What is so striking about listening to US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argue for or against the Iranian nuclear agreement is the degree to which their arguments are parallel.
Both men say the goal is to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb; both men say they want to prevent nuclear proliferation in the area; both men say the issue is so important that they must speak out, even if it causes friction with their great ally.
This agreement, Obama said at his speech supporting the deal last week at American University in Washington, DC, is “a very good deal.”
This agreement, Netanyahu said the day it was signed last month, is a “very bad deal.”
Under the terms of this agreement, Obama said, “Iran is never allowed to build a nuclear weapon...the agreement strictly defines the manner in which its nuclear program can proceed, ensuring that all pathways to a bomb are cut off.”
Under the terms of the agreement, Netanyahu said last week in a video call with the Jewish Federations of North America, Iran’s path to a bomb is not blocked but rather paved. “Worse,” he said, “it gives Iran two paths to the bomb. Iran can get to the bomb by keeping the deal, or Iran could get to the bomb by violating the deal.”
Because of the deal, Obama said in his press conference announcing the accord last month, “we have stopped the spread of nuclear weapons in this region.”
Because of this deal, Netanyahu argued in the video call, “the countries in the region threatened by Iran have already made clear that they will work to develop atomic bombs of their own. So the deal that was supposed to end nuclear proliferation will actually trigger nuclear proliferation. It will trigger an arms race, a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, the most volatile part of the planet. That’s a real nightmare.”
Scuttling the deal with Iran will inevitably lead to war, Obama warned: “The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months from now, but soon.”
Going ahead with the deal will lead to war, Netanyahu predicted: “The claim that we oppose this deal because we want war is not just false. It’s outrageous.Israel wants to dismantle Iran’s nuclear program and Israel wants peace. This deal will advance neither goal. I don’t oppose this deal because I want war. I oppose this deal because I want to prevent war, and this deal will bring war.”
And on and on it goes.
Obama said the supervisory regime set up under the accord will catch Iran if it cheats; Netanyahu maintained that it will not. Obama said it would be impossible to conceal nuclear material in the 24 days before supervisors can have access to declared nuclear sites. And by the way, he quipped, “nuclear material isn’t something you hide in the closet.”
To which Netanyahu counters that the 24-day period is more than enough time to clean up a site of all traces of illicit activity. “It’s like the police giving a drug dealer three-and-a-half-weeks’ notice before raiding his lab,” he said in his video call. “Believe me, you can flush a lot of nuclear meth down the toilet in 24 days.”
Obama said that those who are opposed to the agreement are the same ones who dragged the US into a horrible war in Iraq. Netanyahu said that those who support the deal are of the same ilk as those who applauded a nuclear deal with North Korea in the 1990s – a deal that was rendered meaningless when Pyongyang detonated a nuclear device a little more than a decade later.
And, finally, both leaders say the issue is so important that they must speak out, regardless of the friction it causes with the other.
Obama: “As president of the United States it would be an abrogation of my constitutional duty to act against my best judgment simply because it causes temporary friction with a dear friend and ally [Israel].”
Netanyahu: “My solemn responsibility as prime minister is to make sure that Israel’s concerns are heard. It wasn’t long ago, certainly not that long ago, that the Jewish people were either incapable or unwilling to speak out in the face of mortal threats, and this had devastating consequences. I’ve been very clear: The days when the Jewish people could not or would not speak up for themselves – those days are over.
“Today we can speak out. Today we must speak out.”
SO WHAT’S a person – either a regular Haim, Joe or a US senator or congressman – to think? Obama says that the deal will prevent Iran from getting a bomb, make the region safer, and forestall a war; Netanyahu says it will allow Iran to get a bomb, make the region more dangerous, and bring war closer.
Most folks aren’t nuclear physicists able to independently figure out whether the centrifuges Iran will retain under the agreement will be able to enrich enough weapons- grade uranium or not. They are also not privy to the classified intelligence information.
