November 5, 2014

Act of Congress: Israel, Iran, and the Republican Victory

The Republicans’ Senate victory offers Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu new hope for outmaneuvering President Barack Obama on Iran; in the coming weeks, he could use a Republican-led Congress to sabotage negotiations with the Islamic Republic on its nuclear program. But the victory would be short-lived. By scuttling the talks, Netanyahu could empower Iran’s hardliners.

By now, it is clear that Israel’s current Iran strategy—bluffing war to push the world to ratchet up the economic siege on Iran—is no longer working. “Chickenshit-gate,” revelations that a senior Obama administration official had privately stated that Netanyahu does not have what it takes to take on Iran, leaves little doubt about that.

To be sure, that doesn’t mean that Israel’s strategy has accomplished nothing. For one, it was Israel that, in 1992–3, first turned the world’s focus toward Iran and its nuclear program. Under the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, Israel launched a campaign to depict Iran as a global threat because of its ideology and its nuclear program. At the time, the New York Times described the campaign as “perplexing,” since it had been Rabin and Peres who, during Iran-Contra only a few years earlier, had pushed the United States to talk to Iran, ignore Tehran’s venomous anti-Israeli rhetoric, and sell arms to the country.

Israel’s apparent aim was to sound alarm bells about Iran’s nuclear program and convince the world that the country was a global problem—not just an Israeli one. The ultimate goal was to either put Iran under permanent economic sanctions that would cripple its economy and undermine it as a regional player or to compel the United States to take military action against Iran. Or both. Ultimately, Israel partially succeeded. The United States intensified its focus on Iran, placed numerous crippling sanctions on the country, and threatened Tehran with military attack. 

If one accepts Israel’s assumptions about Iran—that the regime in Tehran is incapable of reforming, that moderate elements (if they even exist) wield no power, and that Iran’s ideological tenets preclude any accommodation between Iran and Israel—then Israel’s policy makes sense. According to this line of thought, a diplomatic agreement over the nuclear program would legitimize Iran as a threshold state and reduce U.S.-Iranian tensions without resolving the problems between Iran and Israel. In effect, the Jewish state would be “abandoned” to face Tehran alone.

To prevent such an outcome, Israel has tried to hinder diplomatic efforts by pushing for unrealistic demands during negotiations, threatening military action whenever the United States hints at a compromise, and helping to impose next-to-irreversible sanctions on Iran. Over the last year, the cost of that strategy has grown as the Obama White House has become more frustrated with its ally. They have nevertheless remained quite limited.

With Republicans now in control of Congress, Israel’s concerns will fall on more receptive ears. But that could spell more trouble than Israel expects. If the P5+1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) and Iran reach an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program by the November 24 deadline, any continued effort to oppose the agreement would no longer be just toughness on Iran. It would also be directly against the United States.

The Netanyahu government could ally with Senate Republicans to scuttle any deal, and, in that, he would likely succeed. Absent a permanent lifting of the relevant U.S. sanctions on Iran—which would require an act of Congress—the agreement would never hold. But at that point, the cost of undermining the Obama administration would be monumentally higher than it has been thus far. To work with Congress to undermine the agreement after it has been signed would only give credence to the Iranian narrative: The real problem is not Iran’s nuclear program but Israel and the U.S. Congress’ appetite for conflict.

The international consensus against Iran that the Obama administration painstakingly built would, at best, fall apart and, at worst, turn into a consensus against the United States. The international community—Israel and Saudi Arabia notwithstanding—overwhelmingly want a nuclear deal. Sanctions have been difficult for Iran, but they have also imposed significant costs on the sanctioning countries. (The United States alone has lost between $135–175 billion in export revenues as a result of sanctions.) Consequently, if Congress rejects sanctions relief, the sanctions regime against Iran would start to crumble. 

Nothing would make hardliners in Iran happier. The Hassan Rouhani government would look bad for negotiating a failed compromise, Tehran would find itself no longer bound by the constraints imposed on its nuclear program through the scuttled deal, and the international sanctions regime would collapse—all without Iran having made any nuclear concessions. 

Israel may dislike Obama’s negotiations with Iran. But once a deal has been struck, there will come a tipping point at which the cost of opposing it will outweigh the cost the deal itself imposes on Israel. Despite Netanyahu’s likely excitement over the Republican Senate victory, it’s time to take a time out on Iran and on the showdown with the Obama administration.

This article originally appeared in Foreign Affairs.

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