I waited twenty-four hours to comment on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint meeting of Congress concerning negotiations with Iran over nuclear weapons to see if my initial incredulous reaction changed with contemplation. It has not. I think that at best it was a text-book case of political theater and at worst a deliberate attempt to undermine United States foreign policy and to embarrass our president.
For the moment, let’s defer a discussion of whether or not there should be a deal with Iran over nuclear weapons — we’ll get to that in a moment — and instead focus on the spectacle we witnessed yesterday. I had the opportunity to watch the entire proceedings live, and hope that you did as well. If not, you will find the complete transcript of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech here.
So here is what transpired. The Speaker of the House invited the head of state of another country to address a joint meeting of Congress, without consulting with the opposition party, the president or the State Department, or even informing them of the invitation until after it was accepted. The head of state of one our closest friends accepted the invitation without informing our Ambassador or State Department that he intended to come to the United States. The Ambassador to the United States from that country, born in the United States and who worked on the 1990s Republican Congress’s Contract with America was integral to arranging the visit with the Speaker. That head of state is in a very tight political fight of his own and is up for re-election in two weeks. In past campaigns, he has used video and audio of his prior speeches in Congress as campaign ads. In his own country, a judge ruled that his speech yesterday could only be broadcast on a five-minute delay so that political references could be blocked because his own government and judiciary thought his motives to be political. And finally, in that speech, he was condescending and nearly insulting to our Congress and especially to our president.
There are very few, if any, other heads of state that could plausibly fill this scenario other than Israel. While technically not a speech to a joint session of Congress (it was a meeting) it had all the trappings of a presidential address to a joint session of Congress, complete with the spouse in the gallery and guests referred to and acknowledged by the speaker as part of the speech. In every respect, it was designed, intentionally or not, but I think intentionally, to help Benjamin Netanyahu get re-elected as Prime Minister of Israel by allowing him to look tough by taking on the President of the United States in the chamber of our own Congress.
I note that the negotiations that are underway with Iran are not bilateral U.S.-Iranian negotiations. They are multi-lateral negotiations involving the “P-5 + 1” (or the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China — plus Germany). It is curious that Prime Minister Netanyahu did not go to the U.K. to address a joint session of the Parliament or otherwise visit with or discuss with, or otherwise engage any of the other nations negotiating with Iran. He only engaged the U.S. in a political spectacle designed to enhance his stature in Israel and to embarrass the president, and he did it at the invitation of the Speaker of the House sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Whatever our special relationship with Israel — a relationship I support — in the end, the foreign policy of the United States must support the goals of the United States. I guarantee, and history supports, that Israel will do whatever it sees in its best interests without regard to what the United States may or may not want. Most times the interests of both nations coincide. However, when they do not, the best interests of the United States should take priority over those of any other nation.
I should also note that since 1992, Benjamin Netanyahu has been warning that Iran is only three to five years, or less depending on which assertion of his one wants to quote, away from building nuclear weapons. He’s reiterated this claim time and again including in his book Fighting Terrorism published in 1995 and in previous addresses to Congress. He may eventually be correct, but he has no special insight that is not apparent to the national leaders of many countries.
As to whether or not the negotiations underway with Iran are a good deal or, as Prime Minister Netanyahu claimed, a bad deal, we do not yet know. There is currently no deal. His speech broke no new ground and did not bring forward any points that are not well know by anyone that has even a modicum of interest in the subject. Iran is a bad actor. Nothing new there — they have been the primary source of terrorist activity in the Middle East since the early 80’s.
President Obama already stated, well before Prime Minister Netanyahu, that a bad deal was worse than no deal. President Obama also said in an interview last week that he puts the chances of a deal with Iran at less than 50%. They are not going to take just any old demand that Iran throws out. With this in mind, Prime Minister Netanyahu was merely grandstanding and added nothing to furthering the mutual U.S.-Israeli goal of stopping Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. (Conveniently forgotten is that Israel is commonly known to possess somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 nuclear weapons of its own.)
There may be no deal. The P-5 + 1 have put a deadline of 24 March for Iran to agree to a substantive settlement or they will walk away (another Netanyahu applause line that is already stated policy prior to his speech). No one is naive about the Iranians, and it should come as no surprise that they are going to try to get their own best deal. That is the nature of any nation’s national security policy. This much is fact so far. The interim deal from two years ago allowed for inspectors to visit Iranian facilities for the first time. The Iranians are not currently building any nuclear weapons. If the talks breakdown or scuttled, there is nothing to stop Iran from eventually building a nuclear weapon.
Most troubling to me were the implications near the end of his remarks. While advocating for, in essence, “no deal” with Iran, a move that may in fact lead Iran to build the weapons, he stated that Israel would be willing to act. Or in his words:
We are no longer scattered among the nations, powerless to defend ourselves. We restored our sovereignty in our ancient home. And the soldiers who defend our home have boundless courage. For the first time in 100 generations, we, the Jewish people, can defend ourselves. This is why — this is why, as a prime minister of Israel, I can promise you one more thing: Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand. But I know that Israel does not stand alone. I know that America stands with Israel.
Especially in the context of his speech and the way that he delivered these remarks in person, this sounds like a veiled threat that Israel will take military action to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons. While this is troubling in and of its self — and by all expert testimony will only be a bump in the road for Iran’s ability to build the weapons, and will in fact spur them to increased efforts to do so — it also implies that they would expect the U.S. to join them in that military effort. In essence, a foreign leader is trying to commit the U.S. to another Middle East war.
I am troubled. Troubled by the precedent set by this political spectacle. Troubled by the meddling of a foreign leader of a close and friendly nation to undermine — not influence, undermine — our foreign policy. Troubled by the blatant attempts to scuttle negotiations that are in a delicate phase. Troubled by the terms of the deal which must reign in Iran and remove their ability to build nuclear weapons. Troubled by the consequences of a failure to negotiate a settlement.
These are troubling times around the world in many, many ways. There are no easy answers, although in the rhetoric surrounding complicated issues too many are willing to give one-line sound bite solutions.
While I agree with the caution regarding Iran that Prime Minister Netanyahu outlined in his speech, and while I have no illusions that any agreement with Iran is not fraught with possible problems and that they must be held to account, I am also so very disappointed that our foreign policy is no longer bi-partisan and is used as a political weapon in the face of grave danger to our nation and to our friends and allies.