Give Bibi the Nobel Peace Prize – Aaron David Miller/Foreign Policy
When it comes time to award the peace prizes for the Iran nuclear deal, the Norwegian Nobel Committee ought to at least consider an honorable mention for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
He certainly won’t accept, long having been as staunchly opposed to an agreement as one can be. But in one of the crueler ironies of Middle East politics, there’s no denying that Netanyahu’s fixation on the Iranian nuclear threat actually helped engender the circumstances that produced the very accord he opposes today. And here’s why.
When it comes to Iran, Netanyahu has been indispensable in vaulting the nuclear issue to the top of the U.S. and international agenda. In fact, he has been focused on the issue since the early 1990s, making it a central subject in his 1995 book, Fighting Terrorism: How Democracies Can Defeat Domestic and International Terrorism, where he wrote that Iran would have a nuclear weapon within three to five years and was a leading sponsor of international terrorism. Speaking in 1996 before a joint session of the U.S. Congress — nearly two decades before his controversial appearance there earlier this year — the prime minister warned of the “catastrophic consequences” of an Iran armed with a nuclear weapon, an assessment that went over well in a Congress with great antipathy for Iran.
Since then, a good many experts and analysts have dismissed much of Netanyahu’s rhetoric on Iran and the nuclear issue as the hyperbolic boy who constantly cried wolf. After all, he has been warning that Iran was only a handful of years from getting a nuke for the past 20 years. But the discovery of Iran’s illicit enrichment and weapons-related programs in the early 2000s gave more credibility to both the message and the messenger. It is no exaggeration to say that no one in Washington or in the international community — including Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama — did more to highlight the Iranian nuclear threat than Netanyahu.
Netanyahu also injected a sense of urgency into the Iran situation, a key driver in bringing Washington and Tehran to the negotiating table. At least twice in the past five years, he strongly signaled that Israel was on the brink of carrying out a unilateral strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. In 2012, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta openly worried that Israel was preparing to strike Iran. Again in the spring of 2014, the Israeli press was filled with reports that the prime minister had ordered a strike against Iran and had allocated a budget to go with it. Whether or not Iran believed him on either occasion, the potential danger galvanized action from Washington and Europe to do something to slow Tehran’s accelerated nuclear program and to demonstrate to Netanyahu that they took his concerns seriously. And the United States clearly used the possibility of an Israeli strike to energize its allies and maintain the unity and coherence of the sanctions regime.
Moreover, without Netanyahu’s constant pressure on Congress for tougher sanctions, Iran might never have come to the table.
Netanyahu also paved the way for the agreement in two other important ways. His relentless criticism of the November 2013 Interim Agreement (“a historic mistake”), the April 2015 Lausanne framework (which “[threatened] the survival of Israel”), and July’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“a bad mistake of historic proportions”) no doubt made it easier for Iran’s negotiators to sell the agreement to their own hard-line constituents back home with a “If Israel is so opposed, you’re getting a good deal!”-style talking point. This is the exact argument we used all the time to try to sell U.S. positions to the Arabs in past Arab-Israeli negotiations. One can only imagine the reaction of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and conservatives in the Majlis if Israel had endorsed the negotiating process or embraced any of the agreements it produced.
Finally, Netanyahu’s intervention in U.S. politics, particularly his speech before Congress earlier this year, only heightened President Barack Obama’s anger and steeled his determination to see the deal through. The trenchant tone of his recent speech at American University defending the deal, which took aim at the pro-Israel lobbying groups and mocked those who argue that a better deal is still out there, were all designed to show that Obama is committed to making the agreement stick — via presidential veto if necessary — and not give into domestic or Israeli pressure.
Could Netanyahu have behaved differently towards Iran and the agreement, and in doing so expanded Israel’s options and lowered tensions with the United States? (“Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed,” Pascal noted in one of the greatest counterfactuals of all time.) Probably not. The notion of the Iranian threat is encoded in Netanyahu’s very DNA, his self-image that of an Israeli leader intent on leading Israel out of the shadow of an Iranian bomb forever. The very cool-headed Yitzhak Rabin, along with every other Israeli prime minister since the 1980s, warned of Iran too. As a practical matter, it’s hard to believe that a different or softer line on Netanyahu’s part would have produced a better agreement with Tehran — most likely, it would have produced a worse one. Without Israel pressing the Obama administration, the United States might have been inclined to give more. What might have been different: Tensions today between Jerusalem and Washington might be lower. And that’s no small matter. But that would have required a different kind of prime minister. And, well, needless to say, we didn’t have one of those.
Make no mistake, Washington and Tehran were the driving forces behind the Iran deal. If anything, Netanyahu miscalculated just how far Obama would go in making this deal. But there’s little doubt that the prime minister’s relentless focus on the nuclear issue set the stage for an American president to do something about it and provided him with additional tools to do it. Perhaps it would be unrealistic for any Israeli prime minister to celebrate this deal, let alone take credit for helping shape it. The agreement is just too problematic, from where the Israeli government sits. And this prime minister truly believes that. Indeed, of all the possible outcomes to the Iranian nuclear story, Netanyahu could not have envisioned a worse one: an agreement he both loathes and, truth be told, unwittingly enabled.