As the discussion of PM Netanyahu’s upcoming visit to the US to speak before Congress heats up on both sides of the world, I received an email from an Israeli correspondent. In part, he wrote,
…one could ask why is Netanyahu risking bi-partisan support of Israel over this? Why he is making this speech now when it is not really going to stop Iran? Or prevent some kind of Obama appeasement deal with Iran? Is it as the cynics claim all for election purposes? Or does the Prime Minister believe that more sanctions will actually lead Iran to reverse its race to nuclear weaponry? Doesn’t the Prime Minister understand that what he himself has said about the regime in Tehran is true? That their goal is to have weapons of mass destruction which will enhance their power in a way so as to totally transform power relations in the Middle East? Not to speak of giving them a means to when the moment is right for them possibly aim at realizing a major goal, the destruction of Israel? Doesn’t he understand that all the talk and the threat and the sanctions are not going to do the job? Doesn’t he understand that Iran understands an absence of military threat means a green light for them?
I’ve asked the same question myself. I’ll add that the visit might even hurt the PM in the upcoming election, because it’s given his opponents the only real issue they can deploy against him. What else is there? Deposit bottles?
I agree with my correspondent that even if Netanyahu persuades Congress to pass a sanctions bill, and even if Obama can’t circumvent it, and even if (and we are already in unlikely territory) such sanctions would severely impact the Iranian economy, they would not stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Iran’s program has been a top national priority for more than a decade. Iran has made great sacrifices to get to where it is now, and it is not likely to stop because the price of bread for the average citizen is rising. A regime that shoots down anti-government protesters in the street can ignore popular discontent and will allocate its resources where it sees fit.
The so-called ‘bad deal’ that the Obama Administration is cooking up will make it more comfortable for Iran to become a nuclear weapons state. It will make it harder for other countries (Israel) to take action against Iran. But they will get nuclear weapons even without it, unless they are stopped by force or the threat thereof.
So why, as my correspondent asks, is Netanyahu making a big balagan if it will not stop Iran?
The answer is that he knows that the US, under Obama and probably even under a Republican president, will not take the only action that could be effective. He knows that it will not make a credible military threat and, if necessary, carry it out. Although we might argue that it is in America’s interest to do so, few Americans agree at this point.
He also knows that when there is absolutely no time left, when inaction will result in our waking up tomorrow to find that an enemy that has sworn to destroy our state has nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, that he will be obligated to give the order to strike first and destroy those weapons.
He understands that this will unleash a war in which possibly thousands of Israelis, civilians and soldiers both, will die, as well as Lebanese unlucky enough to live upstairs from Hizballah’s missile launchers, and Iranians. He will do this even though he knows that there is a risk of an even wider, perhaps nuclear, war.
He will do it because there is no option other than suicide, because he is the son of Ben-Zion Netanyahu, because he reads history, and because he learned the lesson of the Holocaust.
So his job in America will be to prepare the American people and its representatives. He will try to gain their understanding and support, for the coming struggle.
The administration is bitterly opposed to this. It has already at least once prevented Israel from hitting Iranian nuclear facilities, and has since then carried out a policy to enable Iran to reach the nuclear threshold. I won’t speculate as to its motives, but the reality is undeniable. It can be expected to try its best to prevent an Israeli attack and to deny Israel support if it does strike.
Netanyahu’s strategy will be to explain why Israel has no alternative, and to try to blunt, as much as is possible, the administration’s response. Anything the US can do to weaken Iran or slow down its progress will be welcome, of course. He certainly wouldn’t be unhappy if the Congress passed something like the Kirk-Menendez bill, or if the ‘bad-deal’ could be derailed.
But I don’t think he has any illusions that Iran can be stopped by diplomacy. He is a very conservative and risk-averse Prime Minister (some criticize him for this), but the day will come that he will have to act.
I understand and respect this analysis. But like all such analyses it cannot possibly answer all the questions.
Here are a few of mine.
1) All of this supposes that Iran has not already reached nuclear capability. But what if it already has that capacity, and an attack on it would bring a nuclear response?
2) Is it possible that a preemptive attack on Iran would bring such a devastating response upon Israel ( perhaps even from Hizbollah’s missiles alone, not to mention Syria and Iran’s arsenals) that it would leave the country in ruins? create such devastation as to undermine the very character of life here? Could we then by taking drastic action to prevent disastrous destruction bring another kind, even if lesser destruction?
3) Why is there a supposition that Iran would automatically use nuclear weapons against Israel when this would certainly bring about the total destruction of Iran? They may hate us absolutely but to the point of collective suicide. They certainly know Israel has a second- strike capability that could totally eliminate Iran. By the way Raftsanjani’s famous boast that he could take out Israel with one nuke while Iran could survive any Israeli attack either came out of ignorance or is a bluff. The Iranian regime is concentrated in the greater Tehran area. Were that taken out, goodbye to Iran. I imagine the Iranians know this.
Perhaps there is already and will continue to be a kind of mutual deterrence.
Realistically as no one is stopping Iran , this is where we may be at already.
1) Why should a conventional attack on nuclear facilities bring a nuclear response, when the Iranians know we have a second-strike capability?
2) How do you propose to deal with Hizballah’s missiles? They won’t go away by themselves. I think we can’t avoid a war with Hizballah at some point. Probably part of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities will have to involve a simultaneous attack on Hizballah’s missiles. I don’t deny the danger and the possible horrible consequences, but as I’ve said before, would you rather fight them preemptively or wait for them to attack us? There isn’t a third option.
3) Iran probably does not want to use nuclear weapons against Israel, at least not as a first strike. The regime wants to use Hizballah and possibly get cooperation from Hamas and even Fatah. But the nuclear weapons would provide a shield for its proxies. If Iran had nuclear weapons and we were on the verge of destroying Hizballah they would threaten to use them. Then would we take the chance that they were bluffing? They would also use such threats to subvert the rest of the Middle East.
I’m 100% in favor of Netanyahu addressing Congress. I think the tragedy of Obama’s lifting sanctions partially was that it threw the regime a lifeline when there was a possibility of its being toppled due to popular discontent over an economy in shambles. This would have solved the problem without war. Obama’s course now virtually guarantees war. There is little hope of American military action against Iran until 2017 at the earliest and that may well be too late. But there may yet be a wild card in the deck that will prove Iran’s undoing.
You did such a fine job framing the issues; I tried to do this at Commentary where the analysis bends toward reading the tea leaves of politics… but did not get my arms around it quite. This was never about protocol-defying grand-standing, or even politics, but about war. The one ominous phrase that sticks out in my head from your column is, ‘his job will be to prepare the American people…’; so much sorrow in those words. Even the thought that there will be some surprises in the speech will not distract from the woeful task it figures to be. The comeuppance Obama has coming will pale next to the need to grasp what Israel has taken upon itself.
Mr. Freedman has the right questions too. I wish more Americans would be asking them now.
Excellent piece Vic, and one I will be sharing……. thank you.