Today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet with Donald Trump at the White House and push the U.S. to withdraw from the nuclear accord with Iran. Netanyahu will present an argument that Trump already has come to accept: America’s adherence to the nuclear deal cannot solely depend on Iran’s compliance with the agreement, but also whether Iran’s other policies challenge U.S. national interests. It’s a more honest argument compared to the slogans Netanyahu has used in the past. But it is also a line that fundamentally contradicts Netanyahu’s central message of the past decades: That Iran’s nuclear program constitutes an existential threat to Israel.
The Trump administration has desperately sought a pretext to quit the nuclear deal and shed the limits the deal imposed on the U.S.’s ability to pursue aggressive policies against Iran ― even if it also sheds the limits the deal imposed on Iran’s nuclear activities. The latest idea is to use the Congressional certification ― due every 90 days ― where the president has to report to Congress on whether Iran is complying with the deal or not. But unlike the reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency ― who is tasked to oversee the implementation of the nuclear deal ― the president’s report to Congress goes beyond the nuclear issue: Trump must also report whether the suspension of sanctions against Iran is “appropriate and proportionate to the measures taken by Iran and vital to U.S. national security interests.”
The Trump plan ― as telegraphed by several administration officials ― is to certify that Iran is in compliance with the deal (Trump has no leg to stand on to claim otherwise ― both the IAEA and the U.S. intelligence services have consistently reported that Tehran is living up to its obligations), but to argue that the deal and its sanctions relief nevertheless is unjustified due to Iran’s policies in the region that are anathema to U.S. national security interests.
In her by now infamous presentation at AEI ― riddled with falsehoods and lies ― Ambassador Nikki Haley argued that the nuclear deal was “designed to be too big to fail” and that an artificial line was drawn “between the Iranian regime’s nuclear development and the rest of its lawless behavior.” The push to keep the deal, Haley argued, was put above all other concerns about Iran’s policies. As such, the deal is constraining America’s ability to act aggressively against Iran, much to the chagrin of hawks such as Haley and her neoconservative allies at AEI.
But it is not President Barack Obama, or the proponents of the deal for that matter, that Haley and Trump should blame for the nuclear deal not addressing non-nuclear issues. It’s Prime Minister Netanyahu.
As I document in my new book Losing an Enemy - Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy, Netanyahu has argued ever since the mid-1990s that Iran’s nuclear program and its enrichment of uranium constituted an existential threat to Israel. During the George W. Bush administration, he repeatedly warned that “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany.” The implication being that the U.S. must attack Iran before Tehran invades the West. No Israeli leader pushed this line harder than Bibi.
Netanyahu’s argument that Iran was on the verge of being able to destroy Israel served to achieve several objectives. First, an existential threat combined with the claim that the Iranians were irrational and suicidal could ensure that preemptive military action needed to be taken. After all, an irrational, suicidal entity cannot be negotiated with it.
Secondly, existential issues take precedence over all other matters. With the nuclear program defined as an existential threat, it superseded all other concerns ― and opportunities ― the U.S. had with Iran. In case Israel would fail to prevent negotiations from taking place, defining the nuclear issue as an existential threat ensured that there could be no bargaining between the nuclear question and other regional matters. Ideally, it would ensure that the U.S. would not even negotiate with Iran over non-nuclear issues, but rather only focus on Iran’s atomic program.
And that is exactly what happened. Largely due to pressure from Israel and Saudi Arabia, the U.S. adopted the position that the negotiations would solely address Iran’s nuclear activities. (the Iranians originally insisted that the agenda would have to include a whole set of issues, including global warming). From Netanyahu’s perspective, the sole focus on the nuclear issue would ensure that the talks would fail. “Leaders in the region were saying to me personally, and to the president, President Obama, you should bomb these guys,” then-Secretary of State Kerry recently commented. “That’s the only way to resolve this issue.”
For the Obama administration, the opposite held true: In order to ensure unity between the countries negotiating with Iran, it was critical to only focus on the matter they all agreed on: The need to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons option. Had the agenda been expanded to include regional questions such as Syria, Tehran could split the major powers as Russia and China were closer to Iran on that question than to Washington.
Now, Washington’s hawks and Netanyahu are complaining about the nuclear deal’s singular focus on Iran’s nuclear activities. The real threat is Iran’s regional “expansion,” they suddenly claim. Allowing the nuclear deal to restrain the U.S. from confronting Tehran in the region, or allowing sanctions relief to proceed under these circumstances, would not serve U.S. national security interests, the Trump administration argues.
It is not invalid to point out that the sanctions relief put an end to more than three decades of U.S. efforts to completely isolate and contain Iran. That argument, however, cannot be combined with the central assertion made by Netanyahu and Washington hawks in the past: That Iran’s nuclear program constitutes an existential threat.
If the hawks truly believed in that contention, they would not complain about the nuclear deal’s singular focus on this existential threat. They would celebrate it.
But in their effort to kill the deal, they are twisting and turning, contradicting the very premise that ensured that Iran’s nuclear program would top the U.S.’s and the international community’s security agenda for the first fifteen years of this century.
Nevertheless, whatever line Netanyahu uses to compel Trump to quit the nuclear deal, the end result is inescapable: Killing the deal will put the U.S. back on a path to war with Iran. Which is exactly what Netanyahu has sought for the past twenty-five years.
With Trump in the White House, he finally has a receptive ear for his shifting and contradictory arguments to push the U.S. into yet another war in the Middle East.