A Silver Lining in Netanyahu’s Thundering Speech
The Israeli prime minister took to Capitol Hill to bash the White House’s nuclear talks with Tehran, but did he quietly signal that he’d be willing to accept a deal?
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used a nationally televised address to Congress on Tuesday to liken the Iranian government to the Nazis, say Tehran was responsible for hundreds of American deaths, accuse Iran of fomenting unrest throughout the Middle East, and warn that the country would do everything in its power to break whatever nuclear agreement emerged from its talks with the White House.
Rhetoric aside, though, the Israeli leader may have signaled, subtly, that his country could live with a U.S.-Iran nuclear deal, provided that a key element of the emerging agreement was changed. It’s unclear whether the White House would be willing to attempt to reopen that portion of the negotiations with Iran — and it seems unlikely that Tehran would accept such a change — but the Israeli prime minister’s speech was as notable for what it didn’t include as for what it did.
The key change appears to involve Netanyahu’s long-standing demand that any deal ensure that Iran has no ability to enrich any uranium on its soil. During a joint appearance with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in February 2014, for instance, the Israeli leader said preventing Tehran from attaining a bomb “means zero enrichment, zero centrifuges, zero plutonium.”
Those types of phrases were missing from Netanyahu’s March 3 address. He criticized the emerging deal for allowing Iran to retain its nuclear-related infrastructure, but never used the words “zero enrichment” or explicitly said that this would have to be part of any deal he could accept.
Ilan Goldenberg, formerly a senior member of Secretary of State John Kerry’s Mideast peace team, said that the Israeli leader seemed to have realized, and accepted, that the idea of Iran accepting a “zero enrichment” deal was simply not in the cards and that it was smarter to try to shape the agreement in other ways.
“I think he was saying that there was a deal that he could accept,” said Goldenberg, the director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “He’s acknowledging that there’s a deal he won’t like but can live with.”
Netanyahu devoted much more of his speech to a different concern: that the emerging agreement would only freeze Iranian nuclear activity for 10 years, after which Tehran could potentially resume the work without being hampered by the current punishing economic sanctions.
“A decade may seem like a long time in political life, but it’s the blink of an eye in the life of a nation,” Netanyahu said. “We all have a responsibility to consider what will happen when Iran’s nuclear capabilities are virtually unrestricted and all the sanctions will have been lifted. Iran would then be free to build a huge nuclear capacity that could product many, many nuclear bombs.”
Netanyahu’s speech had been at the center of a bitter dispute with the White House, which was furious that the speech was arranged in conjunction with House Speaker John Boehner without either the speaker or anyone from Netanyahu’s office first reaching out to the administration. The White House pointedly said that neither President Barack Obama nor any of his senior aides would meet with Netanyahu, and last week National Security Advisor Susan Rice said the Israeli leader’s speech would be “destructive” to U.S.-Israel ties and had “injected a degree of partisanship” into the relationship.
Those bad feelings clouded Tuesday’s event in the crowded House chamber. More than 50 Democratic senators and members of Congress, including six Jewish lawmakers, boycotted the speech, and several who attended looked visibly angry during portions of the remarks. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said the speech was condescending and an “insult to the intelligence of the United States.” Obama, for his part, said the remarks contained “nothing new” and offered no “viable alternatives” to the current nuclear talks.
Netanyahu, for his part, didn’t hold back from attacking specific parts of the administration’s negotiating position. During a speech Monday to a massive gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Rice said preventing Iran from retaining any enrichment capability was an “unattainable” ideal, in part because Tehran already has large numbers of scientists with deep nuclear-related expertise. Netanyahu dismissed that out of hand.
“Nuclear know-how without nuclear infrastructure doesn’t get you very much,” he said. “A race car driver without a car can’t drive. A pilot without a plane can’t fly. Without thousands of centrifuges, tons of enriched uranium, or heavy-water facilities, Iran can’t make nuclear weapons.”
