America’s Iran policy is looking like a train wreck. President Barack Obama is charging ahead toward a nuclear deal with Tehran that seems like a bad one. Congress, guided by Democrats as well as Republicans, is exploring ways to veto any agreement deemed wrong-headed or weaken and probably kill it by refusing to pull down sanctions against Iran.
Vigorous, bitter debate over foreign policy is nothing new. It’s healthy when it pushes the nation toward the best possible decision. It’s harmful when it convinces our enemies we are hopelessly polarized and at cross purposes. And it’s further damaging when it divides close allies, as demonstrated by the fracture over Iran between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In his speech to Congress on Tuesday, Netanyahu made a spirited, compelling argument that the current negotiations, or at least what we know about them, are headed in a dangerous direction. They would leave Iran will major nuclear infrastructure and capability and give it virtually a free hand after a decade.
That approach of a sunset on restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program — for peaceful purposes, its leaders say, but no one believes them — seems based on the notion than there’s a new generation of leadership in the wings ready to make Iran a normal nation. That would mean an Iran no longer threatening its neighbors, no longer sponsoring terrorism and no longer committed to the destruction of Israel and genocidal hatred of Jews.
Netanyahu isn’t willing to gamble his country’s future on such wishful thinking. Nor should he.
Obama responds that everyone should withhold judgment until the final deal is done, if it can be done. Sounds reasonable.
Netanyahu brought the members of Congress to their feet applauding nearly a couple of dozen times during his 40-minute speech. Such enthusiasm arose from his clear, aggressive analysis dissecting Iran’s nefarious role in the world and the troubling direction of negotiations marked mostly by concessions to Tehran.
Netanyahu’s powerful stand is in contrast to the sometimes shifting ground of Obama’s position. He says the alternative to negotiations is war. Yet, at one point this week, the president said the chances of a negotiated agreement were less than 50-50. He down-played the power of sanctions. However, in the past, he asserted that it was strong sanctions — which he initially opposed, by the way — that brought Tehran to the bargaining table and said new, tougher sanctions could be imposed if the talks fail.
Obama claimed Netanyahu offered no alternative to prevent Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons. But the Israeli leader highlighted Iran’s vulnerability to economic pressure at a time of depressed oil prices.
Despite the absence of 50 Democrats, the members of Congress were receptive to Netanyahu’s message for several reasons. First, Obama’s foreign policy is famous for outreach to our adversaries that has failed spectacularly, be it the reset with Russia or the 2009 Cairo speech to the Muslim world that fell on deaf ears. Second, when the president tried to get tough against Syria, he ended up retreating from his red-line threat of military action if chemical weapons were used against civilians. Finally, Obama shows disdain for the legislative branch, rarely consulting with Democrats or Republicans.
Influential Democrats like Sen. Robert Menendez of the Foreign Relations Committee are suspicious of the Iran talks and favor a new sanctions bill to prod Tehran toward an acceptable deal and congressional review of any agreement.
One interesting point in Netanyahu’s speech that got missed in the controversy was that he acknowledged an agreement could come out of the negotiations that Israel wouldn’t like — but could live with. Perhaps if Obama spent more time conferring with Congress and allies like Netanyahu, a united front could force Iran into a good deal.