Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Address to Congress
I have now heard Bibi’s 3 March speech once and read it three times. It is a brilliant speech, superbly crafted and delivered with the right balance of concision and pauses, but fundamentally flawed in its logic and selective use of evidence. Since when did logic convince anyone of anything? But perhaps facts will. Besides, convincing is beside the point. The speech was not intended to persuade anyone of anything. This was grandstanding in the grand manner with conviction, passion and organized superbly. And the speech builds to a marvelous crescendo.
The speech is organized in seven parts:
Part I: A reaffirmation of the firm and eternal ties between the U.S. and Israel
Part II: A depiction of Iran as run by an unwavering Satan
Part III: A Prolegomena to Nuclear Negotiations
Part IV: An Analysis of those Negotiations
Part V: A Summary of the Bottom Line
Part VI: A Proposed Alternative
Part VII: An Emotional Postscript.
This blog will analyze the first three parts.
Part I – Israel and the U.S.
Bibi began by insisting his speech was above politics. Though it gave him unprecedented exposure two weeks before Israelis go the polls, I believe him. I do not think he came to Washington to boost his electoral chances at home. First, if that was his motive, the anticipated repercussions of his visible breech with Obama would play negatively back home among middle road voters whom he needed to woo at the same time as his standing up to the White House would swell the chests of his own ardent supporters. The risk was a mug’s game.
At the same time, he did not come to Washington to sew divisions within the Democratic Party and went out of his way, not only to celebrate the links between Israel and U.S., but to laud Obama’s consistent support for Israel, overt support, such as strengthening security cooperation and intelligence sharing and opposing anti-Israel resolutions at the U.N., less widely known support such as Obama’s response to Bibi’s request for urgent aid in the face of the 2010 raging Carmel forest fire, vital assistance in 2011 when Israel’s embassy in Cairo was under siege, and in 2014 when Obama supported more missile interceptors during the Gaza summer operation in the conflict with Hamas. Bibi also alluded to much more covert cooperation which might never be known because those efforts touch on some of the most sensitive and strategic issues that arise between an American president and an Israeli prime minister. Bibi recognized, however, that such praise could never overcome the deep schisms his speech to Congress and open challenge to the White House Iranian policy had brought about.
So why did he come? The content and structure of the speech point to its purpose. The next section on Iran signaled the purpose: it was his obligation to address the issue before the American public, the Israeli public and the world public. There could be no better place than the American Congress.
Part II – Iran
For Bibi, Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, as is well known, poses an existential threat not only to Israel, but to Jews everywhere. This could not be clearer than his link of contemporary Iran with ancient Persia, the link with Purim and the threat of the Jew-hater, Haman. As Bibi said, “Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, spews the oldest hatred, the oldest hatred of anti-Semitism with the newest technology. He tweets that Israel must be annihilated.” I have been unable to determine, as some have contended, that these interpretations are based on a twisted translation of what he really said. However, as Abraham H. Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s National Director noted in June 2013, Khamenei in a Facebook posting on the eve of Iran’s 14 June presidential elections, featured a classic anti-Semitic picture portraying Jews, in particular, AIPAC, as controlling the United States government. A year ago on 14 March Nowruz, the Persian New Year, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei insisted that the historical reality of the Holocaust is “unknown”; he questioned whether it “actually did happen.”
Netanyahu then linked the Iranian leader’s support for anti-Semitism with the views of his terrorist satraps. Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah leader, is quoted as stating, “If all the Jews gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of chasing them down around the world.” Bibi could also have cited other quotes, such as the following two just as often attributed to Nasrallah. “They [Jews] are a cancer which is liable to spread at any moment.” (This was originally on an Israeli government website http://tinyurl.com/99hyz but I have been unable to recover it.) There is another quote from Amal Saad-Ghorayeb’s Hizbu’llah: Politics and Religion, “If we searched the entire world for a person more cowardly, despicable, weak and feeble in psyche, mind, ideology and religion, we would not find anyone like the Jew. Notice, we do not say the Israeli.” (fn. 20, ch. 8) Saad-Ghorayeb subsequently admitted the quote was erroneous, though it was also included in her PhD thesis; she admits she should have properly checked it.
Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your politics, the other two statements also cannot be authentically attributed to Nasrallah as much as I personally disapprove of his politics. The one Bibi cited was traced back to an article by Badih Chayban in Beirut’s English-language Daily Star on 23 October 2002, but the paper’s editor would not vouch for its accuracy or that of his former reporter. He even insisted that Chayban had never interviewed Nasrallah or anyone else. No other news source cited these quotes in their reports on Nasrallah, but Bibi is correct that Israel is surrounded by Iranian satraps in Gaza, Lebanon and the Golan with Syria in the background slaughtering its own citizens. Further, other Iranian proxies are seizing power in Iraq and Yemen.
I believe his assessment that “Iran’s regime poses a grave threat, not only to Israel, but also to the peace of the entire world,” is also accurate and that Iran is run by “religious zealots” through a “dark and brutal dictatorship” dedicated to exporting “the revolution throughout the world.” Though uttered in part as flattery to his hosts, Netanyahu is also correct in contrasting Iran with America and its promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Further, Iran has certainly targeted Americans in the past. Since U.S. diplomats were held hostage in Tehran. Iranians were behind the killing of American marines in Beirut and the killing of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. In July 2011, The Wall Street Journal reported that Iranians had been arming anti-American militants in both theatres of war, a report confirmed by U.S. State Department officials. Finally, Netanyahu was correct that Iranian officials were behind the plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador, Adel Al-Jubeir, with a bomb in a restaurant in Washington. Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed that the plan was “conceived, sponsored and was directed from Iran” by a faction of the Iranian government.
With a 90% accuracy rate in his examples – unusual for Bibi – must we “all stand together to stop Iran’s march of conquest?” Sure! That is what the P5+1 are doing. Netanyahu’s Israel is the outlier, not America. The question is how one stands against Iran and with what tools? The key question is – what has this all to do with the nuclear negotiations? In the next section, Bibi set the stage for the nuclear negotiations.
Part III: A Prolegomena to Nuclear Negotiations
Netanyahu first had to demonize Iran further. Did he do so by returning to his more normal pattern of hyperbole and distortion lest he suddenly earn a reputation for veracity and be declared a credible witness as a result of the first one-third of his address to Congress? Netanyahu declared that, “two years ago, we were told to give President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif a chance to bring change and moderation to Iran.” Who claimed that? Rouhani had run on a platform of moderation. He openly campaigned on re-opening a dialogue with the U.S. The nuclear negotiations were not intended to make Iran moderate, but resulted from Iran’s declared commitment to follow a path of moderation. Netanyahu had deliberately reversed the causal order.
Further, the Obama regime had not seen its objective as making Iran a moderate regime. The White House had three goals. First, to be the first American administration since the end of the Cold War to prevent a new nuclear power from emerging; second, to prevent a nuclear conflict in the Middle East; third, to establish a different relationship between America and Iran.
Was Rouhani sincere in his professed outreach? In his speech immediately after his inauguration he promised a government of righteousness, honesty and trustworthiness and a rejection of extremism and declared, “The people voted for moderation…the people want to live better, to have dignity, and enjoy a stable life. They want to recapture their deserving position among nations.” Rouhani called for better relations with the world and the end of international sanctions. “The only path to interact with Iran is through negotiations on equal grounds, reciprocal trust-building, mutual respect and reducing hostilities.”
The central issue was whether to continue coercive diplomacy by upping the ante and increasing the pressure on an Iran already suffering from accelerating inflation and a weakened currency resulting from the sanctions already in place, or whether to use those pressures to initiate a program of constructive engagement based on Rohani’s offer to improve relations by making the nuclear program more transparent and improve relations with Western nations. Ronald Reagan had tried coercive diplomacy with Pakistan and vowed that country would not acquire nuclear weapons; he failed. Bill Clinton did the same with North Korea that now has probably accumulated one hundred nuclear bombs. Most saw such efforts as futile and incapable of preventing a country from acquiring nuclear weapons. Further, experts on Iran decried America’s failure to offer inducements and encouragement to the previous moderate president, Mohammad Khatami, and pointed to America’s failure to take advantage of a historic, but time-sensitive, opportunity.
