Analysis: On Iran, politics cloud fateful decisions as world approaches a Vienna moment

Washington's political class may obsess over the optics of Netanyahu's address. But it must prepare for the potential of greater crisis to come.

US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu look out a window (photo credit: OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PHOTO BY PETE SOUZA)
US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu look out a window
WASHINGTON – Prime Minister Benjam in Netanyahu’s upcoming speech to Congress may be a red herring.
In Israeli polls, his delivery may nibble at the bits of undeclared voters. The optics of attendance may embarrass the man. Great television is guaranteed. He may, after all, knock it out of the park.
But on the policy in question, the ship has sailed for Bushehr before Bibi’s boarding.
World powers, led by the United States, have finally presented Iran with an historic nuclear deal. The outcome of this process now falls to the leadership in Iran. It is no longer in Israel’s hands, if it ever was.
Iran's negotiators in Vienna now have until March 31 to decide whether or not to accept a political framework agreement, which will structure a larger nuclear deal. By June, diplomats hope to have solidified the comprehensive agreement.
To suggest Netanyahu’s speech was politically timed and nothing more, one must discount 15 years of his near-constant obsession over the implications of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. President Barack Obama is correct: Netanyahu and his allies do not believe a good deal with such a government is possible.
With an agreement now officially on the table, Israel is lamenting that a year’s worth of quiet briefings from Washington on the process proved futile. From the perspective of the government, private understandings over Israel's security needs are not being honored.
If Israel has indeed seen details of the proposal, Netanyahu's fit must be counted and contextualized: After 15 years of fighting, he believes Washington is settling for a deal he cannot accept.
Assuming Israel’s position is principled, is there evidence to believe Iran seeks nuclearization in the future, as well as the extermination of the Jewish state? We reach an ominous conclusion: Netanyahu’s upcoming speech is merely a preview of darker times to come.
Protocol and politics cannot mask substantive policy differences on an issue so grave as to be called existential by Israel – and not only by Israel, but by the Obama administration, repeatedly. The United States is now telling the Israeli government how best it can defend itself, and Israel is disagreeing publicly.
“There are real differences substantively, but that’s separate and apart from the whole issue of Mr. Netanyahu coming to Washington,” Obama told journalists at a press conference at the White House on Monday.
“I am going to the United States not because I seek a confrontation with the president, but to speak up for the very survival of my country,” Netanyahu responded on Tuesday, in a reactive address.
March 17 may seem fated now. But the scheduling of Israel’s election for that day came well after the UN Security Council’s five permanent members and Germany set out the goal of reaching a political framework agreement with Iran less than two weeks later, by March 31.
Politics seem to have played a role in Netanyahu’s calculation. But Israeli sources have told this publication for months – well before an election was on the horizon – that they feared this moment, when their private pleas to Washington would be muted and discounted, a deal would be presented and they would find themselves with no choice but to break publicly with the White House.
Six years of distrust led us to this precipice.
But no moment in that long story of crisis with Iran has forced repositioning so hard and fast as today, when Israel feels cornered. Politics oversimplifies the crisis these countries now face.
A desperate Netanyahu is confronting the prospects of a defeat far greater than what may befall him on March 17 – defeat on March 31. This is a leader who has deeply rooted, principled fears of Iran, and he is watching Obama snatch his leverage away.
Concerns about rudeness or inappropriate protocol typically fall by the wayside when a nation considers its national security fundamentally jeopardized. At least, that is how Netanyahu is feeling and explains how he is behaving.
Disagreeing with the prime minister on a policy level, even vehemently, still grants him the benefit of his principles, principles that have been recognized as substantive by many in Washington, including those across the aisle from the conservatives.
For that reason, protocol is unlikely to shut the ears of lawmakers on Capitol Hill come March 3. The alternative may be more violent debates ahead.