RUSI’s Shashank Joshi responds to Jonathan Sacerdoti and the Netanyahu speech to Congress
“Jonathan Sacerdoti has argued in these esteemed pages/pixels that Benjamin Netanyahu’s hotly anticipated speech to the US Congress was “clear-headed”, “impressive”, and “fact-based”. Perhaps we were watching different speeches – it was hard to hear over lawmakers’ Pavlovian whooping and jack-in-the-box standing ovations – but I heard arguments that were confused, simplistic, and simply dishonest.
First, Netanyahu conjured up his own version of Iran – “Persian potentates” in the “bazaar”, in his racially-charged language – as crude as the cartoon bomb he presented at the United Nations two years ago. Bibi is surely correct that Iran seeks to spread its influence across the region, cultivating armed allies like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iraqi Shia militias. Bibi may also be right to warn that the fight against Isis does not require, or benefit from, Iranian cooperation.
But then he jumped right off the deep end, claiming that “Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam … Both want to impose a militant Islamic empire first on the region and then on the entire world”. This is nonsensical. The notion that daily life in Tehran (or Hezbollah-run Beirut) is as bad as that in Raqqa is silly enough; sillier still is the idea that Iran seeks to conquer Latin America, Africa, and Asia. A few Hezbollah cells in Venezuela do not amount to the vanguard of a militant Islamic empire. But, for Bibi, it’s always 1938.
Second, Bibi does not understand the point of arms control. The clue is in the name: it’s about limiting arms. It is not a backdoor to regime change. Yet Bibi declared, baldly, that “we can insist that restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program not be lifted for as long as Iran continues its aggression in the region and in the world”. Bibi does not want a nuclear deal; he wants a drastic transformation of Iran’s foreign and security policy.
Don’t we all. But it’s as if the US were to have demanded that the Soviet Union withdraw from Europe, disband the Warsaw Pact, and wind up all international Communism before a single arms control deal could be signed. In fact, the US did extract Soviet pledges on human rights (the Helsinki Final Act), but that was over a decade after their first nuclear agreement. Stuffing every grievance we have with Iran – both legitimate and spurious – into nuclear talks is just another way to sabotage diplomacy.
Third, Bibi misrepresents the nuclear deal on the table. He argues that it “would leave Iran with a vast nuclear infrastructure, providing it with a short break-out time to the bomb”. Yet by his own admission, it would take Iran a whole year just to produce fissile material for a single bomb. If Iran went down this path, it would either have to expel inspectors – giving the game away – or do so under inspectors’ noses, meaning it would get caught within weeks. The world would then have upwards of 11 months to go to the IAEA and UN, ratchet up sanctions, and build up military forces for strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities. The basic question is this: if we knew Iran was sprinting to a bomb, what would be able to do in, say, two years that we cannot do in one? Bibi’s insistence on a complete dismantlement of Iran’s programme sounds tough, but it has little non-proliferation logic.
Fourth, Bibi fails to spell out the alternative. A deal lengthens Iran’s breakout time. A collapse of diplomacy shortens it, because Iran would quickly repudiate the interim deal currently in force and would surely restart its most controversial activities (such as enrichment to higher-grades). Sure, we could counter with yet more sanctions. Bibi insisted, “they’ll be back, because they need the deal a lot more than you do.
But Iran could also respond by building up its own bargaining chips: adding enrichment capacity to the point where its breakout time would shrink to dangerous levels – say, weeks. We would then be forced into a preventive war, bombing Iranian facilities – setting back the programme by a couple of years at most – without Iran ever having used those facilities to produce a bomb. Such airstrikes may of course become necessary if Iran violates a future agreement; but they should be a last resort.
In Netanyahu’s story, Iran is an aggressive, expansionist, ideological, and genocidal enemy. Yet his strategy assumes that this very same regime will respond rationally and logically to unending economic sanctions that threaten its survival. Iran is so strong it is taking over the world, yet so weak that no compromise is needed, and victory is possible with a little patience. This story makes no sense, because it is based on caricatures and half-truths. A nuclear deal that leaves Iran with limited enrichment capacity for a decade is imperfect, and it certainly won’t turn Iran into a US ally, but it is better than any plausible alternative.”