But that is not how Netanyahu framed the debate. Instead, the regime of the ayatollahs was and remains a monolithic monstrosity. Rouhani’s insistence on emphasizing “economic priorities, detente with the West, enhanced relations with Iran’s neighbors, new nuclear diplomacy, respect for guilds and syndicates in Iran, an inclusive non-factional government of ‘moderation and consensus’, and political tolerance,” was for Netanyahu a sham. Rouhani was a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
How do you find out? Bibi argued that you do so by checking whether Rouhani’s regime had become more moderate in treating its own citizens. How did the new government rate? For Netanyahu, terribly. “Rouhani’s government hangs gays, persecutes Christians, jails journalists and executes even more prisoners than before.” It is not clear why Bibi left the persecution of Bahá’is off his list. The conclusion was clearly drawn from Benjamin Weinthal’s report for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Rouhani’s first hundred days. The report did point to the prosecution of Christians for drinking communion wine during a religious service, the arrest of “homosexuals and devil worshippers,” the continued persecution of embattled practitioners of the Bahá’i faith, and the uptick in executions in the Islamic Republic since the presidential elections, The report offered no evidence of any moderation by the Rouhani government.
But that report was for the first hundred days. What about later? In January 2014, a UN report stated that Iran continued to imprison Christians for their faith and designated house churches and evangelical Christians as “threats to national security.” At least 49 Christians were among 307 religious minorities being held in Iranian jails as of January 2014. The UN report berated Iran for its hostility to Jews, Bahá’is, Zoroastrians and Dervish Muslims as well, though, as reported in a recent blog of mine, the Iranian government recently launched a charm and money contribution campaign for the remnant of 4,000 Jews remaining in Iran. What the report also said was that Rouhani had not proven capable yet of controlling the hard-liners.
Those hard-liners explicitly reject a deal, as much to protect their positions and their perks as out of extreme ideological positions. A deal once concluded would enable the moderates to consolidate their power.
Is the execution rate in Iran an appropriate measure of moderation? I believe it is a measure of the strength of the deep state in Iran. China is often cited for its high execution rate, but it is not counted for accurate records are unavailable. China probably executes thousands per year, more than the rest of the world put together. Yet Israel is actively seeking to enhance trade with China. In 2013, based on official records, of 778 executions around the world, Iran and Iraq were jointly responsible for 538 of them, 369 in Iran, 55 more than in 2012. Activists insist that the figure is much higher and that the actual number of executions was more than twice that number. In 2014, using both official and unofficial sources, the Iran Human Rights Centre reported that the numbers executed were slightly up again to a total of 721, the vast majority for drug trafficking, but a significant minority for murder and a smaller number for rape and armed robbery. One person was executed for sodomy and a second for kidnapping. Four – Ghalamreza Khosravi, Omid Pin, Imam Galavi and Hashem Shabaninejad – were executed for Moharebeh, “waging war against God and the state.”
In any case, is Iran’s treatment of religious minorities and gays, is its execution rate, the litmus test of Iran’s greater moderation in the effort to produce nuclear weapons? Bibi, as if anticipating such a question, shifted to four foreign policy issues: Iran’s support for terrorism, Iran’s continued anti-American practices, Iranian ideology and Islamic State. With respect to the first, support for terrorism, Bibi pointed to Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif who had laid a wreath at the grave of Imad Mughniyeh (al-Hajj Radwan), head of Hezbollah military intelligence and a possible successor to Nasrallah as head of Hezbollah. Mughniyeh was behind the Beirut barracks bombing and the two 1983 U.S. embassy bombings. He was also indicted in Argentina for his alleged role in the 1992 Israeli embassy attack in Buenos Aires. U.S. officials accused Mughniyeh of killing more United States citizens than any other militant prior to Osama bin Laden.
Yet Zarif was photographed laying a wreath at the grave of Mughniyeh on 14 January 2014 just days after negotiations based on the Joint Plan of Action commenced to move Iran towards a strictly peaceful use of its nuclear facilities. Netanyahu was wise to choose that incident for it was widely viewed as sending a negative signal of Iranian intentions. Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, condemned the action. “The inhumane violence that Moughniyeh perpetrated – and that Lebanese Hezbollah continues to perpetrate in the region with Iran’s financial and material support – has had profoundly destabilizing and deadly effects for Lebanon and the region.”
