Benjamin Netanyahu is right to be skeptical, very skeptical, about Iran’s nuclear intentions, but his heavy-handed campaign to portray the new Iranian president as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” out to build a bomb under cover of negotiations could blow up in his face.
He could be right, but as usual his over-the-top approach doesn’t impress those whom he needs the most — the American and European leaders dealing with the Iranians in Geneva — and raises suspicions that more than not trusting the Iranians, he may not want to see a negotiated solution to the standoff.
And he may have another motive. Many believe Netanyahu’s intense focus on the Iranian nuclear threat is not just strategic but also based on the issue’s value as diversion from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The Israeli prime minister is considered a reluctant and unenthusiastic peacemaker — not unlike his Palestinian counterpart — who has repeatedly insisted nothing can be done in resolving that conflict until the Iranian nuclear threat is lifted. His two-state rhetoric notwithstanding, Netanyahu is said to have little enthusiasm for the peace talks but sends his negotiators because he doesn’t want to be the one blamed for the ongoing stalemate and because he needs good relations with the White House to keep the pressure on Iran.
Netanyahu’s greatest worry is said to be that Hassan Rouhani will seduce Barack Obama and the rest of the world with his charm offensive while the centrifuges keep spinning out enriched uranium and one day the world will jolted awake by a nuclear fireball in the Iranian desert.
I don’t doubt Iran has been developing a nuclear weapon capacity for many years. It is possible the international pressure, stringent sanctions and the damage they’ve done to the nation’s economy, the secret Israeli and American cyberwar being waged against it and Iran’s pariah status have changed its leaders’ thinking. Contrary to what Netanyahu seems to be saying, that’s worth trying to find out, but there should be no letup in the pressure without verifiable evidence that Iran won’t and can’t build a nuclear weapon.
Kenneth Pollack, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, contends, “Rouhani is serious about getting a deal” and is “probably ready to make significant compromises to get it.”
Netanyahu’s view that Rouhani is bluffing to buy more time to reach the breakout is not widely shared, but there is broad consensus that he should be tested and must demonstrate proven results before any talk about easing sanctions.
Netanyahu deserves credit for focusing international attention intensely on the Iranian nuclear program, but notwithstanding his strident warnings and calls to double down on sanctions, there is a new sign that the Israeli leader may be ready for some compromise.
This weekend in his Cabinet meeting and in an appearance on Meet the Press, there was a one-word addition to his consistent demands that Iran stop all uranium enrichment, ship its entire stockpile out of the country and submit to intrusive inspections.
On Sunday he repeated his warnings while adding, “The greater the pressure, the greater the chance that there will be a genuine dismantling of the Iranian military [emphasis added] nuclear program.”
That one word suggests Netanyahu may realize his zero tolerance approach may not be workable, and President Obama’s view that Iran has the right to pursue a peaceful nuclear energy program is.
Netanyahu effectively made the Iranian nuclear threat an issue in last year’s American presidential election, prodding both major candidates to pledge to use military force if necessary to prevent Iran from getting the bomb.
But neither Barack Obama nor the American public is anxious to plunge into another war, and Netanyahu fears the president’s resolve may be weakening, so he is ratcheting up the pressure, although not yet in the same caustic way he did during Obama’s first term.
He has launched a media blitz in the U.S. and Europe — no one is calling it a charm offensive — pressing for ever-tighter sanctions. That was accompanied by posting YouTube videos of the Israeli Air Force training for aerial refueling and long-range missions in joint exercises with the Greek Air Force (take that, Erdogan).
He has mobilized his reserve forces: the U.S. Congress and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
AIPAC faithfully echoes Netanyahu’s line (something it didn’t always do for his predecessors), and has issued its own list of demands that Iran must meet before pressure can be eased. Iran sanctions have been the lobby’s primary agenda item for nearly 20 years, and it is pressing Congress to ignore an administration request that the Senate delay new sanctions to see how the Geneva talks progress.
Congress doesn’t need a lot of encouragement to take a hard line. It’s good for fundraising and by now it’s a well-ingrained habit.
Partisan politics — the ongoing Republican effort to make sure anything Obama does fails and Democratic timidity when it comes to standing up to the pro-Israel lobby — will likely boost AIPAC’s congressional push. Already Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) has likened delaying new sanctions, as the State Department requested, to appeasement.
According to the buzz in Washington, Netanyahu sent Ron Dermer, a close confidante and former Republican operative before making aliyah, to coordinate the resistance. Dermer just took over as ambassador and is expected to oversee the pushback in case the PM decides Obama is not being demanding enough on the Iranians or too demanding when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Netanyahu is very skeptical about the Iranians. And everyone else. A recent New York Times profile described him as a loner, isolated, with few personal friends and little faith in allies. Any deal with Iran will be a tough sell with Netanyahu, and that’s not a bad thing.
But if he is perceived as trying to slam the door shut on a possible diplomatic breakthrough that could avert a new and unwelcome military confrontation — and if his GOP friends take up the cause with a partisan vengeance — it could ultimately undercut Israel’s support in this country
Douglas Bloomfield is a nationally syndicated columnist.