Washington Watch: What’s really behind killing the Iran deal?

Netanyahu made a major blunder from the get-go on the Iran issue.

Final round of negotiations on a nuclear deal with Iran continue in Vienna November 21, 2014 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Final round of negotiations on a nuclear deal with Iran continue in Vienna November 21, 2014
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Over the past week one top Iranian security official threatened to “destroy the Zionist entity at lightning speed” while another accused US President Donald Trump of “seeking excuses” to scrap the 2015 nuclear agreement.
One is fantasy, the other is reality.
Iran may dream of “turn[ing] Tel Aviv and Haifa into dust” but its leaders know the Jewish state, unlike the Islamic Republic, has a potent arsenal of nuclear weapons aimed at them. The fantasy, like the North Korean bombast, is for home consumption and to rattle its foes.
Candidate Trump called the nuclear pact “the worst deal ever” and promised AIPAC last year he would “dismantle” it.
Egging him on this week has been Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Both say they’d like just to rip up the document, but it is not that easy. For starters, their own intelligence, security and diplomatic professionals tell them Iran is complying with the spirit and letter of the pact.
But that matters little since their motivation appears more political than strategic.
They are less interested in fixing the nuclear deal than in humiliating Barack Obama by discrediting and destroying his landmark foreign policy achievement.
Their animosity toward the former president blinds them to the danger of their actions.
Trump demonstrated that in dropping the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement and Paris climate accord, as well as with his failed approach to immigration and health care. It’s really about destroying Obama’s legacy and satisfying Trump’s ego.
Netanyahu made a major blunder from the get-go on the Iran issue. Instead of trying to work with the Obama White House to shape the Iran deal, he went on an acrimonious, partisan-tinged offensive, leading the uncompromising Republican congressional opposition.
All he succeeded in doing was rupturing relationships with the White House beyond repair.
Along the way he did considerable damage to Jewish support for Israel and his country’s standing among Democrats, even those who also opposed the deal.
Recent polls show Israel’s following among American Jews continuing to drop, and Netanyahu can take much of the credit for that.
Netanyahu met Sunday with leaders of four Jewish organizations he considers loyal to urge them to keep up the pressure on Trump and Iran. Much of his frantic opposition to an Iran deal is a diversion from any talk about making peace with the Palestinians. He will give that topic his usual insincere lip service but that’s it, and none of those organizations will ask him to do more.
Both leaders face criminal corruption scandals that undermine their legitimacy and may ultimately threaten their families and their governments.
Maybe a war with Iran might be a nice diversion, forcing both nations to rally around their beleaguered leaders.
Trump’s inexperience, ignorance and lack of discipline are leading him to play dangerous games of nuclear brinkmanship with North Korea and Iran. Luckily, neither country has missiles capable of reaching Mar a Lago. Yet.
Netanyahu claims Iran has secret nuclear facilities, which it bars international inspectors from seeing, but he’s presented no evidence.
Last week the Trump administration certified that Iran is meeting its commitments, and by October 15 it has to certify to Congress that Iran is in compliance.
If not, Congress has 60 days to decide whether to re-impose sanctions waived under the agreement or do nothing. The September deadline is set by international agreement, but October’s was set by Congress and is not binding on Iran or the other signatories: Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.
Israeli and American intelligence and security officials say they may not like the agreement but it is better than none at all. The other nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency, which inspects Iranian facilities, say that Iran is meeting its commitments.
Netanyahu likes to rattle his saber and say he might “be forced to take action” to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities on his own, but he is not taken seriously because his generals are opposed to going to war, and he can’t be sure Trump will step in and finish something he starts.
Netanyahu should be worried that Trump’s inept brinksmanship with North Korea could tell the Iranians Washington’s bark is worse than its bite. Pyongyang has made huge strides toward building ICBMs and H-bombs on Trump’s watch, so far with impunity.
Trump will pass the buck to Congress next month.
He won’t abrogate the agreement himself, as he had promised AIPA C; instead he’ll say Iran is in violation of at least the “spirit” of the deal and let lawmakers decide.
Either way, Trump sees an escape from responsibility.
Congress can re-impose sanctions and Iran might walk away from the agreement, or it can just dither and leave the pact intact.
Trump then will be able to say he wanted to kill the deal but Congress wouldn’t let him. It’s a lie, but many will swallow it.
The big risk for Trump is further isolation from world leaders who have little respect for him to begin with.
No other nation will follow his politically motivated leadership on Iran.
If the pact is killed, it could open the door for Iran to make a sprint to the bomb, and undermine any possible peaceful solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis by making it clear than any deal would be subject to the whims of this most erratic president.
Netanyahu may be the only one happy to see the deal die. His message to Trump this week was “fix it or cancel it.” By “fix” he has in mind adding some poison pills that will make it unacceptable to Iran, which said it isn’t interested in renegotiating the pact.
Instead of obsessing on destroying Obama’s legacy, Trump and Netanyahu should focus on Iran’s progress in building a Shi’ite corridor to the Mediterranean.
Having helped Bashar Assad retain power in Syria, Iran and its Hezbollah proxies are spreading their influence in Israel’s backyard. Iran’s destabilizing role throughout the region is a particular threat to Israel and to America’s other friends in the region.
So would be an expanded Iranian presence with bases and factories for missile and other weapons. That is a clear and present danger to Israel, and it is something Trump and Netanyahu need to focus on now instead of obsessing about undermining a past president they despised.