Netanyahu's Bad Fight Against a Good Iran Deal

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has launched a major diplomatic offensive against any possible nuclear deal with Iran. I say any possible deal, because Netanyahu now insists that no sanctions be lifted until Iran stops all uranium enrichment, even at the relatively harmless level of 3.5 percent that's on the table in Geneva. He has called for the "dismantling" of Iran's weapons program, which presumably means destroying all the centrifuges, since any of them could be used to generate weapons-grade uranium at 20 percent.

He launched this offensive not in the past two weeks, but at the beginning of October, before any deal was even outlined. He used his speech to the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly to warn against any deal with Iran. His more recent professions of shock would seem to have been scripted long before anyone sat down in Geneva.

Aside from Netanyahu's lack of credibility on any Iran deal, or the dubious value of scuttling an agreement that promises to verifiably prevent any nuclear weapons, no amount of lobbying by Israel will significantly alter the outlines of the accord. He has been busy nevertheless.

Netanyahu's government is refuting the U.S. claim that the sanctions relief being proposed at this stage is worth under $10 billion, claiming instead that it's worth $15, $20 or even $40 billion to Iran. It's beyond chutzpah for Israeli politicians to suggest they know more than Washington does about American financial and banking regulations.

The Geneva deal would also neutralize or remove any highly enriched uranium already in Iran's possession, preclude the use of higher-speed centrifuges, and shutter the Arak plutonium reactor before it ever powers up. All these steps would be verified by international inspectors, and nothing stops the United States from adding more sanctions overnight should Iran fail to comply with these terms. But for Prime Minister Netanyahu, this is insufficient.

Netanyahu is campaigning against an Iran deal at such a high-profile, and with so little substance, that one has to wonder how much he'd achieve if he devoted the same energy to forging an agreement with the Palestinians. For the past couple of weeks, his associates have been fueling rumors about a new Israeli alliance with Saudi Arabia, including joint planning for an attack on Iran. He has dispatched members of his government to lobby the United States Congress against the U.S. position, played up France's opportunistic though minor differences with Washington, and just flew to Moscow to seek the Kremlin's support for his agenda.

Russia wants a deal, it wants sanctions dropped, and it wants no nuclear weapons in Iran's hands. At best, President Vladimir Putin was never going to heed Netanyahu's plea. But Putin may be happy to take advantage of this new rift opening up between Israel and America, and in ways not meant to benefit Israel. Any dents in U.S. prestige help Russia get back in The Game, which includes reasserting a naval presence in the Mediterranean, stronger ties with Egypt and any future Syrian government, and going to any lengths to expand access to Gulf oil reserves.

The multilateral sanctions against Iran specifically target its nuclear program, and not its destructive support and control of terrorist networks across the Middle East and beyond. In this case, terrorism is off the table -- that's the only way Russia and China, and maybe even France ever agreed to sanctions in the first place. Terrorism is not an existential or strategic threat to these powers, but nuclear proliferation is -- and after all, terrorists have to buy their weapons from somewhere.

We can ask the five Permanent Members of the Security Council ("P-5") to declare war on Iranian terrorism, to demand respect for human rights, rule of law, and free and fair elections. We can ask them to penalize the Iranian regime for its persistent and vocal hostility toward Israel. But Russia and China will exercise their veto, and France would likely abstain. Yes, Iran has had to scale back its terror activities under the yoke of crippling sanctions, but those multilateral sanctions are entirely a response to Iran's quest for nuclear weapons. Unfortunately for the war on terrorism, Iran is removing the very justification for those sanctions by conceding the nuclear file.

Netanyahu and his colleagues in the Knesset, and some on Capitol Hill, portray the Obama administration as naive for trusting Iran's new President, Hassan Rouhani. But no one at the Geneva meetings pretends to believe Iran is ready to tolerate Israeli-Palestinian peace, shut down its global terrorist infrastructure, or implement a nuclear agreement absent robust verification.

Netanyahu's best rhetoric and diplomatic pandering cannot stop the interim nuclear deal with Iran, but he could have gained credibility down the road by unequivocally hailing the success of sanctions, supporting a diplomatic solution, and also -- by suspending all West Bank settlement construction during his talks with the Palestinians -- showing the P-5 he is serious about making peace in his own backyard.