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Netanyahu nails the fundamental problem with Iran

Federal legislators applaud Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his speech to a joint session of Congress. Credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO.
Federal legislators applaud Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his speech to a joint session of Congress. Credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO.

I have to confess that I was disappointed with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference this year. I felt that it was bland, packed with tired talking points, lacking in strategic direction, and generally uninspiring.

Not so with Netanyahu’s speech to Congress the following day, which was a barnstormer. In its immediate aftermath, there were the standard idiocies in response, but that was to be expected. One that caught my eye was the utterance of CNN’s Gloria Borger that Netanyahu’s reference to the Holocaust was “electioneering”—as insulting as leveling the same accusation towards an African-American politician who mentions slavery. Another came from House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who declared, “I was near tears throughout the Prime Minister’s speech, saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States”—a statement that itself insults the intelligence of the U.S., because if Bibi demonstrated anything, it’s that he respects and loves America, and he doesn’t want an error of historic proportions over Iran to drive a wedge through this country’s relationship with Israel.

What Netanyahu proved definitively in Congress, which he didn’t do at the AIPAC meeting, is that the current deal that the Obama administration is so keen to cut with Iran will result in the world’s principal sponsor of terrorism, and the main strategic threat to the entire Middle East, weaponizing its nuclear program. Iran is, as Netanyahu put it, “a dark and brutal dictatorship”—and no more of these regimes should ever possess weapons of mass destruction. (I say “no more” because North Korea—in part because of American diplomatic ineptitude—already has nuclear weapons.)

What’s striking is that Netanyahu had to remind us of the nature of the Iranian regime in the first place. One of the problems with the current public discourse around Iran in this country is the tendency to normalize the regime, and to elide or ignore its fundamental violations of basic human rights. Iran even has its apologists, like the left-wing Jewish pundit Peter Beinart, who outright lied in a column for The Atlantic with this claim that, “Iran isn’t doing truly reckless things like invading a Saudi ally in the Persian Gulf or launching chemical or biological weapons at Israel.” Really? Iran now controls Yemen and, to an ever-greater extent, Iraq. It is the main sponsor of Hezbollah. And it is the primary reason that the Assad regime in Syria, which has used chemical and biological weapons against its own populace, remains in power.

Now, I realize that for those like Beinart and his ilk, who believe that the only human rights that matter are those of the Palestinians, arguments like those advanced by Netanyahu in Congress will never shake their predispositions. But for the rest of us—the vast majority—the reminder that Iran’s regime is fundamentally evil, in the same manner that Saddam Hussein’s regime was evil and the North Korean regime remains evil, is a welcome counterbalance to the myth of moderation being pushed by the White House.

On a philosophical level, Netanyahu also underlined that the notion of trust in international relations does not have a one-size-fits-all meaning. Light years separate the trust that defines American relations with Canada from American relations with Iran. In our bilateral relations with Canada, we begin from an assumption of trust, whereas with Iran, we begin—or, at least, we used to—from an assumption of deep, empirically verifiable suspicion that stretches all the way back to 1979, when the newly established Islamist regime’s thugs seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

There were two other strategic points made by Netanyahu that are worth highlighting. The first concerns the current fight against the terrorists of Islamic State and how that impacts negotiations with Iran. As Netanyahu put it, in this particular section of the Middle East, “my enemy’s enemy is my enemy.” The strikes against Islamic State reluctantly launched by the Obama administration, after thousands of Christians and Yazidis had already been massacred or enslaved, should not mean a de facto alliance with Iran, and should not encourage the belief that a region dominated by Iran is preferable to a region dominated by Sunni jihadis. Yes, there are different schools of Islamism that compete, often violently, with each other, but the foundational worldview stretches across sectarian and theological divides: hatred of America, hatred of Israel, and the conviction that Jewish power is the ultimate enemy is what connects the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood with the Shi’a Basij militia, regardless of whatever else separates them.

The second point is that Netanyahu did not—despite the signs being brandished outside the AIPAC convention by anti-Israel demonstrators, who were at their most insane and vicious level this year—come to the U.S. with a call to wage war on Iran. In fact, you might even argue that what was historic about his speech was that we saw an Israeli leader calling for a negotiated deal with Iran; just not the one that is currently on the table. And this would be a deal that would compel the Iranians to stick by their declared objective of having a nuclear program for civilian purposes only. What that means is proper and unfettered monitoring, the complete unveiling of further clandestine facilities, and appropriate measures to prevent a nuclear weapons breakout—whether now, 10 years from now, or a hundred years from now.

That is the only deal that makes sense for the Arab states, for Israel, for Europe, for the U.S., and for the West in general. It is one that the Iranians are free to agree to. Yet even Obama is now starting to concede that such an outcome is unrealistic; as he told the Reuters news agency, “I would say that it is probably still more likely than not that Iran doesn’t get to ‘yes,’” adding revealingly that a deal two or three years from now is even less probable. (That suggests the president wants to leave office with a deal with Iran— any deal—as part of his legacy.)

If Obama’s instincts are correct, and we don’t reach a deal, then we will go back to a tough sanctions regime against Tehran. If that happens, our strategy should not simply be to isolate Iran. Those sanctions should be part of a package that will encourage and enable the Iranian people to repeat their heroism of 2009, by rising up against this hated regime and, this time, overthrowing it.

That would be the best deal of all.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.


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