Clearly, Bibi had chosen a symbolic support for terrorism that touched Americans rather than a concrete incident illustrating continuing Iranian support for terrorism. For example, Netanyahu could have cited an event that took place two months later when the Israeli navy intercepted a freighter loaded with dozens of Syrian-made M-302 rockets evidently bound for Hamas in Gaza, rockets capable of hitting any target in Israel. They were hidden under bags of concrete. But then Zarif in turn could have cited Reagan’s support for Saddam Hussein’s terrorist regime and its war against Iran, for Reagan had provided Iraq with aerial photographs of Iranian troop movements upon which Iraq blasted shells of mustard gas. There were fifty thousand casualties, including thousands of deaths, many more on balance than the Americans had suffered from state-sponsored terrorism.
While portraying Zarif as a supporter of terrorism, Netanyahu deliberately ignored a number of signs and signals communicated by Zarif of a change in Iranian policy. Robin Wright in his portrait of Zarif in the 26 May 2014 issue of The New Yorker called “The Adversary: Is Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Javad Zarif, for real?” opens with a very revealing story. Zarif, after coming into office and opening a new twitter account, sent out his second tweet. It wished Jews all around the world a “Happy Rosh Hashanah.” What a contrast this was with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who had challenged Israel’s right to exist, urged Jews to return to the countries they came from, and questioned the occurrence of the Holocaust. Suspecting something phony, Christine Pelosi, daughter of Democratic Minority House leader, Nancy Pelosi, sent a tweet. “Thanks. The New Year would be even sweeter if you would end Iran’s Holocaust denial, sir.” Christine Pelosi’s husband is Jewish and their daughter attends a Jewish preschool. Zarif responded: “Iran never denied it. The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone. Happy New Year.” Subsequently in the Iranian parliament, Zarif came close to being censured for insisting that the Holocaust was a “horrifying tragedy.”
Thus commenced the new opening and dialogue between Americans and Iranians, easier since Zarif, like Netanyahu, spent years living in the U.S. and his two children are American citizens based on their place of birth. On 26 September, Zarif met John Kerry at the UN to discuss resuming negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program. President Rouhani, in New York for the General Assembly, spoke the next day for fifteen minutes on the phone to President Obama, the first conversation between Iranian and American leaders since the Shah’s ouster in 1979.
Netanyahu’s appeal to American sensibilities was his main reason for emphasizing the references to America as “The Great Satan” and calling for “Death to America.” What was left out is that when Zarif took his walk with Kerry for fifteen minutes in Europe in mid-January, Zarif was hauled before Parliament in Iran to explain why he was becoming intimate with America, “The Great Stan,” and then was interrogated to determine whether or not he was giving in to America’s great demands and endless sabotage of the talks. But citing such facts would detract from Netanhayu’s pitch that the leadership of Iran is a monolith. Further, it might bring attention to the fact that Zarif overtly eschews depicting America in that way.
As Ben Rhodes, Obama’s White House spokesman said, “There is a constituency that now has some degree of power in the Iranian system, that really wants to climb out of this isolation, and is willing to do things that they didn’t previously do…We don’t know how far this can go—both on the nuclear issue and on the broader relationship…They’ve got to decide whether we’re the Great Satan or whether we are their ticket into the community of nations.”
Netanyahu had two more cards to play before he got to the heart of the matter, the nuclear negotiations – ideology and the Islamic State card. He claimed that the Iranian regime was deeply rooted in militant Islam and hence inherently anti-American. Though Iranian ideology is indeed rooted deeply in Islamism, it is also blended in with nationalism, nativism and non-membership in any bloc but its own, especially the American-led Western bloc and the Eastern bloc. Moreover, in spite of George W. Bush’s insistence that Iran was part of the axis of evil, in 2002 74% of Iranians favoured resumption of relations with the U.S. However, ideology did dictate that punishment be meted out to the pollsters. Abbas Abdi and Hossein Ali Qazian were sentenced to jail for eight and nine years respectively for “publishing nonscientific research.” As George W. Bush in a rare case of insight and clarity said, “The people of Iran want the same freedoms, human rights, and opportunities as people around the world. Their government should listen to their hopes. In the last two Iranian presidential elections and in nearly a dozen parliamentary and local elections, the vast majority of the Iranian people voted for political and economic reform. Yet their voices are not being listened to by the unelected people who are the real rulers of Iran.”
