Analysis de Rafael L. Bardají United States, Israel and Iran

17/03/2015

Words have consequences. For that reason, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted against all odds to address the US Congress to discuss Iran. At home, the opposition accused him of electioneering; the American administration of tightening the bilateral relationship. But what he considered his duty as responsible for the survival of his country finally won and he delivered his speech.

The reason for his determination in explained by his schedule: at the end of the month, the Western powers, led by America and Iran have to announce a framework agreement enabling them to culminate in a final compromise on the future of Iran's nuclear program in June. What Netanyahu wanted was to warn of the negative consequences of signing a bad deal before the negotiation is definitely closed, and remind that there are other options apart from a no-agreement or war with Iran.

For Netanyahu, the agreement, given its current direction, is bad, very bad for three basic reasons: first, because it allows Iran to keep virtually all of its nuclear infrastructure (which in the best case would be partially disconnected, but not destroyed), so reconstituting the nuclear program whenever Tehran chose to would be relatively simple; second, because it ignores other Iranian military advances, linked to their ability to represent a global threat, such as its ballistic missile program (and as we saw a few days ago, also cruise missiles); third, because it forgets the nature of the regime of the ayatollahs, bent from its very beginning on exporting the Khomeini revolution throughout the region; unscrupulous to resort to terrorism; brutal in its repressive behaviour against their own people; and we should not forget, its current growing influence throughout the Middle East.

An agreement allowing Iran to retain the status of a virtual nuclear power would have dire consequences for arms control in the region. As we have seen this very week, Saudi Arabia has strengthened its ties with South Korea with an eye on nuclear cooperation, not to mention its relations with the governments of Pakistan. Fear of a Persian, Shiite and Islamist bomb would awaken nuclear temptation throughout the area. 

Israel's problem is that President Obama believes that achieving a bad deal is better than having no agreement, whereas Netanyahu believes it is better not to have an agreement than signing a bad deal. During all these years, positions have not changed one iota in any of the two administrations. Therefore, eager for sanctions to continue on Iran for as long as it does not change its predatory habits, the American Congress is the last lever he has left. The legislators could influence Obama and, who knows, maybe change his plans.

Perhaps Netanyahu will not win the elections on the 17th (something which would certainly be celebrated in the White House), but he would leave a good legacy to manage this issue: the debate is no longer whether to reach an agreement or not with Iran, but whether to sign or not a bad deal. And what exactly is a bad and a good agreement. Here, the debate has gotten out of Obama's hand. These days, in fact, have witnessed a growing miscommunication on this issue, with the latest one coming from the Secretary of State, John Kerry, saying the deal ‘would never be binding.’ And if it is not going to be binding, why sign it in the first place?

Words have consequences and those of the Israeli Prime Minister have mobilised American legislators, more vigilant than ever about the terms of negotiation, and have served to remember that over 70% of the American people reject any agreement that does not end with the Iranian threat. Quite possibly what the US president would want is that it was not remembered or spoken of.