In the final analysis, it all boils down to trust. Whose judgment do you trust, Netanyahu’s or Obama’s? Who has a better understanding of Iran and the region, Netanyahu or Obama? Who is on the “right side” of history, Netanyahu or Obama? And that is why, possibly, the administration’s arguments in support of the deal – and against those, like New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, who have come out against it – are getting so strident.
This debate is first and foremost about the nuclear issue, clearly.
But there are other issues at stake as well. If a majority of US senators and congressmen vote against this accord – even if they are not able to muster the two-thirds votes in each chamber to override the agreement – what does that say about the level of trust they have in the judgment of their commander in chief? Talk about a sorry legacy.
Mark Dubowitz, the executive director for the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a fierce opponent of the agreement, told a delegation of Israeli diplomatic reporters visiting Washington last week that some 80 senators – well above the 67 needed to override a presidential veto – would vote down the accord if it were not for politics.
But you cannot ignore politics, and politics is involved in this vote in a big way, with the administration leaning very heavily on House and Senate Democrats to support the deal.
Talks with numerous administration officials in Washington, as well as senators and think tank scholars, lead to the conclusion that it is likely that both the House of Representatives and the Senate will vote down the accord in September but then will be unlikely to garner the necessary two-thirds votes to override Obama’s veto, which he has promised to use.
But, Dubowitz said, an initial vote against the deal would constitute a vote of no confidence, with wide-ranging ramifications.
In other words, even if Obama uses his veto, it will matter down the line whether a majority of congressmen and senators voted against.
First of all, he said, the public should not be fooled by European leaders falling over themselves to visit Iran. Most companies, including most European companies, will not rush back into Iran right away, but rather wait and see how things develop. They will wait to see who is the next president, whether he or she will honor the accord or roll it back, and will want to see if all the US sanctions are indeed lifted.
These companies, he said, would not want to risk losing business with US companies in the event that sanctions are kept in place.
They will not want to make economic commitments to Iran that they may then have to scuttle.
A vote in Congress against, even if a two-thirds majority is not secured to override the veto, would also strengthen the hand of the next president in the eventuality that a decision is made to roll back the agreement or introduce new amendments into it.
A no vote would go a long way toward delegitimizing the accord, which is what Netanyahu is betting on, and why he is working so hard to get that no vote.
New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez – who has been very critical of the accord even though he, unlike Schumer, has not yet announced he will vote against it – said that even if the accord moves forward because of a presidential veto, there are a “whole host of issues” that Congress could take up dealing with Iran, and that the stronger the vote against the accord, the easier it would be to move some of those initiatives forward.
“For example, as the author of the Iran sanctions bill, I want to reauthorize them, so at least Iran will know that if they violate the deal, there will be something to go back to,” he said. “Because ‘snap back’ means nothing if you are not snapping back to something of consequence.”
He said that, under US law, the US-imposed sanctions will expire next year, and he wants to get them reauthorized. “I think the stronger the vote against the agreement, the more likely that will happen. I believe that the stronger the vote against, even if it does not rise to the level of an override, will strengthen the hand of the aftermath, which will be very important.”
Menendez said that if the accord moved forward, there were still a “whole host of issues” that Congress could take up to send a strong signal to Iran that breaching the agreement would not be tolerated, and the stronger the initial “nay” vote, he indicated, the easier it would be to get such measures approved.
Which is apparently why Netanyahu, despite the frontal and very public clash with Obama, continues to press hard for a rejection of the deal, even if doing so only infuriates the president.
Obama, Netanyahu knows, will be out of office in January 2017. If the prime minister has learned anything over the years in combating the Iran nuclear program, it is that this is a marathon. A presidential veto of a congressional rejection of the accord does not end the matter once and for all. The race will continue, but, after January 2017, it will continue with another president.
Netanyahu’s gamble is that a congressional rejection of the deal will hobble it, giving the next president the ability to rethink the whole matter.
Netanyahu, as he has made clear in recent private meetings, realizes full well that the consequence of his fighting Obama on this issue is that it will lead to a very difficult year in US-Israel relations. But he believes two things: first, that Israel can withstand another difficult year with the Obama administration; and second, that if ever there was an issue worth fighting a US president, this is it.