Ideology does play a harsh repressive role, but there are other competing forces and voices within the Iranian spectrum that percolate to the top. Under President Mohammad Khatemi, errors by both sides sabotaged the efforts for “a dialogue of civilizations” The reality is, in fact, that America has won the battle for the hearts and minds of the Iranian people, not the dictatorial ayatollahs and zealots. The issue is how to take advantage of that fact.
What about Netanyahu’s use of the Islamic State card? “The battle between Iran and ISIS doesn’t turn Iran into a friend of America [condescending and insulting]. Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam. One calls itself the Islamic Republic. The other calls itself the Islamic State. Both want to impose a militant Islamic empire first on the region and then on the entire world. They just disagree among themselves who will be the ruler of that empire. In this deadly game of thrones, there’s no place for America or for Israel, no peace for Christians, Jews or Muslims who don’t share the Islamist medieval creed, no rights for women, no freedom for anyone. So when it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy.”
Impressive phrasing but false reasoning. If Americans and Iranians can forge an implicit cooperative arrangement to defeat the far more extremist Islamic State, that will have repercussions within Iran. Netanyahu’s reasoning is that, “Iran could soon be armed with intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear bombs.” Intercontinental missiles, possibly. But under a negotiated regime, no nuclear bombs. And even without such a regime, Iran, as Mossad reported to the Israeli government, is a lot further from a nuclear bomb than some politicians would lead us to believe. Bibi may indeed be right that, “the greatest danger facing our world is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons.” But the issue is whether coercive diplomacy or constructive engagement is the best route to prevent such an outcome. In the past, coercive diplomacy has had a record of failure. Can constructive engagement succeed?
Thus far I have analyzed the first half of Netanyahu’s address to the U.S. Congress in which Netanyahu set the stage for his critique of the negotiations and the impending agreement. Basically, he insisted that America and Israel were true partners through thick and thin. At the same time he insisted that Iran was an implacable foe of America as well as Israel whether so-called moderates were in power or whether extremists were. In the second half, Netanyahu addressed the negotiations directly.
Part IV The Nuclear Negotiations
Netanyahu began this direct attack on the negotiations with his most general and fundamental criticism. The greatest danger facing our world is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons. For Netanyahu, that is exactly what could happen if the deal now being negotiated is accepted by Iran. He did not say “would” or suggest he had even more infallible power than a pope because he had the ability to predict the future. And he is correct. That “could” happen. But what is the likelihood of that result if there is a deal versus if there is no deal (or, as he finally suggested before he ended his speech, if there is a better deal than the one probably on the table). Instead of offering the pros and cons of either scenario or the third one he eventually brought up, Bibi slipped from “could” to “would”.
Netanyahu in his next assertion suggested that an Islamist state possessing nuclear arms would result from the negotiations. As he said, the deal will all but guarantee that Iran gets those weapons, lots of them. What is the basis of this prediction? Perhaps that almost certain outcome is built into the deal. Netanyahu argues that the deal contains two basic provisions. Netanyahu calls them “concessions” even though they are not concessions in terms of the 13 November 2013 Joint Plan of Action which envisioned Iran retaining a capacity to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. The question is how many are sufficient for the peaceful use of nuclear weapons.
Netanyahu declared that the major concession would leave Iran with a vast nuclear infrastructure. What is a vast infrastructure? Vast is an equivocal adjective. By vast, does Bibi mean great in size, very large in numbers, covering a great expanse of territory or consisting in a great variety and type of centrifuges with different speeds and intensities. Or perhaps he means a combination of some or all of them. The last seems unlikely since there are only three types, basically two older models and one modern high speed type of gas centrifuge though there are new models under development such as Australia’s laser being put into a commercial test in the U.S. Similarly, since, excluding the Tehran research reactor, nuclear production is located at Fordow, Arak and Natanz so Netanyahu could not be referring to a vast expanse of territory. He must have been referring to the central issue, the number of centrifuges.
Netanyahu had been correct in claiming that not a single nuclear facility would be demolished. Thousands of centrifuges would continue to be used to enrich uranium. Thousands more would be temporarily disconnected, but not destroyed. But the question was whether those disconnected and those not yet commissioned would pose a danger. To assert this would was an explicit insult to the IAEA and the P5+1 negotiators and the technical staff.
