Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a speech at the UN this week that will make hardliners in Iran proud.
On the heels of a historic phone call between President Obama and Iran’s new president Rouhani — a call that ended three decades of silence between the two countries — hopes for a thaw in relations and a peaceful resolution to the Iranian nuclear standoff have never been greater. It is critical that this momentum be sustained and the White House hears from Americans that they support diplomacy (see NIAC’s petition here).
Yet, as if on cue, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to the UN to deliver a blistering speech calling out the new Iranian president at least twenty times and dismissing Iran’s outreach as a “ruse.”
Instead of phone calls and direct negotiations, Netanyahu demanded that the world continue to escalate sanctions against Iran, as well as amplify the threat of war and set unrealistic ultimatums. Iran’s hardliners have been just as adamant that the West’s offer of negotiations is a “ruse” because, they say, America’s real goal is regime change and to never lift sanctions. Iran’s hardliners enjoyed Netanyahu’s speech far more than Obama and Rouhani’s phone call.
To the rest of the world, however, Netanyahu’s speech came off as reckless and tone deaf in the midst of cautious optimism. The White House is eager to test whether Rouhani can make good on his promises and agree to verifiable concessions on Iran’s nuclear program. Iranians are hopeful that this new opening can bring a brighter future and that the recent releases of Iranian political prisoners is the beginning of a new day for human rights in the country. And Americans overwhelmingly support diplomacy with Iran and are opposed another war.
Netanyahu’s call for more sanctions will kill these hopes and leave Rouhani and Obama’s promise untested. Escalation will only guarantee the continuation of a standoff that will spiral towards war. Netanyahu seems to believe that the world can either go down the path of North Korea or Iraq when it comes to Iran. In both cases, sanctions were at the center of the strategy and in both cases the prevailing lesson should be the limitation of sanctions. In Iraq and North Korea, sanctions successfully helped isolate and impoverish an entire population. In one case, the country’s entrenched rulers built the bomb, in the other case, the U.S. ended up in a disastrous war.
Now, with a diplomatic window opening with Iran, Netanyahu wants us to dismiss this opportunity by passing new sanctions and moving towards a false choice between two terrible options.
Many in Washington gravitate towards Netanyahu’s line of thinking. Congress is poised — if they ever come back to work — to consider slapping new sanctions on Iran and some may even introduce a war resolution. Netanyahu’s speech, combined with hardliner backlash in Washington and Tehran against recent positive gestures, demonstrates the political risks that leaders will to take, and the pressure they will incur among hardliners, to invest in bold diplomacy to break with the status quo.
Obama and Rouahni’s phone call was so historic because it was the first step in breaking from the false choices presented by hardliners on either side of the standoff. And the American people support this diplomatic initiative, not war. If they make their voices heard, this momentum will continue. We already saw how popular pressure helped change the U.S. government’s calculations on Syria and averted a war by demanding a diplomatic path. Now, on Iran, Obama must hear the same type of support for diplomacy.
NIAC has organized a petition thanking Obama for his outreach so that the people of the United States and Iran — and Israel for that matter — can enjoy a brighter future. It is critical that voices in support of diplomacy are louder than those calling for escalating sanctions on the continuing the path to war.
(This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post)