America, Israel, and Iran: Now That The Speech Is Said…

Now that the dust has settled from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, I thought I would take the opportunity to reflect on my thoughts on this crucial period for America and Israel.

At the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC this week, the Prime Minister said this about Israel’s relationship with America: “We’re like a family. We’re practically mishpocha.” There is no question, despite the challenges of the past several years, that America and Israel are very much like family.  We share a deep and abiding commitment to the eternal values our people has taught for centuries.  Part of the reason our people have prospered so magnificently in America comes from the separation of religion and state, which has allowed Jewish life to flourish and grow in expressions remarkably creative and passionate.  But the other reason we fit so well in America is that the values of our people have become synonymous with American values.

Thus Israel, while being founded from the echoes of a dream reverberating across two millennia and being born into the aftershocks of the most violent human conflict in history, is in many ways a reflection of what America seeks to be in itself.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said: “Family quarrels are bitter things. They don’t go according to any rules. They’re not like aches or wounds, they’re more like splits in the skin that won’t heal because there’s not enough material.

If America and Israel are family, then we are witnessing the tensions that arise from a family quarrel.  Like all family quarrels, the discord and antagonism of a few of its members has the potential to explode into a full-blown rift.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama sit at the epicenter of that quarrel.  Throughout the long tenure both have shared as leaders of their respective nations, neither has found the way or professed much desire to build any sense of a meaningful friendship.  Both are committed to the family to which they belong.  In many ways, President Obama, as acknowledged by leaders on both sides, has done more to support Israel than his predecessors.  He has ensured that the billions in foreign aid that Israel enjoys has grown.  He has supplied Israel with vital technologies, like the missile interceptor technology that has grown into the Iron Dome that has saved countless lives.  Military and intelligence collaboration has never been stronger.  And he has done everything he can to shield Israel from the UN’s psychopathic obsession with the State of Israel.

But the growing sense of alienation between the two leaders has created a vacuum into which partisan politics has seen fit to enter.  From Netanyahu’s clear support for Mitt Romney in the last American presidential campaign, to the Republican party’s growing insistence that they are the true friends of Israel, we are beginning to see a trend toward support for Israel as a partisan wedge issue.

I am grateful that every message I heard at AIPAC and from nearly every member of congress was to support the bipartisan nature of the American-Israeli partnership.  From many members, there was a lament that the Prime Minister’s invitation to speak to congress seemed to tear at the fiber of that ideal.

What bothers me most about the invitation to Prime Minister Netanyahu was that it was done without collaboration with the White House.  Part of the genius of the American political system is the separation and balance of powers between the executive, legislature, and judiciary.  But while these branches of government may be separate, they are all part of one government, and that government cannot have more than one leader conduct foreign policy.

The American people elected Barack Obama to be their leader.  John Boehner was elected by several thousand people in Ohio to be their representative.  Even though he is third in line to the presidency, I don’t believe the Speaker of the House ought to be conducting foreign policy apart from the President.  They don’t have to like each other, and they most certainly don’t have to agree.  But they must work in some measure of collaboration or America risks despoiling its ability to conduct foreign policy.  It was wrong, in my judgment, to have invited the Prime Minister to speak without consulting the White House, and it was wrong, in my judgment for the Prime Minister to accept the invitation without ensuring that the President had been consulted or at least informed.

It is also unfortunate, given the proximity of the speech to Israeli elections, that the speech was scheduled when it was.  It gives the veneer of American interference in Israeli elections, and that is wrong.  Whether or not the speech will influence the Israeli voter remains to be seen, but America ought not be seen as siding with one Israeli candidate over another.  For example, what if Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni win?  Will they wonder if they will enjoy the same support from Congress as did their predecessor, whom they defeated?

With all that said, I am disappointed that so many members of congress elected not to attend the speech.  The rationale given by many was that they were offended that the speech had become politicized, but by choosing not to attend, and then holding a press conference later, they added fuel to the fire.  I appreciate the response I heard from several members of congress that said while they were disappointed in the process for the reasons I explained above, the relationship America shares with Israel, and the issue of the negotiations with Iran, were too important to absent themselves.