Not all experts saw signs of flexibility in Netanyahu’s remarks. Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who headed Kerry’s Mideast peace team until last year, said Netanyahu appeared implacably opposed to any agreement with Iran, no matter its terms.
“He was pretty clear about his opposition to the deal,” said Indyk, now a vice president of the Brookings Institution. “I believe he wants to sink it, not modify it.”
Indeed, Netanyahu pulled out all the stops when it came to demonizing Iran. The Israeli leader argued that Tehran poses a direct threat to the United States as much as it does to Israel, and he spent the first 15 minutes of his remarks detailing alleged instances in which Iran, directly or through proxies, was tied to attacks against American targets throughout the Middle East.
“Iran took dozens of Americans hostage in Tehran, murdered hundreds of American soldiers, Marines, in Beirut, and was responsible for killing and maiming thousands of American servicemen and women in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “It even attempted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador, right here in Washington, D.C.”
That harsh language seemed designed to force the administration to defend its ongoing talks with a country involved in killing Americans — and to defend not just the particulars of this specific emerging deal, but of any deal struck with what Netanyahu portrayed as a bloodthirsty country eager to hurt the United States whenever and wherever it could.
When it came to the emerging agreement between Iran and the P5+1 countries (the United States, Britain, China, France, Russia, and Germany), Netanyahu focused most of his fire on a so-called sunset provision that would freeze Iran’s nuclear work for a decade but theoretically allow the country to resume it when that period ended. Details of that provision had leaked out in recent weeks, and Obama confirmed it Monday in an interview with Reuters.
“If, in fact, Iran is willing to agree to double-digit years of keeping their program where it is right now and, in fact, rolling back elements of it that currently exist … if we’ve got that, and we’ve got a way of verifying that, there’s no other steps we can take that would give us such assurance that they don’t have a nuclear weapon,” Obama said.
With Netanyahu potentially seeming to move away from his earlier demand that Iran agree to give up all enrichment activities, that provision could become the primary focus of the Israeli leader’s lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill. In his remarks, Netanyahu said the fact that most of the restrictions that would be imposed on Iran’s nuclear program as part of a deal would expire in a decade meant that Tehran would have to, in effect, simply wait out the United States before resuming its nuclear work unencumbered by Western sanctions.
“That’s why this deal is so bad,” Netanyahu said. “It doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb; it paves Iran’s path to the bomb.”
Still, several observers — including a diplomat from the region and a pair of congressional aides closely involved in Mideast issues — said that they interpreted Netanyahu’s focus on the sunset clause as a sign he’d be willing to negotiate on issues that he’d previously cited as red lines. They suggested the Israeli leader could potentially be won over if the length of the deal were extended or if the United States offered Israel a clearer sense of how it would be monitoring Iran’s compliance during and after the expiration of the agreement. A White House spokesperson said the administration “would leave it to others to speculate” about whether the speech contained any movement from Netanyahu’s past positions; and Tehran would be unlikely to accept extending the length of that provision beyond 10 years.
“Netanyahu would be satisfied by what he sees as a better deal, but any deal that the president makes may not be good enough,” said Rep. Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat who boycotted the speech and said it was “demeaning” to both Obama and Congress as a whole. “I don’t think the kind of a deal the prime minister might be open to would be within reasonable expectations.”
For the moment, it’s clear that the Israeli leader remains willing to fight. Media attention has long focused on a piece of pending legislation sponsored by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) that would immediately slap Iran with new sanctions if the current talks fail to reach a deal, a bill Obama has promised to veto. But Congress will eventually consider a completely different, and far more important, legislative move concerning the talks — a vote Netanyahu doubtlessly had in mind as he strode up to the rostrum Tuesday morning and looked out over a jampacked room.
Obama can temporarily lift many of the current sanctions on Iran on his own, but permanently eliminating them — something demanded by Tehran as part of any deal with the White House — would require congressional approval. With both the Senate and the House in Republican hands, that will be an uphill fight for the administration. Netanyahu will try to make it an impossible climb.
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