The crucial line in Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on March 3rd was a mere five words long: “This is a bad deal.”
It’s hardly a secret that the Israeli prime minister isn’t a fan of the agreement currently coming into place between Iran and a US-led group of countries. But during his Congressional speech, Netanyahu flatly opposed a deal that hasn’t even been signed yet, and then implied that Congress should do something about it, too.
“If Iran threatens to walk away from the table — and this often happens in a Persian bazaar — call their bluff. They will be back, because they need the deal a lot more than you do,” said Netanyahu. “And by maintaining the pressure on Iran and on those who do business with Iran, you have the power to make them need it even more.”
Congress can make Iran “need [a deal] even more” by passing additional sanctions that would come into effect if a deal collapses, which is exactly what legislation pushed by Republican Senator Mark Kirk and Democratic Senator Bob Menendez would do. And Congress could secure a deal by authorizing the use of military force in the even that Iran shows signs of building a nuclear weapon, something that former US ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey has recommended.
In overtly opposing the coming deal and exhorting Congress to do something to either scuttle or damage-control it, Netanyahu was arguably driving a wedge between a Republican-controlled Congress and a Democratic president who may view Iran detente as the single most important initiative of his second term in office.
“It doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb,” he said. “It paves Iran’s path to the bomb.”
This tack could worsen the already strained relationship between Netanyahu and Obama. But given Netanyahu’s sense of the enormity of the Iran threat, he might consider the risk to be worth it.
The speech included a second important bit: Netanyahu wants the US to connect sanctions relief to issues that have no direct bearing on the nuclear program.
The current negotiations with Iran are based on an implied quid pro quo: If Iran operates its nuclear program within certain negotiated limits, the US and its partners will repeal sanctions against the country and then lift those limits entirely.
That isn’t enough for Netanyahu, who gave three criteria for removing sanctions: Iran would have to scale back its allegedly expansionist foreign policy, stop supporting terrorist groups like Hezbollah, and cease its rhetorical threats against Israel.
“We don’t have to bet the security of the world on the hope that Iran will change for the better,” the prime minister said. “We can insist that restrictions not be lifted as long as Iran continues its aggression in the region and in the world.”
“If Iran changes it behaviour, the restrictions should be lifted,” he said. “If Iran doesn’t change its behaviour, the restrictions shouldn’t be lifted … if Iran wants to be treated like a normal country, it should act like a normal country.”
In his speech, Netanyahu came out against an upcoming nuclear deal, recommended a new formula for reigning in Iran, and exhorted Congress to help affect it.
This is the opposite of the conciliatory tone that Netanyahu took in his AIPAC speech the day before. Netanyahu didn’t back away from the risks inherent in his Congressional address but embraced them full-on — with unknown consequences for Israel, the US, and the future of the nuclear negotiations.
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