On Tuesday, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to United States Congress members urging them to block any deal with Iran on its nuclear program and raise support for more sanctions against the nation.
Arranged by House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (both Republicans) and the Israeli Ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, this speech caused a stir of controversy in its lead up because the details were worked out without consulting the White House - a significant breach in usual diplomatic protocol. Boehner, in an interview, claimed it was done this way because he didn’t want the Obama Administration “interfering” with the plans. A number of Democrats, most notably Vice President of the United States Joe Biden, were outraged by this undermining of foreign policy protocol and intentions of Netanyahu’s visit and boycotted the speech.
In his exclusive interview with Reuters, it was clear that President Obama wasn’t thrilled with Netanyahu’s visit. He didn’t meet with Netanyahu as a matter of policy because he believes it is bad form to meet with any political candidate leading up to an election because it would look like the US is taking sides. He bluntly stated that he feels that the Israeli Prime Minister is politicizing Israel’s national security.
The speech was accused by some US Democrats as fear mongering and by some Israeli sources as alienating Democratic Congressional support that it would need to pursue tougher sanctions when the time called for it. Some claimed it was risky for him to give this speech just two weeks before the elections in Israel; the Guardian reported that his speech failed to inspire voters back in Israel. Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani responded on Twitter: “People of the world, especially the #American people, will not listen to lectures by a warmongering regime. They're wiser than that.” However, his 39 minute speech, a “point-by-point critique of Obama’s strategy”, received 26 standing ovations from Congress.
The political legacies
Barack Obama, early in his presidency, put arms control and non-proliferation near the top of his agenda. It is clear that this is an issue that he wanted to have a lasting impact on, a legacy, one might say. He succeeding in pushing through bilateral arms control measures with Russia with the New START treaty, he launched an international heads-of-state-level initiative on nuclear security (the Nuclear Security Summits), and now he wants to create a practical framework to assure the international community of the civil nature of Iran’s nuclear program for the future stability of the Middle East. The stars aligned in June 2013 when Iran elected a progressive President savvy in public diplomacy and with a mandate to rekindle relations with the West. The (re)birth of negotiations on the nuclear program was confirmed in the signing of the interim deal in November of that year.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has placed the struggle against a nuclear armed Iran at the top of his political agenda and with an upcoming election less than two weeks away (March 17th), he is trying to secure his place in history as the Prime Minister that forced a reluctant US President to deny Iran a nuclear weapon capability. This is a risky move, threatening long-established US-Israel ties.
Destruction or Distraction?
Netanyahu has a lot of friends in Washington D.C. This historical ties between the US and Israel are incredibly strong, and the US has always been an ally of the nation. This, however, was a direct intervention into US domestic politics - a faux pas by any world leader, no matter how strong the ties. He insulted Obama and his Administration, and as Nancy Pelosi responded, he insulted the intelligence of the US as part of the P5+1 nations. She claimed his speech almost brought her to tears, she was so offended.
Prior to his arrival, President Obama said that Prime Minister Netanyahu accepting the invitation to speak in front of Congress is not destructive to the US-Israel relationship, but it is distracting to the overall goal in place. Obama was resolute that the bond between the two nations is unbreakable and that they share a common goal of making sure Iran does not obtain nuclear weapons. The real problem with Netanyahu’s speech is that he was directly advocating an approach that undermines efforts of the US President. Obama remains adamant that a diplomatic solution will be longer-standing than any sanctions approach or military action from the US or Israel. So while Netanyahu stated on Tuesday: “[t]his deal...paves Iran’s way to the bomb”, Obama released a response claiming that he did not offer any viable alternatives.
The talks cannot be undermined
Barack Obama and his Administration have stressed that the talks should not be undermined while they are ongoing. The President admitted that he is not so much worried about Netanyahu’s speech as he is worried about Congress taking preemptive action that will derail the talks, such as passing resolutions for more sanctions (though the President has warned that he will veto any sanctions bills passed while the talks are ongoing).
The Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015, introduced by Senators Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Kirk (R-Illinois) in January 2015 will go to the floor for a vote on March 24th. This bill would invoke sanctions on Iran on July 6th if a deal is not reached by the June 30th deadline and it would revoke sanctions that were waived under the interim deal reached in November 2013. It would put in place additional sanctions every 30 days for five months if a deal is not reached.
Acting in good faith towards the negotiations, Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) introduced a resolution on January 26th expressing support for the diplomatic process, but said that “the Senate will enact on additional sanctions if efforts to reach a deal fail.”
The Nuclear Agreement Review Act submitted by chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) along with five other Republicans and six other Democrats call for Congressional review of the text of any agreement within five days of its conclusion. The bill would also prohibit the President from suspending or waiving sanctions imposed by Congress for up to 60 days after a deal. Some Republicans wanted to fast track this bill to pick up on the momentum from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech and because the Iran talks are set to intensify this week. A procedural vote on this legislation will take place Tuesday, but this has outraged some key Democratic leaders who wanted to wait until the March 24th deadline before voting on any bill.
Chances of reaching agreement
No one is certain that agreement with Iran can be reached. In fact, the President stated in his interview that the chances of not reaching a deal are slightly higher than reaching one. Back in January, Obama stated that the chances were 50-50 and that these few months until June were incredibly crucial to allow Iran to get to yes. He also stated that he would ask Congress to pass more sanctions if we can’t reach a deal. Iran is also receiving domestic pressure as many hardliners don’t want to see a deal struck with the West, and in response to Obama’s interview just days before Netanyahu’s, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif rejected Obama’s stance of ensuring Iran halt all nuclear activities for 10 years. However, he did reiterate the importance of the talks, stating: "The only way to move forward is through negotiations”.
US leaders face a choice of “giving diplomacy a chance” without causing undue pressure, or siding with Israeli hardliners and alienating themselves from the international community. It is clear that this ‘crisis’ has several more years to run before there is any chance of resolution.