The real issue raised by the dispute between President Obama and Netanyahu – one that should transcend politics – is whether it is possible to stop Iran from getting the bomb and at what price. The danger in all this is that any agreement reached between the P5+1 (the US, Russia, Britain, France, China plus Germany) and Tehran would be pre-empted by either the US Congress or provocative Israeli actions against Iran.
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By Gerard M. Gallucci
On March 3, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed a joint session of the US Congress to state his case against President Obama completing an agreement with Iran on the latter’s nuclear program. Netanyahu apparently believes that any deal would be a bad one.
The American press focused on Netanyahu’s appearance mainly in terms of US domestic politics. The invitation to address Congress came from the Speaker of the House (also the Republican Party leader there), John Boehner. Boehner may have had foreign policy reasons for giving a foreign political leader an unprecedented opportunity to criticize the sitting US president while himself facing an election back home. But it was primarily another in a very long line of attacks from Republican conservative extremists on a Democratic, African American, centrist President. That much was simply more of the current American take-no-prisoners partisan politics. Using Netanyahu’s stridency in an effort to peel away traditional American Jewish support for the Democratic Party was an added “bonus.”
The real issue raised by the dispute between President Obama and Netanyahu – one that should transcend politics – is whether it is possible to stop Iran from getting the bomb and at what price. In all likelihood, it is not possible without great cost and perhaps not even then. Going to war with Iran might well lead it to move more quickly to weaponize. Its nuclear facilities are widely spread and some apparently deeply buried. “Surgical” strikes would probably not be sufficient to do more than delay and enrage. It might take an all out war and invasion aimed at toppling the current government to destroy the program. This would require a bloody, costly and lengthy effort. In these circumstances, Israel might at some point decide to use its nuclear weapons to “take out” Iran. Obama understands all this and therefore prefers negotiations even if it just kicks the can down the road a bit by winning a longer “breakout” period – the time between the decision to weaponize and actual production of sufficient fissile material for a bomb.
Israel — at least in Netanyahu’s hands — does not want to see its regional nuclear superiority challenged by anyone. It is widely believed that Israel has from dozens to hundreds of nuclear devices. While it is not clear how nuclear weapons can help overcome demographic challenges to the Jewish population in Israel, they do provide a sort of ultimate defense against any effort to push the Jewish state into the sea (as some Iranians and Arabs have advocated). Israel alone now enjoys the nuclear deterrence. This, with the hitherto dependable US umbrella, shelters it from having to accept political compromise with anyone (and especially with the Palestinians). Iran achieving the capacity for nuclear deterrence would severely restrict the ability of Israel to simply do as it pleases without fear of any significant response. Therefore any agreement between the nuclear powers and Iran simply lengthening the time needed for Iran to weaponize is unacceptable.
The danger in all this — one heightened irresponsibly by US Republicans playing politics with Netanyahu — is that any agreement reached between the P5+1 (the US, Russia, Britain, France, China plus Germany) and Tehran would be pre-empted by either the US Congress or provocative Israeli actions against Iran. Either might end efforts to normalize relations between Iran and the outside world. It is such a process of normalization that offers the best hope for eventually reducing the threat of an Iranian bomb. But more could be at stake if Israel finds a way to draw the US into a military attack on Iran. Such a war might well approach the dimensions of an Armageddon. It is this war that Obama fears.
The Republicans should be ashamed of themselves while Netanyahu should simply face the fate of his own public’s judgement on whether his approach best safeguards its interests and security. Meanwhile, we can only hope that both sides in the current negotiations act in complete cognizance of what is at stake for us all in transforming conflict towards a stable peace.
Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010. He was Diplomat-in-Residence at Drake University for the 2013-14 school year and now works as an independent consultant.