America and Israel together face a terrible quagmire when confronting Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  As Ambassador Brad Gordon said at the AIPAC conference, the time to have dealt with this problem was years ago.  It has taken time for the sanctions regime to take effect, but the effects have been severe.  Iran’s economy has suffered terribly from the sanctions the world has imposed.  The Rial has dropped 50 percent in value, and the Iranian oil industry has suffered billions of dollars in lost revenue.  The purpose of the sanctions was to bring Iran to the table, and now Iran is sitting at the table.

I would have wished that America and our partners would have required stronger concessions to begin negotiations, including halting the enrichment of uranium.  By allowing Iran to continue to enrich uranium during negotiations already conceded that enrichment would go on as part of any deal.  I am deeply concerned that America is not negotiating a deal that will be strong enough to secure our interests.

Iran is a terrifying regime.  I think the Prime Minister’s description of tentacles of terror is apt.  Iran has extended its reach to Iraq through its connections to the Shia regime.  For years, Iran has supported Hizbullah, helping it to build a massive stockpile of 100,000 rockets and missiles under the nose of the UN, which promised in 2006 to prevent Hizbullah from rearming.  Iran has funded and supported Hamas, who used Iranian weaponry in its war with Israel last summer.  Iran has destabilized the Yemenite government, and helped in the overthrow of the regime there.  Iran is the leading sponsor of state-sponsored terror in the world, and is certainly responsible for the bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Argentina in 1993.  Iran even attempted to attack the Saudi diplomatic mission here in the United States.

Imagine an Iran with a nuclear weapon.  What limits could the world impose on an emboldened Iran?  Can we be sure that Iran would not proliferate or sell its nuclear technology to the array of non-state terror organizations they support throughout the region?  Iran has repeatedly called for the destruction and annihilation of Israel.  What would it mean if they then secured the technology to make good on that threat?

The Jewish people and the world learned an important lesson in the last century:  when someone says it is their goal to annihilate you, you have to take them seriously.

I think there is agreement between America and Israel that Iran must be prevented from getting a nuclear weapon.  So when we hear that a deal with Iran lasts only ten or fifteen years, with no restrictions on what Iran may do following that period, that it permits the continued enrichment of uranium, that it leaves at best a year break-out for Iran to develop a bomb … that sounds like a very bad deal.

But what might be the alternative?  There are many constraints on what America can ultimately do.

First, America is not the only party to these negotiations.  America’s partners, Russia, China, Great Britain, France, and Germany need to be convinced that a stronger deal is also in their interests and as far as China and Russia goes, that will be heavy lifting indeed.  Second, consider the alternative if Iran walks away from the table.  They may resume the installation of centrifuges, the enrichment of uranium, and whatever other undertakings they may choose without any constraint at all.

Between 2003 and 2005, Iran began negotiations to limit their nuclear program.  Negotiating with Britain, Iran agreed to cap its centrifuges at very low levels, keep enrichment levels well below those that could be used for weapons and convert its existing stockpile of uranium into fuel rods that could not be used for military purposes.  The Bush administration vetoed that idea.  As Fareed Zakaria writes in The Washington Post, “Harvard University’s Graham Allison, one of the United States’ foremost experts on nuclear issues, pointed out that “by insisting on maximalist demands and rejecting potential agreements, the first of which would have limited Iran to 164 centrifuges, we have seen Iran advance from 10 years away from producing a bomb to only months.”[1] Since then, Iran has built 19,000 centrifuges, enriched 17,000 pounds of uranium, built a heavy water reactor at Arak to produce weapons-grade plutonium.  As painful as the current sanctions regime is, it has not, and likely will not deter Iran from moving forward with its nuclear program.