From 2008 to 2013 when the Joint Plan of Action was signed, Iran roughly tripled the number of centrifuges it had, from 6,000 to 19,000, 9,000 of them operating. In speeches, the ayatollah leadership had articulated an ambition to have 50,000 in operation. Fifty thousand might be considered a vast number for Iran. Nineteen thousand was considered too large a number by P5+1 during the negotiations throughout 2014. The goal, seemingly achieved, was to push Iran back to 6,500 centrifuges. About half would be of the advanced high-speed variety. Was that number considered “vast”? Not according to the IAEA, the international agency monitoring the capacities of various countries to produce enriched uranium under the international non-proliferation treaty.
Netanyahu had now come to one central issue. He was clearly engaged in extraordinary hyperbole. Further, he was late in the game. All along, he had pushed for a zero sum game – NO centrifuges for Iran. In his Congress speech, he seemed to have modified his position to argue that Iran would still be left with too many under the agreement. Making this argument in a politically divisive climate and a context of hyperbolic statements and without any detailed arguments to back up his claim, an argument that might have been put forth as a reasonable position about a year ago, especially if backed up by data and analysis, now came across as desperation by an individual with an inflated vision of himself and backed into a corner.
Though he had been correct in asserting that simply disconnecting a few pipes, as he seemed to suggest, would be an inadequate step, it would be hard to find anyone who disagreed with such an assertion. The real question was whether the de-commissioned and unused centrifuges would be stored in a safe manner and at a location where they could not be easily put back into production.
Though he made his claim, it had virtually no credibility in terms of known facts, but he made the claim as if it were a fact. And he was applauded for it. Why? Because leading Republicans make the same wild assertions that Bibi just echoed. Then he stretched the truth even further and engaged in an outright lie when he claimed that Iran’s nuclear program would be left largely intact. The program’s goals of 50,000 centrifuges had been stopped in its tracks. The actual number of centrifuges that would be left in an operating capacity would have been rolled back to 6,500.
The conclusion of every single expert, including Israeli ones, was not the one Netanyahu had made that Iran’s break-out time would be very short – even shorter by Israeli calculations – but would be about a year, sufficient time to make enough highly enriched fuel of 90% for one nuclear device. Perhaps one year was too short to allow the reports of inspectors to filter through the capitals of various states and to put measures in place to counteract an Iranian effort. But attend to the issue. Don’t distort accepted conclusions to score invalid points.
Then Netanyahu made a concession. “True, certain restrictions would be imposed on Iran’s nuclear program and Iran’s adherence to those restrictions would be supervised by international inspectors.” But he made it just to undermine the argument. “But here’s the problem. You see, inspectors document violations; they don’t stop them. Inspectors knew when North Korea broke to the bomb, but that didn’t stop anything. North Korea turned off the cameras, kicked out the inspectors. Within a few years, it got the bomb.”
Unfortunately, any reasonable historical understanding of how North Korea acquired nuclear weapons is precisely the opposite of the one Netanyahu suggested. What was the history of North Korean‘s nuclear program? In 2003, NK opted out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and kicked out international inspectors. By 2006, NK announced that it had conducted its first underground explosion. In 2007, NK confirmed it had nuclear weapons. In 2009, Korea was confirmed as a member of the small club of nations in possession of nuclear weapons. The break-out period between removal of inspectors and acquisition of a nuclear device had been 3-4 years and was six years before NK became a nuclear menace. The separation enrichment process needed to carry out this program was carried out first in 2003 after the inspectors were kicked out and then again in 2005.
To get just a glimpse of what had happened it is necessary to go back another decade before the inspectors were forced to leave. In 1994, NK’s reprocessing had been frozen a year after NK threatened to withdraw from the NPT. Under threat of air strikes against its reactors, and in return for an American promise to supply light water reactors and the requisite fuel, NK stopped its enrichment program. The latter condition was never fulfilled – whether because of NK subversion of the arrangements or an American change of mind under George W. Bush. The result – a tough line, no inspectors and the development of nuclear weapons. It was not inspections conjoined with constructive engagement that led to NK acquiring nuclear weapons. Rather it was the absence of inspections and constructive engagement the produced that result.
When NK and the U.S. agreed to a framework agreement back in 1994 when it was estimated that NK already had a capacity to make one or two bombs per year, The Agreed Framework signed by the United States and North Korea signed on 21 October 1994 in Geneva agreed that:
- North Korea would freeze its existing nuclear program and agree to enhanced international Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.
