By Jonathan Tobin
If President Obama was hoping that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu would lay an egg with his much-anticipated and controversial speech to a joint session of Congress, he was gravely disappointed. Netanyahu’s address was a triumph that put the administration on the defensive over its reckless pursuit of détente with Iran. But though the administration’s apologists are willing to admit that Netanyahu won on style points, they are wrong when they claim he offered no alternative to a deal with Iran that abandons the president’s previously stated principles about forcing the Islamist regime to abandon their nuclear ambitions. To the contrary, Netanyahu’s speech was more than stirring rhetoric. It laid out clear benchmarks for what must be achieved in any deal and pointed the way toward a return to tough sanctions and equally tough negotiating tactics. In doing so, he put the administration on the defensive and, no matter what happens in the talks, forces it to explain an indefensible deal and reminded Congress that it has a responsibility to weigh in on the issue to ensure the nation’s security.
What had to most frustrate the White House was Netanyahu’s ability to debunk their main talking point about the speech. After weeks of hyping the address as an injection of partisanship into the U.S.-Israel relationship, the prime minister’s willingness to give the president his due for past support of Israel and his refusal to mention the many instances in which Obama had undercut the Jewish state’s position and deliberately attempted to create more distance between the two allies made the White House’s angry reaction look petty. The prime minister’s initial decision to accept House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation gave the president the opening he needed to distract the country from his Iran policy. With the help of the president’s always helpful press cheering section, White House political operatives made Netanyahu’s supposed breach of protocol the issue rather than the appeasement of Iran. But they eventually succumbed to overkill in denouncing Netanyahu and by the time the prime minister took the podium at the Capitol, the administration’s efforts had the unintended effect of giving him a bigger audience than he might otherwise have had.
Thus, by the time the address was over, the issue was no longer whether he should have given the speech. Though the White House is doggedly trying to portray the speech as partisan, it was not. Now it is the substance of Netanyahu’s concerns about Iran’s behavior and the failure of the Western powers to negotiate a deal that would stop Iran from getting a weapon that is the subject of discussion. Which is to say that after winning news cycles at Netanyahu’s expense throughout February, the White House has set itself up to have to explain years of concessions to a dangerous regime with almost nothing to show for it in terms of making the world any safer.
At the core of the disagreement between Netanyahu and Obama on Iran is the president’s faith that Iran can or will change. Even Obama apologists no longer regard the notion that Hassan Rouhani’s election as president signaled a move toward moderation as a serious argument. Though the administration has been careful not to defend Iran’s past and present behavior, by eloquently laying out the Islamist regime’s record of terrorism and aggression, it put the onus on the president to explain why he thinks that over the course of the next decade, Iran is going to, “get right with the world,” as he has said.
Equally important, the speech forces the president to defend the substance of the deal he is desperately trying to entice the Iranians to sign. Netanyahu reminded the world what has happened since Obama’s pledge during his 2012 foreign-policy debate with Mitt Romney that any deal with Iran would force it to give up its nuclear program. Since then, the administration has not only recognized Iran’s right to enrich uranium but also agreed to let them keep several thousand centrifuges and the rest of their nuclear infrastructure.
As Netanyahu pointed out, even if they abide by the terms of the deal-something about which reasonable people are doubtful given their past record of cheating and unwillingness to open their country to United Nations inspectors-the ten-year sunset clause Obama mentioned in interviews yesterday gives the regime the ability to eventually build a nuclear weapon. Rather than stopping Iran from getting a bomb, the path that Obama has travelled ensures they will eventually get one even if the accord works. The president not only guarantees that Iran will become a threshold nuclear power but, as Netanyahu rightly argued, sets in motion a series of events that will create a new nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
Did Netanyahu offer an alterative to the president’s policy? The answer is yes. The administration is right when they say Netanyahu offered nothing new, but that was the point. After belatedly adopting sanctions, the administration quickly gave up on them just at the moment in 2013 when they were starting to bite. By toughening sanctions, as the Kirk-Menendez bill currently before Congress would do, and increasing the political and economic pressure on the regime, the U.S. has a chance to reverse Obama’s concessions and bring Iran to its knees. The West must insist that Iran change its behavior before sanctions are lifted, rather than afterward. Instead of Obama and Kerry’s zeal for a deal encouraging the Iranians to make no concessions, Netanyahu was correct to remind Congress that Tehran needs a deal more than the U.S. Indeed, Netanyahu not only offered an alternative; he put forward the only one that has a chance of stopping Iran from getting a weapon without using force.
Try as they might to continue to abuse Netanyahu for a brilliant speech, the White House’s response demonstrates nothing but its intolerance for criticism and inability to defend a policy of capitulation to Iran. Rather than engage in pointless discussions about the president’s hurt feelings or Netanyahu’s chutzpah for telling the truth about the negotiations, it’s time for the press and Congress to start asking the administration tough questions about a reckless deal before it is too late.