Netanyahu's Impossible Dream
Arms control tends to bring out unwarranted panic and fury, and Netanyahu is squarely in that tradition.
Benjamin Netanyahu came to the U.S. Capitol Tuesday and offered an idea so simple and brilliant that everyone in the White House must have felt dumb for not thinking of it. His alternative to the imperfect deal the U.S. may strike with Iran? A perfect deal.
It was fitting that the Israeli prime minister made reference to the HBO series Game of Thrones, because fantasy pervaded his address. He thinks of negotiations as a process by which one side gets everything it wants and the other side gets nothing.
I'm guessing the next time he goes to a car dealership with a purchase in mind, he'll have all his money at the end, some of which he'll need for cab fare to get home.
Netanyahu took it upon himself to disclose that the Iranian regime "will always be an enemy of America." Well, yes. There's no need to negotiate arms control agreements with your friends.
The Soviet Union, like Iran, was an inveterate foe—and a far more dangerous one. That didn't stop Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan from forging accords designed to make us safer while providing some beneficial inducements to the other side.
Nor did it stop hardliners from objecting. When Reagan signed an arms control agreement with the Soviets, conservative groups ran newspaper ads likening him to Neville Chamberlain. "Appeasement is as unwise in 1988 as in 1938," they proclaimed.
Arms control tends to bring out unwarranted panic and fury, and Netanyahu is squarely in that tradition. It's true that the deal the administration hopes to get would not guarantee that Iran will never get nuclear weapons. But it offers a genuine prospect of obstructing and delaying that outcome for a decade or more.
The prime minister's oration was rich in contradictions. He complained that, if Iran abrogated the deal, it would be able to build a bomb in a year or less. But right now that "breakout time" is much shorter—about three months. Before the temporary agreement reached in 2013, it was just a month or so.
He warns that Iran will cheat. That risk is why National Security Adviser Susan Rice says the administration's motto is "distrust and verify." A deal would compel Iran to give inspectors unprecedented access to confirm compliance—and afford the U.S. and its allies plenty of time to take action if it cheats.
Cheating is not inevitable. Recently the International Atomic Energy Agency, in a report obtained by The New York Times, "reaffirmed that Iran had complied with its responsibilities under an interim agreement during the negotiations to suspend production of nuclear fuel that could be quickly converted to bomb-grade, and limit production of reactor-grade fuel."
A treaty that shackles Iran for 10 years is unacceptable, Netanyahu argues, because that is a "blink in the eye of the life of a nation." But there is no such thing as an eternal bargain. Even if the U.S. got the Iranians to accept a permanent ban, they could abandon it anytime. So could we.
He claims the world can force capitulation with sanctions: "Iran's nuclear program can be rolled back well beyond the current proposal by insisting on a better deal and keeping up the pressure on a very vulnerable regime, especially given the recent collapse in the price of oil."
As if. The regime has weathered far worse conditions than these. It survived the 1980s in spite of a collapse in the price of oil, U.S. economic sanctions, and a devastating eight-year war with Iraq.
On the one hand, the prime minister thinks the Tehran government would launch a suicidal nuclear attack on Israel if it could. On the other, he thinks it will do anything to escape the considerably milder pain of economic isolation. He can't be right on both. More likely he's right on neither.
The real option is a military attack, which at best would delay Iran's acquisition of a bomb for a few years, while giving it a powerful new inducement. Not to mention that we would then be at war with Iran, which might not be a cakewalk.
The negotiations are not final and may not produce an agreement. Iran may want nukes more than it wants anything else.
But there is a clear difference between what the administration seeks and what Netanyahu envisions. Obama has in mind a decent deal that may actually come to pass. Netanyahu has a better one, which won't.