Which leaves a military option.  In September of 2012, the Iran Project published a paper titled: “Weighing Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran.”[2]  The report concluded that there could be significant benefits to military action.  It could damage or destroy Iran’s current enrichment facilities, it could damage Iranian military capabilities, it could enhance the perception of America’s seriousness and credibility, and it could also help deter weapons proliferation.

But there would be serious costs as well.  First, military action would provoke a strong Iranian reaction against both the United States and Israel, either directly by Iranian military action or more likely through non-state actors and terrorist organizations.  We can be certain that an attack on Iran would provoke missile attacks from Hamas in Gaza and significant missile attacks from Hizbullah in Lebanon.  While Israel’s Iron Dome technology will blunt much of these attacks, it won’t stop them all, and one must expect significant Israeli casualties.  In addition, terror attacks on U.S. targets, at home and abroad, will likely create significant American casualties as well.  We could lose the hard-won world consensus against Iran’s nuclear program, especially if Iran suffers significant casualties as would likely result from any campaign.  There would certainly be global political and economic instability from a military campaign, and disruptions in energy supply and security. It would foment popularity and support for anti-American extremist groups in the Middle East and around the world.  And it would result in the unification of Iranian society against America and American interests, hardening Iran in its resolve to produce a nuclear deterrent to such attacks in the future.[3]

While we may be able to destroy Iran’s infrastructure, we cannot destroy Iran’s know-how, and the best estimates indicate that a military strike would only set Iran back by several years.[4]  And then what?  Iran would be determined to rebuild its nuclear infrastructure, only in more hardened locations like the installation at Fodor and in secret, so the world will have no knowledge of where Iran is in its nuclear capability.

So where does that leave us?  Ultimately there is a very large gap between the vision of the future we want and the future we can have.  A poignant moment at the AIPAC Policy Conference came during National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s address.  She said, that we might wish for an Iran where all their nuclear infrastructure was dismantled and was interrupted by applause before she could finish her sentence.  The completed sentence, however, concluded with “If we insist on no enrichment, our partners will abandon us. Simply put, that is not a viable nor obtainable negotiating position.”

In his message to Congress, the Prime Minister related the negotiations to bargaining in a Persian Bazaar.  It is my hope that the public pressure the Prime Minister’s address and Congress’s legislative response to propose additional tougher sanctions will strengthen America and the P5+1 negotiators at the table. I am hopeful they will realize the unique opportunity that the sanctions and the precipitous drop in the price of oil has in bringing international pressure to bear on Iran to get the strongest possible deal to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

I appreciate the administration’s statements that they will insist on a deal that cuts off all pathways for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, and that they will, as Susan Rice said, “distrust, and verify.”  I am grateful that the administration agreed that a “bad deal is worse than no deal” and for reiterating that “all options are on the table to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.”

I believe it is crucial for us all to continue to advocate for Israel, to help our neighbors and our friends to understand the unique nature of Israel’s history, culture, and democracy, and the way in which Israel proves again and again to be America’s best and most reliable ally in the cauldron of the Middle East.

Lastly, I hope that with this episode now behind us, America and Israel can recommit to the collaboration and trust that needs to be the hallmark of this special relationship.  America is Israel’s attorney in these negotiations.  Since Israel cannot advocate for herself at the table, they must rely on America to advocate for her.  The breakdown between the American and Israeli leaders and their administrations has caused Israel to lose faith in their lawyer.  It is my hope that together that faith and trust can be restored.

[1] “Netanyahu Enters Never Never Land,” by Fareed Zakaria in The Washington Post, March 5, 2015

[2] “Weighing Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran” by The Iran Project, September 24, 2012.

[3] Ibid. pp. 11-13.

[4] Ibid. p. 38.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “America, Israel, and Iran: Now That The Speech Is Said…

  1. Brian Sindel

    Your blog provides much needed information. I thank you for the post but only feel that we have to wait to see how this all plays out. March 17 th may provide more answers and what will be the fallout after the elections. Keep blowing and keep helping us stay informed.

  2. Shirley Levin

    Dan, this is some of he best analysis I have read! Thank you. Wish more people could read this.

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