Pressure Points

How Netanyahu's Iran Policy Ends Badly

Benjamin Netanyahu went on American T.V. to push his more hawkish Iran policy on the U.S. Ali Gharib explains why he should be ignored.

Can anyone make a serious case refuting that Benjamin Netanyahu both holds a much more hawkish policy on Iran than his American counterpart and that he is trying to push the latter into adopting these positions through a program of public pressure? That seemed to be exactly what happened this weekend when Netanyahu again ramped up his calls for the U.S. to make explicit threats of military action against Iran—and did so on American television. "If sanctions don't work," Netanyahu said on the Face the Nation, CBS's Sunday morning talk show, the Iranians "have to know that you'll be prepared to take military action, that's the only thing that will get their attention." The New York Times headline nicely summarized the dynamic at work: "Israel Increases Pressure on U.S. to Act on Iran."

Netanyahu's remarks clearly took aim at what many advocates of forging a diplomatic deal—a deal, that is, to ease the nuclear crisis between Iran and the West and avert war—think is an opportunity in the election of Hassan Rowhani, a moderate Iranian cleric, to be president of Iran. After the CBS host's third question, Netanyahu raised the Iranian election himself, for the purpose of dismissing Rowhani: "Now mind you, there's a new president in Iran," Netanyahu said. "He's criticizing his predecessor for being a wolf in wolf's clothing. His strategy is be a wolf in sheep's clothing. Smile and build a bomb." This will of course sound a little odd to anyone who's looked at a few photos or videos of the lame-duck Iranian hard-line president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who smiled constantly. But the "smile" line was just a catchphrase. Netayahu's main point is the same one that's been made before by Netanyahu himself and a virtual who's who of American Iran hawks (helpfully catalogued by Marsha Cohen): that Rowhani shouldn't even be given the chance to make good on campaign promises of accommodation with the West and transparency in Iran's nuclear program. (I took up this theme when two prominent pro-Israel voices expressed it immediately after the election.)

While Netanyahu emphasized the American perspective—on CBS, he warned of Iranian missiles reaching American shores and spoke of American pledges to "prevent" an Iranian bomb—it's painfully clear he doesn't share the Obama administration's preferred route to ending the standoff with Iran: diplomacy. The hawkish Israeli prime minister hauled out the old trope that Iran is a "messianic, apocalyptic, extreme regime"—the very "martyr state myth" that Matt Duss (among others) put to bed years ago. Watch the subtle pivot, midway through this Netanyahu answer on Sunday, from celebrating a U.S. stand to embellishing it into his own hawkish positions:

I think the important thing is what the U.S. said. They said, "The words won't influence us. What really counts is what the Iranians do." And what they have to do is stop their nuclear program. They have to stop all enrichment of nuclear material, to take out the enriched uranium, to dismantle the illegal— and shutdown the illegal and nuclear facility in Qom. These are the right demands. And those should be backed up with ratcheted sanctions. You should ratchet up the sanction and make it clear to Iran that they won't get away with it. And if sanctions don't work and they have to know that you'll be prepared to take military action, that's the only thing that will get their attention.

To be sure, threats of war get attention, and so will pledges that the Iranians must surrender completely to Israel's demands under pressure, rather than come to the table and strike a compromise. "The aim of the negotiations should be concession and compromise, not capitulation," David Shorr astutely noted in a post about how the U.S. must be ready to ease sanctions if a deal can be struck. But Netanyahu's program isn't one of compromise: his demand that Iran shut everything down and ship everything out is unrealistic enough that the U.S. doesn't hold up either as a starting point for negotiations. Instead, the U.S. has hinted for years at a much more accommodating approach of its own, suggesting that Iran might be able to maintain a low-level of enrichment domestically.

That Netanyahu's apparent bluster and disdain for anything that could possibly outline contours of a potential deal stands in contrast to U.S. policies was underscored by a letter to the White House by, among others, some of his own former advisers. The experts, which included former State policy chief turned think-tank head Anne-Marie Slaughter and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran John Limbert, said Rowhani's election held an opportunity. "It remains to be seen whether this opportunity will yield real results," they wrote. "But the United States, Iran, and the rest of the international community cannot afford to miss or dismiss the potential opportunity before us." Their program is the opposite of Netanyahu's (and Congress's): give diplomacy another go, which means not imposing sanctions ahead of Rowhani's election and future rounds of talks.

The U.S. and Iran are on a collision course, one that ends very badly for everyone involved. Netanyahu's plan would shore up that course by seeking to eliminate any off-ramps from it. If the U.S. wants to avoid another costly war—one that Paul Pillar points out could very well lead directly to the bomb everyone hopes to prevent—it ought to heed the American experts and former officials, not the current heads of foreign governments who've led America astray before.