Today’s speech to Congress by Benjamin Netanyahu may have been about theater (it isn’t like there was some confusion about his position on Iran that he had to come here to clarify), but it did put before the American public a forceful statement of the Likud/Republican position on the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.
And in doing so, it may well have done Netanyahu and his American supporters far more harm than good.
Much of the speech was given over to arguing that the Iranian regime is terrible and is doing terrible things, which isn’t going to get much argument from anyone. (Nancy Pelosi released a statement afterward calling it an “insult to the intelligence of the United States.”) And the speech was peppered throughout with references, subtle and otherwise, to World War II. “We must all stand together,” he said, “to stop Iran’s march of conquest, subjugation, and terror.”
And when he argued that Iran and ISIS are heads of the same beast, it began to sound awfully familiar, much like when George W. Bush argued that al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein must be working together (and let’s not forget that Netanyahu was an enthusiastic supporter of the Iraq War, which dramatically increased Iran’s power and influence in the Middle East).
This is the Republican foreign policy perspective, as much now as it ever was: there is only black and white, no complexity, no compromise, and all enemies are the same. Iran is literally fighting ISIS in Iraq right now, but Netanyahu wants everyone to believe that they’re going to join together to take over the world. “When it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy,” he said. Matt Duss, the head of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, called it the Islamist Voltron Theory.
The real problem came, however, when Netanyahu began to address the current negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Netanyahu criticized elements of a deal currently being negotiated (nothing has actually been finalized) and argued that America and the other nations involved in the negotiations should just walk away. “No deal is better than a bad deal,” he said. “Well this is a bad deal. It’s a very bad deal. We’re better off without it.”
So where would that leave things? Netanyahu argues that if the U.S. walked away, Iran would eventually capitulate on everything; the “better deal” he imagined is one in which Iran does everything short of dismantling its government. He had nothing to say about why this might happen if we weren’t negotiating, other than that we should “keep up the pressure.” That’s his alternative: Do nothing, and instead of just going ahead and developing nuclear weapons, Iran will see the light and completely reverse everything it’s been doing.
To call that position “absurd” is too kind. You don’t have to be some kind of foreign policy whiz to grasp that there’s something weird about arguing that 1) Iran is a nation run by genocidal maniacs; 2) they want nuclear weapons so they can annihilate Israel; and 3) the best way to stop this is to abandon negotiations to limit their nuclear program and just wait to see what they do. But that’s the position Netanyahu and his supporters in the Republican Party are now committed to.
If there is ultimately an agreement, the fact that Netanyahu has cast such a sharp light on the ridiculousness of the opposition to the negotiations will make the Obama administration’s job in selling it easier. Republicans will of course say that it’s too soft on Iran, no matter what it actually contains. And everyone will ask the next question: what’s your alternative? Short of an invasion, they have no real answer, and they won’t be able to convince anyone otherwise.