- Both sides would cooperate to replace the D.P.R.K.’s graphite-moderated reactors for related facilities with light-water (LWR) power plants.
- Both countries would move toward full normalization of political and economic relations.
- Both sides will work together for peace and security on a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.
- And that both sides would work to strengthen the international nuclear non-proliferation regime.
The framework agreement and the inspections worked for nine years. When NK broke out of the agreement, the U.S. was busy with a war in Iraq based on a lie that Iraq had acquired weapons of mass destruction, but George W. Bush did not bomb NK’s facilities when he could and perhaps should have. Netanyahu’s argument was that Iran had followed the North Korean path. “Like North Korea, Iran, too, has defied international inspectors. It’s done that on at least three separate occasions – 2005, 2006, 2010. Like North Korea, Iran broke the locks, shut off the cameras.” The lesson most observers would take is that coercive diplomacy does not work. Constructive diplomacy does. When it fails, the problem is not inspectors who are being cheated. The problem was that coercive diplomacy when needed was applied to the wrong country.
What about the second major “concession” which so bothered Netanyahu – the expiry of any deal in only ten years? Notice, Netanyahu was no longer insisting that the amount of low enriched uranium that Iran was allowed to retain was the problem. Nor was he insisting any longer that the issue was that the deal had a sunset clause. He now argued that the sunset clause came too fast. But he no sooner mentioned that issue than he totally misconstrued it. “What will happen when Iran’s nuclear capabilities are virtually unrestricted and all the sanctions will have been lifted, Iran would then be free to build a huge nuclear capacity that could result in a more dangerous Iran, a Middle east littered with many, many nuclear bombs?”
However, no one has ever suggested that Iran’s capabilities would be totally unrestricted. They would continue to be restricted by the NPT. Inspections would continue. What was suggested was that if Iran had kept its part of the deal, sanctions would not just be waived but cancelled altogether. Further, Iran would be allowed to acquire and install another 3,500 centrifuges. .Rather than an unrestricted regime following a restricted one, restrictions would continue, but the terms eased to those in conformity with the obligations and rights of any UN member operating according to the NPT.
Further, if Iran, like NK, decided to break the agreement after ten years, the situation would not be that, “When we get down that road, we’ll face a far dangerous Iran, a Middle East littered with nuclear bombs and a countdown to a potential nuclear nightmare.” Utter balderdash! Iran in 2015 is far less dangerous vis-a-vis nuclear weapons than in 2013. In 2025 it will be far less dangerous still. If Iran decides to follow the lead of NK and make a break towards a nuclear bomb, Iran would have a harder time then. Deterrence might then fail as it did for NK in 2003 when the U.S. lost its credibility in its commitment to restricting weapons of mass destruction because there were none in Iraq, and then proved incapable of using force against NK when it was fully justified to do so.
John Kerry, whom Netanyahu referred to as his friend – if Netanyahu is a friend of Kerry’s, Kerry needs no enemies – did NOT say that Iran could legitimately possess a massive nuclear capacity at the end of ten years. Iran would be enabled to acquire a larger capacity. Look at Netanyahu’s choice of adjectives: “vast”, “massive”. These are both distortions and fear mongering. They are not accurate attempts to engage in a difficult debate over options. Netanyahu’s “friend,” John Kerry, actually said that he questioned the judgment of Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu over his stance on Iran’s nuclear program. The Israeli PM “may not be correct,”, Mr Kerry said after attending the latest Iran nuclear talks in Geneva after reacting to a speech in which Mr Netanyahu had said the U.S. and others were “accepting that Iran will gradually, within a few years, develop capabilities to produce material for many nuclear weapons”. Mr Kerry told senators President Obama had made it clear that the policy was not to let Iran get nuclear weapons.
Netanyahu does not always distort and exaggerate when he comes to the analysis of the negotiations. After all, Iran’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missile program is indeed not part of the deal, and Iran refuses to even put it on the negotiating table. Iran could indeed in ten years have the means to deliver that nuclear arsenal to reach the far corners of the earth, including to every part of the United States. But Iran’s missiles were never intended to be part of the deal as is clear in the JPA. The issue in dispute is not over missiles, but over the research to produce a warhead that could carry a nuclear weapon. Further, Iran is free to conduct research to improve the rate at which it can produce enriched uranium.
