Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Flaws In Netanyahu's Iran Plan

In his speech to Congress today, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu outlined three conditions for a better Iran nuclear deal. It would require Iran to a) Stop aggression against its neighbors b) Stop supporting terrorism and c) Stop threatening to annihilate Israel. Despite an eloquent speech this morning, Netanyahu's plan - in its current form - is unlikely to gain traction among US policymakers.

As observers like Jeffrey Goldberg have pointed out, these demands are based on legitimate criticisms of the Iranian leadership. For an Israeli Prime Minister to ask these of Iran is legitimate. But these conditions are vague to the point of being functionally meaningless. Where does aggression become self-preservation against Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states? Is support for terrorism material or also rhetorical? Are verbal threats against Israel as big a danger as physical nuclear capabilities? And would Iran realistically agree to any of these things? 

Netanyahu claims to be in favor of a better deal as opposed to war, but his proposal is comfortably outside the win-set of mutually agreeable outcomes for Iran and the P5+1. It links the nuclear issue with a spate of other foreign policy issues on which Iran is highly unlikely to concede. Furthermore, those issues are not critical to Israel's security. It would be nice (an understatement) for Iran to stop casually threatening Israel with annihilation, but words will not destroy Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Focusing on Iran's nuclear capabilities rather than its wild rhetoric is much more likely to prove a successful security strategy.

Whereas his set of preconditions to negotiate with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas are designed to forestall any actual discussions, Netanyahu seems to recognize the need for an actual deal with Iran. In his speech, he  referenced "a better deal that Israel and its neighbors may not like, but with which we could live." This line is significant. It indicates that Netanyahu is not taking a my-way-or-the-highway approach. He is genuinely interested in a deal, just not one that he feels endangers Israel.

However, Netanyahu has lost two critical assets: The trust of the administration and that of several Democratic members of Congress. This lack of trust stems not only from the circumstances of his current visit, but previous visits in which the Prime Minister openly spurned the administration. As a result, these critical policymakers are no longer open to being persuaded. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-MD) called Netanyahu's speech "condescension toward our knowledge" and President Obama said it contained "nothing new." 

Years of bad personal relations have played well among the Likud base, but have also harmed the Prime Minister's ability to exert leverage in Washington. Whether Israeli voters recognize the cost of such a strategy during elections on March 17th remains to be seen.


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