American educated foreign minister want and need a nuclear deal to get sanctions lifted and open Iran to the West, a goal devoutly sought particularly by the young who comprise a majority of the Iranian population. Iran is a complex place. In addition to Western-oriented politicians, there is a higher level of authority comprising religious ayatollahs buttressed by a large “Republican Guard” military establishment. As a measure of complexity, that very Republican Guard is now fighting on the same side as the United States in Iraq against Islamic State extremists. Meanwhile, Netanyahu continues to make the U.S. position in the Middle East more difficult with his uncompromising approach to the Palestinians that has left that population in increasingly desperate straits.
There are no easy solutions to the Iran problem. Tehran has long been investing major resources in building nuclear know-how and infrastructure capable of supporting civilian and/or military programs. The ayatollahs insist they will use that capability only for peaceful purposes (energy generation and medical research) but no one can be sure. Ritual chants of “Death to America” are still a feature of state-sponsored demonstrations. Netanyahu is convinced that Iranian intentions are malevolent and the logical endpoint of that view is a military strike. But even a major bombing campaign would only cripple Iranian capacity temporarily — perhaps two years by most expert estimates — while leaving technical and scientific know-how intact. Imagine the political climate in Tehran after a U.S. bombing campaign. Anti-American feeling would be rampant and unanimous. The determination to build nuclear weapons for real would be fierce. The result would almost guarantee a nuclear-armed Iran in the relatively near future. Ironically, even then it would not pose a credible military threat to Israel, which has long had a substantial, deliverable nuclear arsenal. An attack on Israel would guarantee retaliation that would wipe Iran from the map — and every ayatollah knows it.
So the best we are left with is the administration’s current effort to reach a diplomatic agreement designed to fence-in Iran’s nuclear program as one for purely civilian purposes — and subject to intrusive international inspections so it stays that way. Are there iron-clad guarantees that Iran won’t cheat? No. Are there risks? Yes. But sometimes statesmanship and sane policy require risks, particularly when the alternative is a military conflagration. The administration is gambling that there is a huge pent-up demand in Iran for the end of isolation, the end of sanctions, the end of economic hardship and the opportunity to have a normal life in a normal country. If those societal forces can be set free, it will be the end of “Death to America” as Iranians queue up for visas to visit Disneyworld in the land of the “Great Satan.” That’s worth taking a risk.