With the U.S. and Iran continuing to narrow gaps toward a nuclear deal that would prevent a disastrous war, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is gearing up to play spoiler. As part of his campaign, Netanyahu has ignored all protocol in order to attack the negotiations before a joint session of Congress next month and has also reportedly leaked information in an effort to distort and undermine the U.S. negotiating position. In so doing, Netanyahu is challenging not just President Obama but the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China, who are all working toward the agreement that Netanyahu opposes so vociferously.
Democratic lawmakers have voiced their frustration with Netanyahu's open efforts to subvert the president's Iran policy and keep the president and Democratic leadership in the dark and his apparent willingness to weaken the U.S.-Israel relationship for domestic political gain ahead of next month's election. Yesterday 23 representatives -- led by Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota), Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee), and Maxine Waters (D-California) -- released a joint letter urging Netanyahu to postpone the speech. More than two dozen Democrats have already stated that they will not attend, and many more are leaving open the possibility of skipping the speech.
Meanwhile, Republicans have exploited the speech in an attempt to score cheap political points. A resolution welcoming Netanyahu, introduced by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), has garnered 50 co-sponsors in the Senate -- all Republican. While Netanyahu likely hoped his speech would galvanize bipartisan support in Congress for scuttling the negotiations or vetoing a forthcoming agreement, it has only deepened the partisan divide.
Netanyahu's moves have also deepened the mutual distrust between himself and President Obama. Obama has made the case that long-term nuclear limits combined with intrusive inspections offer the best assurances against a potential Iranian nuclear weapon. The president has been clear that new congressional sanctions pose an unacceptable risk that would increase the likelihood of the U.S. getting dragged into another military conflict. The White House has also issued a veto threat against a rumored Senate Republican push to demand an immediate congressional vote on any final deal, which would give opponents of diplomacy a last-ditch tool to try to scuttle an agreement.
So far, Netanyahu and groups like AIPAC have been relatively quiet regarding the congressional vote proposal but have continued to push Congress to pass sanctions despite Obama's objection. According to Israel's own intelligence services, passing new sanctions would be like throwing a grenade into the negotiating process. Such a move would kill negotiations and end the limitations and enhanced inspections brought by the interim nuclear deal. Netanyahu sees this not as something to avoid but as a reason to toss the grenade. He believes that by wrecking the negotiations, sanctions and the threat of war could convince Iran to cry uncle and give up all nuclear activities. He is gravely mistaken. As Iran has proven, it would respond to escalation with its own form of escalation, an expanding nuclear program.
Instead of a limited and heavily monitored Iranian enrichment program, Iran could resume enrichment to the 20-percent level or even to the 60-percent level, as Iran's hardliners have suggested. With the failure of negotiations and the collapse of enhanced inspections and restraints, Iran could immediately expand its enrichment capacity by bringing nearly 10,000 additional centrifuges online in short order and dramatically increasing its centrifuge numbers toward the 190,000 envisioned by hardliners. Intrusive, daily inspections of enrichment facilities would end, diminishing our ability to detect either overt nuclear breakout or covert nuclear activities. And if the U.S. is to blame for the collapse of negotiations, international enforcement of the sanctions regime would erode even as Iran's nuclear program expands.
The combination of reduced knowledge of Iran's expanding nuclear program and the burning of diplomatic prospects would put the U.S. in a difficult position. Would the U.S. accept Iran on the cusp of a nuclear weapon threshold? Launch military strikes that would only delay, and likely incentivize, Iran's nuclear pursuits? Or undertake a decade-long occupation to change regimes and guarantee a non-nuclear Iran?
The American people appear skeptical of what Netanyahu is selling. In a recent CNN poll, 63 percent of Americans and 81 percent of Democrats opposed the decision to secretly invite Netanyahu. And, as NIAC's ad in yesterday's edition of The New York Times points out, Americans have good reason to view the speech with a wary eye. Netanyahu promised in congressional testimony in 2002 that the U.S. invasion would have "enormous, positive reverberations on the region." Contrast that with Obama, who rightly warned that the invasion would "only fan the flames of the Middle East."
What is terrible policy for both the U.S. and Israel could still be good politics for Netanyahu. After all, he has cast Iran as the nuclear boogeyman for decades, and to back away could be perceived as weakness by right-wing Israeli voters. But by sticking with the speech as planned, Netanyahu is going to put Congress in the position of having to choose between President Obama and the international community's efforts to reach a deal and the Israeli prime minister's determination to sabotage it. If they choose Netanyahu's course, the likelihood of an Iranian nuclear weapon and war will greatly increase, to the extreme detriment of the region -- including Israel.