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Netanyahu’s Strangelovian Speech: A Call to War

Today, as P5+1 and Iranian negotiators sweat the details in Switzerland, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu finally addressed a joint session of Congress on the dangers of a reaching a “bad deal” with Iran. Since House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu in January, the speech has received an ungodly amount of media attention compared to, for example, President Obama’s State of the Union address. The coverage has been largely centered around the unconventional and poorly timed nature of the invitation and with good reason. Netanyahu accepted the invitation without the knowledge of the President, a sign of disrespect to the leader of Israel’s most important ally, and with only two weeks between the dates of the speech and the Israeli election, the political motivation is clear. Some constitutional scholars even questioned the constitutionality of how the Netanyahu invitation was handled.

Disrespect and political motivation aside, the bigger cause for concern is Netanyahu’s (and his Republican hosts’) desperation to see the Iran negotiations fall apart.

My friends, for over a year, we’ve been told that no deal is better than a bad deal. Well, this is a bad deal. It’s a very bad deal. We’re better off without it. … Now we’re being told that the only alternative to this bad deal is war. That’s just not true. The alternative to this bad deal is a much 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.[1]

In this statement, Netanyahu implies that war is not a likely outcome if Iran walks away from the negotiating table, although he is very careful to contest the idea that the only alternative to no deal is war, without denying that war is a likely outcome. His implication that war is unlikely if the talks fall apart is based on the assumption that Iran is in such a dire economic situation that it will agree to any terms for this deal, including eliminating its entire nuclear technology program. While Iran’s economy is suffering from international sanctions and a drop in oil prices, Iranian leaders have made it clear from the beginning of the diplomatic process that Iran will never agree to dismantle its entire nuclear program.[2] Knowing this, Netanyahu called for a deal that would prevent Iran from retaining any capacity to enrich uranium, and in so doing, revealed his true intention; to pressure Congress to make unrealistic demands that would cause the negotiations to crumble.

Netanyahu’s arguments centered around one premise above all others: Iran cannot be trusted. While reasonable people can agree or disagree about whether Iran is negotiating in good faith, these negotiations and any long-term agreement reached are not dependent on trust. They are dependent on relentless inspections and monitoring from the international community that would give the world plenty of time to react to any violation of the agreement. Netanyahu argued that inspections are not enough.

True, certain restrictions would be imposed on Iran’s nuclear program and Iran’s adherence to those restrictions would be supervised by international inspectors. But here’s the problem. You see, inspectors document violations; they don’t stop them. Inspectors knew when North Korea broke to the bomb, but that didn’t stop anything. North Korea turned off the cameras, kicked out the inspectors. Within a few years, it got the bomb. [3]

First, it is not the responsibility of inspectors to stop violations from occurring. It is simply their responsibility to inform the international community of a violation. As long as they do that, the world will be able to take action to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Second, if Congress does take Netanyahu’s advice and stipulates terms for a final deal such as no enrichment capacity, then Iran could kick out the inspectors, which would not be a failure on the part of the inspectors, but on the part of Congress.

The breach in protocol, the disrespect to the President, and the timing of this speech considering the Israeli election, not to mention Netanyahu’s assertion before boarding his flight to the US that he will be speaking on behalf of all Jewish people,[4] were all terrible mistakes. But the more alarming take away is that Netanyahu spent roughly 40 minutes lobbying Congress and the American people on demands that, if enforced, will almost certainly derail these negotiations, and he did so with full knowledge of that fact. He also gave his speech knowing that Iran’s nuclear enrichment has been significantly scaled back under the interim agreement.[5] To derail these negotiations would mean revoking all international oversight of Iran’s nuclear facilities, and would almost certainly compel Iran to reverse course and start increasing enrichment. Surely, that cannot be in the best interest of Israel, the United States, or the international community.

The only explanation for his stance is that Netanyahu and his allies in Congress have foreseen the same outcome, and are in fact hoping Iran will increase its uranium enrichment so they will have an easier time pushing Israel and the United States into a war with Iran.  The amount of time spent demonizing Iran helped set an alarming tone. If you listened carefully, you could hear the drums of war banging in the background. CNN’s Christiane Amanpour harkened back to the Cold-War era black comedy Dr. Strangelove in describing this aspect of the speech.

It was a very dark Strangelovian speech painting the picture of a dystopian world, raising the specter of a genocidal nation, a genocidal regime spraying nuclear weapons to annihilate the whole world and the whole region. Now, obviously many people are very concerned about Iran and there is a deep lack of trust, but surely the same was said of the Soviet Union all those years ago.

The last time we took Netanyahu’s advice and invaded Iraq, things did not turn out so well. Now the ball is In Congress’ court. The burden to prevent war now falls on those in Congress who have managed to avoid taking sides. For those senators and representatives, the time has come and the choice is clear: Support diplomacy, not war.

[1] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/wp/2015/03/03/full-text-netanyahus-address-to-congress/

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/21/iran-geneva-nuclear-talks-enrich-uranium-guarantee

[3] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/wp/2015/03/03/full-text-netanyahus-address-to-congress/

[4] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/netanyahu-leaves-for-fateful-even-historic-speech-to-us-congress/

[5] http://www.vox.com/2014/11/13/7214191/iran-nuclear-program-guide

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