Part V: The Bottom Line
Why would anyone make this deal? Because, according to Bibi, they hope that Iran will change for the better in the coming years, or they believe that the alternative to this deal is worse. The latter is certainly true and so is the former for a minority in the Obama administration. Further, I agree with Netanyahu that Iran’s radical regime supporting terrorism, seeking regional power status and continuing its aspiration to have Israel disappear from the Middle East will continue. Whether it grows, decreases or remains the same, it is not the deal that will wet its appetite. Rather, the deal will enhance Iran’s opportunities when it neither has the expense nor the propensity to turn itself into a pariah with a nuclear energy program. The deal will diminish not enhance the possibility of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
Part VI: A Realistic Alternative
Netanyahu then offered two alternatives. The first was a non-starter – linkage of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program to restrictions on Iran’s support for terrorism and constraining Iran’s political ambitions, including becoming a regional power and aspiring to eliminate Israel from the Middle East. This had been his repeated position. The second alternative was one Alan Dershowitz latched onto as the core issue in the deal – extending the sunset clause. I suspect this would be a deal breaker, but I am not sure. In any case, making it a deal breaker depends on accepting Netanyahu’s assessment of the results of not doing so – a runaway Iran seeking to acquire nuclear weapons after the ten years, a proposition based on false logic and little evidence. Put forth in a reasonable way, backed up with facts and analyses and argued one year earlier, then this would have been a reasonable position to take. As a last minute switch, it could only be properly viewed as a parlour trick as much as Dershowitz was entranced by it. But then Dershowitz is a litigation lawyer with an expertise in parlour tricks before a jury.
While the lack of a deal might lead to a Middle East nuclear arms race, the presence of a deal will not propel a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. The absence of one has a high probability of doing just that. Insisting on depriving Iran of even a peaceful use of a nuclear program is far more likely to set off such a race than the arriving at a restrictive agreement.
Without thousands of centrifuges, tons of enriched uranium or heavy water facilities, Iran can’t make nuclear weapons. True. But Iran already has them. The issue is not total deprivation but managed constraint. False aspirations, not an agreement, will produce a far worse scenario. Unfortunately, the audience applauded Netanyahu’s absurd and illogical claim. But that merely set the stage for the final session of open cheerleading until each sentence uttered elicited standing applause until the members of Congress had been subjected to the enormous strain of standing up and sitting down while they clapped for 27 times in total.
Robert Frost was cited as offering the road less traveled by to applause, even though constructive diplomacy is the road less traveled by, one which tends to be more successful. Elie Wiesel sitting beside Netanyahu’s wife for a photo-op was pointed to as standing for “Never Again” when “Never Again” had nothing to do with the nuclear negotiation. Nevertheless, there was another standing ovation. When Netanyahu played the Zionist as well as Holocaust card, he put forth the oft repeated but false thesis of a revived national state that would and could guarantee a refuge for Jews under threat, ignoring totally that Jews in Israel were most under threat. Again applause. For Netanyahu and his ilk, Israel is not the result of justified self-determination of a people in its historic homeland, but was created in the aftermath of a holocaust and world guilt when there is absolutely no historical evidence that the Holocaust had anything to do with the world community recognizing Jewish collective rights.
Each card played – the Frost one of choices, the anti-appeasement card, the Holocaust and the Zionist cards – each elicited after each part was uttered standing room applause. After those cards were dropped on the platform, Netanyahu returned to the American one identifying America and Israel. This elicited the most applause, even more than the Biblical card when Netanyahu pointed to a portrait of Moses leading his people to the Promised Land.
Netanyahu came to Washington to lead a cheer-leading session, not to weigh evidence and argue logically with empirical backing to critique the negotiations. So he could ignore the position Mohammad Javad Zarif took in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, namely that, “Iran has no interest in nuclear weapons and is convinced that such weapons would not enhance its security. Iran does not have the means to engage in nuclear deterrence—directly or through proxies—against its adversaries. Furthermore, the Iranian government believes that even a perception that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons is detrimental to the country’s security and to its regional role, since attempts by Iran to gain strategic superiority in the Persian Gulf would inevitably provoke responses that would diminish Iran’s conventional military advantage.”
It is too bad. An opportunity to enhance a rational debate on a most fundamental issue was squandered.