Much has changed in the world since March 2015, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Congress to urge it to reject what would become President Barack Obama’s signature foreign-policy accomplishment. Despite Netanyahu’s efforts, the Iran nuclear deal was approved. But the subsequent election of U.S. President Donald Trump means that the pact with Iran is once again subject to debate as the administration struggles to find a way to deal with fatal flaws in the agreement.
This was the issue that in no small measure brought French President Emanuel Macron this week to Washington. Macron hoped to bridge the divide on a number of issues that has opened up between the United States and Europe since Trump’s election. But his primary mission was to try to persuade his American counterpart not to pull the United States out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that legalized Iran’s nuclear program, rewarded it with billions and lifted international sanctions in exchange for a pause in Tehran’s quest to obtain a weapon of mass destruction.
In his speech to Congress, Macron criticized Trump’s policies as much, if not more than, Netanyahu attacked Obama’s. But while Netanyahu’s address was widely seen as an affront to the U.S. government, the media cheered Macron. The reason for the contrast between the receptions of the two speeches says a lot about Trump and Obama, as well as about the general lack of honesty in the debate over Iran.
The Europeans and the American foreign-policy establishment that applauded Obama’s appeasement of Iran remain desperate to stop Trump from acting on his intention to begin the process of correcting the problems in the deal by reinstating sanctions.
They know that the sunset clauses in JCPOA (the official name of the deal) ensure that after a decade, Iran will be able to build a nuclear weapon with impunity. They’re also aware that Iran’s ballistic-missile program will give it the ability to deliver such weapons to either threaten Israel’s destruction—something its leaders have often vowed to do—or terrorize Europe and the United States. The wealth and legitimacy the deal conferred on Tehran have also helped it spread terrorism throughout the Middle East and establish military bases north of Israel’s border as part of its successful intervention in the Syrian civil war. But much of the world would rather ignore these issues. For them, anything is better than having to sacrifice their business prospects in Tehran and a desire to avoid conflict at any cost.
That’s why the Europeans have been trying to convince Trump that negotiations over side deals—that won’t actually alter the agreement or end the sunset clauses—are the path to its improvement. But Trump’s instinctive distrust of the conventional wisdom being peddled by foreign-policy experts is serving him and the nation well on this issue. He seems to understand that the Europeans’ tactics are intended to distract him from his goal of altering JCPOA, rather than a credible plan to solve a real problem.
Macron used his invitation to Congress to attack Trump’s stance on Iran, as well as his trade and climate-change policies, and to make a more general critique of the president’s more nationalist approach to international relations.
The thin-skinned Trump, who is generally intolerant of criticism, chose not to be offended by Macron. Though the body language between the two leaders seemed bizarre, Trump rolled out the red carpet for the French president. Nevertheless, the media reception for Macron was friendly, as liberal editorial pages lauded his efforts to talk Trump into not pulling out of the Iran deal in mid-May.
The contrast to the reception that Netanyahu received for his 2015 congressional address couldn’t be greater. Three years ago, the normally unflappable Obama was enraged by the Israeli leader’s willingness to challenge him on his home turf.
Part of the problem stemmed from the fact that the invitation came from House Republicans rather than Obama, who spent his eight years in office seeking “more daylight” between the United States and Israel. Netanyahu’s decision to accept was a tactical error. It enabled Obama to make the Israeli prime minister’s supposed effrontery an issue that helped him turn the Iran deal into a partisan litmus test for Democrats, thereby making it easier to avoid GOP efforts to derail the pact.
Netanyahu was derided as a scaremonger. Macron was cheered for quoting Franklin Roosevelt’s famous line about “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But while Macron told Trump critics what they wanted to hear, Netanyahu’s warnings about the danger Iran poses to the Middle East and Western security are all still true. Added to that, events in the intervening three years as Iran’s influence has spread have also validated his attempt to sound the alarm.
In 2015, Netanyahu told the West that surrendering to Iran on the nuclear issue was unnecessary. He was right. America’s hand is far stronger than Trump’s critics claim. The United States can, if it has the will, re-impose sanctions on Iran and force its allies to go along with it. Rather than a formula for war, a failure to end the sunset clauses, as well as to address Iranian missiles and terror, is a guarantee of a bloody conflict in the not-too-distant future. Iran’s economy and currency have steadily gotten weaker, and the notion that the Islamist regime or its Russian allies are too strong to be pressured is a myth they and their apologists are at pains to bolster.
Trump’s new foreign-policy team of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton seem to understand that pretending, as Obama did, that Iran merely wanted a chance to “get right with the world” is the most dangerous policy imaginable.
While Macron’s speech was more popular, if Trump stands his ground on Iran, as he should, the spirit of Netanyahu’s address may prevail. If so, that would be a belated vindication of a warning that up until now has gone unheeded.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — the Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.