Many members of Congress leapt to their feet to applaud Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his address March 3. (Associated Press)
Opinion writer

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lobbied powerfully against a nuclear agreement with Iran in a well-crafted speech to Congress on Tuesday. The problem is that he has now created a zero-sum game with the Obama administration, in which either the president or the prime minister seems likely to come out a loser.

Playing for huge stakes two weeks ahead of the Israeli elections, Netanyahu gave what may prove to be the defining speech of his career. He opened graciously with praise for President Obama, which made his critique of the administration’s diplomacy all the stronger. Netanyahu warned that the planned agreement would create a “nuclear tinderbox” in the Middle East and “inevitably lead to war.”

Netanyahu’s speech deepened his divide with the White House, where the boisterous cheers for the Israeli prime minister on the House floor must have sounded like a rebuke. The speech has also created a new dynamic that may put the Middle East even closer to the knife’s edge.

Consider the possible outcomes as the Iran negotiations head toward a March 24 deadline: Netanyahu could “win” and convince Congress to derail the biggest foreign-policy initiative of Obama’s presidency. Or Obama could “win” and push ahead to conclude what Netanyahu characterized as “a very bad deal.” Either outcome would traumatize U.S.-Israeli relations and portend a poisonous final two years for Obama’s presidency.

Two other hard landings are possible after Netanyahu’s high-wire performance. Iran could balk at further concessions, walk away from negotiations and accelerate its nuclear program — forcing the United States and Israel to consider military action. Or Netanyahu, having bet his political future on the visit to Washington, could lose in the Israeli elections on March 17. That defeat may be less likely after Netanyahu’s deft presentation.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a joint meeting of Congress that removing economic sanctions on Iran would have terrible outcomes. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

What’s least likely is that Tehran will bend enough to agree to Netanyahu’s formula.

Netanyahu’s speech didn’t offer many new ideas, but a White House senior official’s dismissal of it as “all rhetoric, no action” was overstated. Although the Israeli leader clearly rejects the deal Obama is contemplating, he argued that if the United States is determined to proceed, it should insist that the agreement not terminate until Iran has abandoned its aggression in the region, halted its terrorism and accepted Israel’s existence.

Obama hopes for just such an evolution toward post-revolutionary sanity in Tehran over the decade-long duration of the planned agreement, and Netanyahu is right that it would be good to put this in writing. But that would almost certainly be a deal-breaker for Tehran.

Netanyahu invoked the poet Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” in arguing that at the approaching fork, there is one safe route. But both paths appear likely to have dangerous obstructions.

The most obvious problem with an Iran agreement is that it would create a new breach with Israel. Washington and its allies would worry that Israel might take unilateral military action against what Netanyahu has described as an existential threat. A deal would also bring inevitable allegations that Iran was cheating. This could trigger new rounds of sanctions legislation by Congress that could, in turn, lead Iran to argue that Washington was reneging — and result in the pact unraveling.

An agreement would also, as Netanyahu warned, mean a new era of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey sought to achieve the same “nuclear threshold” status the pact would give Iran. When the sunset of the agreement approaches roughly 10 years hence, and Iran is freed from limits, the race toward nuclear capability would accelerate across the region. As bad as the situation in the Mideast is now, it could get much worse.

The other path is the one where U.S. diplomacy fails. This could result from a hardening of the U.S. or Iranian positions, from new sanctions legislated by Congress or from simply the inability to bridge existing gaps. Here, again, greater tension is likely — with the United States and Iranian forces at dangerously close quarters in the fight against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

What Netanyahu did Tuesday was raise the bar for Obama. Any deal that the administration signs will have to address the concerns Netanyahu voiced. Given what’s at stake in the Middle East, that’s probably a good thing. As administration officials said at the outset of negotiations, no deal is better than a bad one.

The Israeli prime minister’s speech, for all its divisive political consequences, served to sharpen the focus on what a good deal would look like.

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