All of Your Nuclear-Deal Questions, Answered

In which I try to explain that things that appear to be contradictions sometimes aren't.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

So much confusion!

But your questions will now be answered.

I had time at the AIPAC conference on Sunday to ask myself some questions, so I did. I originally did this as an exercise in head-clearing—which is a hard thing to do at AIPAC—but then thought that I might as well post it. I hope this gets at some of the complexity of the moment:

Question: Three days ago, you wrote that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was so desperate to stage a campaign rally on Capitol Hill that he was willing to risk the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship. On Sunday, you wrote that Netanyahu is making credible arguments against the looming Iran nuclear deal. What changed?

Answer: Nothing. There’s no contradiction here. The prime minister of Israel is the steward of the U.S.-Israel relationship. He can’t risk it recklessly. And he needs the president to understand Israel’s strategic dilemmas. John Boehner, Netanyahu’s new best friend in Washington, doesn’t have an air force. The maintenance of the relationship is a direct national-security interest of Israel's. And if Netanyahu understood that his relationship with Obama is of paramount importance, he wouldn’t have let it deteriorate the way it has. But here’s the important thing: None of this is to suggest that the looming Iran deal is a particularly good one.

Q: Isn’t the collapse of the relationship also on Obama?

A: Yes, at times the White House hasn’t managed the Netanyahu account well either, and on occasion it has made unrealistic demands on him. But: This is an unequal relationship. The U.S. is indispensable to Israel. Israel is not indispensable to the U.S. Most Israeli prime ministers have understood this formula and have made policy accordingly.

Q: What do you want Netanyahu to do, then? Sit at home and quietly wait for the world to collapse around him?

A: I don’t want him to treat Congress as a campaign stop, which is what he’s doing. I don’t want him to be played for a sucker by allowing one American political party to turn Israel into a weapon against the other American political party. And I don’t want him to turn the president of the United States into an open adversary.

Q: But if the president is going to strike a weak deal, one that sets Iran on the road to nuclear-weapons status, why shouldn’t he speak up?

A: He should absolutely speak up. He doesn’t have to speak up in an address before Congress. If he wants to lobby against the president, he could do so in ways that don’t alienate much of the American polity. Netanyahu has a prejudice against subtlety. This is one of his problems.

Q: It seems obvious that he’s giving the speech, no matter what. So what should he say?

A: It won’t be difficult for Netanyahu to make the case that the incipient nuclear deal—at least as we understand it from leaks—might be a weak one. I don’t like some of its features as well. The harder task for Netanyahu is to present a better alternative. He hasn’t done that yet.

Q: Is no deal better than this deal?

A: Perhaps. Again, we don’t know the exact parameters of this deal. But let’s imagine the following scenario: Netanyahu gives his speech and, two hours later, Obama calls him up:

Obama: “You know what, Bibi? You’re right. The only deal the Iranians are ready to accept is a terrible deal for us. So I’m pulling out of negotiations and I’m going to ask my friends in Congress to strengthen sanctions.”

Netanyahu: “I knew you’d come around to my view. And I accept your apology.”

Obama: “Well, you are a man of vast experience and perspicacity. I should have listened to you all along.”

The next day, the Iranian regime, realizing it has nothing left to lose, moves toward nuclear breakout. It fires up all of its centrifuges, and puts itself on a pathway to have a bomb within a year.

On the other hand, an agreement—even a weak agreement—may allow the West to buy itself 10 or 15 years, at least.

Q: Okay, but if Iran actually goes to breakout, wouldn’t someone bomb their facilities? Netanyahu has threatened to do so for a long time.

A: Yes, quite possibly. Netanyahu, American officials believe, has come quite close, only to be shut down by Obama, and also by some of his own generals. (This is one of the reasons he feels like a sucker and doesn't want to be suckered again.)

I still suspect, by the way, that there are two scenarios in which Obama himself might use force to stop Iran from crossing the nuclear finish line. (I might be the only person left who believes this, but I’m comfortable, for now, in my heresy.) The first is an overt move toward breakout by the Iranians. The second is the discovery of an attempt by Iran to “sneak-out” (to borrow Gary Samore’s phrase). Iran has already engaged in various deceptive practices over the years (its two main enrichment facilities, at Natanz and Fordow, both were kept hidden for years). If a huge underground facility is discovered—one that gives definitive lie to Iranian claims to be negotiating in good faith—then I think Obama might feel compelled to act.

Q: So if you’re Netanyahu, wouldn’t you want to subvert the deal, thereby setting the U.S. and Iran on a path toward armed confrontation?

A: Well, that’s sort of a Masada option. I mean, if I were interested in ruining the U.S.-Israel relationship, and starting a war with Hezbollah, the wholly owned Iranian subsidiary in Lebanon that has 100,000 rockets pointed at my country, and if I believed that the carpet-bombing of Iran’s many nuclear facilities would permanently fix my problem, then I would hope to defeat Obama in Congress.

Q: Wait, why wouldn’t the carpet-bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities permanently fix the problem?

A: Well, for one thing, you can’t destroy knowledge. Iran’s scientists have mastered the fuel cycle, they’ve developed ballistic-missile technology, and they’re probably got a pretty decent warhead design. It would take them time to rebuild their facilities after an attack (unless, of course, the U.S. bombs them over and over and over again, which doesn’t seem likely). And they would be able to rebuild their nuclear program without suffering under sanctions because the sanctions regime would almost completely collapse following a preventative attack by the U.S. or Israel.

Q: So the best option here would be for the United States to negotiate the toughest deal possible?

A: Yes, which is why I wish that the Iranian negotiators were actually negotiating on behalf of the U.S.

Q: Huh?

A: I think the Iranians are doing an excellent job of playing a weak hand. It seems as if the American side wants this deal too much. It’s always a bad idea to walk into a car dealership and announce, “I’m going to buy this car no matter what.” I fear this is what Obama’s negotiators may have done.

Q: So what should Israel do?

A: Lobby hard for a stronger deal rather than lobby against any deal at all, and try to fix relations with the Obama administration, understanding that the loss of bipartisan support for Israel in the U.S. is a direct national-security threat to Israel.

Q: Do you think the two sides will even get to a deal?

A: I’ve always been skeptical. Ayatollah Khamenei may make Netanyahu’s job easier by rejecting even a generous deal, because he’s Ayatollah Khamenei.

Q: And if not?

A: The most important thing remains the same: To keep an anti-Semitic, anti-American regime from gaining possession of nuclear weapons. Let’s see the actual parameters of the deal, and see if Iran accepts the general framework, and then make a judgment.