WASHINGTON – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on Tuesday was dramatic by any measure.
It was dramatic because of the ceaseless hype. It was dramatic because of the preelection stakes. It was dramatic because of the weighty subject matter, and the august venue.
When listening to any theatrical speech, it is always instructive to ask two basic questions: What is new? And what is missing? What was somewhat striking about Netanyahu’s 45-minute address is that upon first listen, not that much of it seemed new.
Some of the lines that Netanyahu delivered he has used before, such as defeating Islamic State but letting Iran attain nuclear weapons being akin to winning the battle, but losing the war; or that while both Iran and Islamic State have an Islamic caliphate as their ultimate goal, their only difference is who will rule it.
There were some other new and memorable lines, such as while the American Constitution promises life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, “Iran’s founding document pledges death, tyranny and the pursuit of jihad.”
Or that “when it comes to Iran and Islamic State, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy”; or “Inspectors document violations, they don’t stop them”; or that the emerging agreement with Iran “won’t be a farewell to arms, it would be a farewell to arms control.”
But those lines were used to articulate well-known policy ideas that Netanyahu has articulated numerous times in the past: that Iran should not be given a pass just because it is also fighting Islamic State; that a supervisory regiment to ensure Tehran abides by a nuclear deal is not sufficient; and that the agreement in the works, which will ultimately grant Iran nuclear capabilities, is the end of nonproliferation in the Middle East.
There were three new elements in the speech. The first had to do with Israel’s concern about the “sunset” of the agreement: that the arrangement will only last for about a decade, after which sanctions can be lifted and Iran will be able to go on its merry way.
Netanyahu added a new dimension to the debate by saying that before lifting those restrictions, the world should demand of Iran three things: that it stop its aggression against its neighbors in the Middle East; that it stop supporting terrorism around the world; and that it stop “threatening to annihilate my country, Israel – the one and only Jewish state.”
“If the [P5+1] world powers are not prepared to insist that Iran change its behavior before a deal is signed, at the very least they should insist that Iran change its behavior before a deal expires,” he asserted.
“If Iran changes its behavior, the restrictions would be lifted. If Iran doesn’t change its behavior, the restrictions should not be lifted. If Iran wants to be treated like a normal country, let it act like a normal country.”
By mentioning those three areas in the speech, the prime minister has now helped shape the debate on what conditions should be inserted into any accord.
Or, as Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote in a piece this week that was not uncritical of the address, “What Netanyahu did Tuesday was raise the bar for [US President Barack] Obama. Any deal that the administration signs will have to address the concerns Netanyahu voiced.”
The second new element of the speech had to do with the oft-heard argument that Iran already has the nuclear know-how and knowledge, and you cannot unlearn knowledge. US National Security Advisor Susan Rice used that argument in the speech she delivered to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Conference on Monday evening, essentially a rejoinder to the Netanyahu speech that had not even been delivered yet.
“The plain fact is, no one can make Iran unlearn the scientific and nuclear expertise it already possesses,” she stated.
True, Netanyahu told Congress – but in a new and catchy formulation – scientific know-how and expertise without the infrastructure to implement it is much preferable.
“Nuclear know-how without nuclear infrastructure doesn’t get you very much,” he said. “A race-car driver without a car can’t drive; a pilot without a plane can’t fly. Without thousands of centrifuges, tons of enriched uranium or heavy-water facilities, Iran can’t make nuclear weapons.”
The emerging deal, he argued, will allow that infrastructure to remain in place, to be used down the line.
And the final new element in the speech – probably the most important – was the suggestion that Israel could live with an imperfect deal.
Three years ago this month, as Netanyahu was on his way to Washington to address that year’s AIPAC Conference and at the same time have a meeting with Obama, he stopped in Ottawa for a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. During that visit, he laid out the conditions Israel felt needed to be met before the West could begin negotiating with Tehran about its nuclear program: the closure of the nuclear facility at Qom, the removal from Iran of all uranium enriched over 3.5 percent, and the end of all uranium enrichment inside the country. Since then, he has pretty much stuck by those demands.
But according to Rice, those conditions are simply unattainable. As desirable as it would be for the Islamic Republic to have to give up all its domestic enrichment capacity, she said, that goal is “neither realistic nor achievable.”
Netanyahu broadly hinted during his speech that Jerusalem could accept some symbolic enrichment inside Iran, though he did not say so explicitly. Pressing on Congress to demand a better deal, he said, “We’re being told that the only alternative to this bad deal is war. That’s just not true – the alternative to this bad deal is a much better deal.”
That better deal, he maintained, “would not leave Iran with a vast nuclear infrastructure and such a short breakout time. A better deal [would] keep the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in place until Iran’s aggression ends.”
And although that better deal may be one that “Israel and its neighbors may not like,” it is one with which they could live.
And that segues into the one major thing Netanyahu omitted from his speech: He did not call for an end to all enrichment, as he did in Ottawa and has done many times and in many different locations since.
This omission, coupled with his statement that Israel and other states in the region could accept a “better” deal, even though they may not like it, was a signal that Jerusalem could live with a “symbolic” level of enrichment in Iran that would still leave that country’s capacity to breakout years away.
And that is a not-insignificant change in policy, even though it was tucked very quietly and deep inside a speech that – considering all the fanfare it triggered – was very loud.