An American, an Iranian, and an American of Israeli origin were once in Boston at the same time. Two of them studied, and the third taught, at MIT. Now, two of them are close to an agreement that the third is trying to foil.
The American is Dr. Ernest Moniz, a professor of nuclear physics and secretary of energy in the Obama Administration; he began teaching at MIT in 1973. The Iranian is Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization; he was at MIT from 1973-77, obtaining his doctorate in nuclear engineering. The third man, Ben Nitay, obtained both a bachelor’s degree in architecture and an MBA in four years, from 1972-76, then started, but never completed, a doctorate in political science at Harvard and MIT.
In Geneva this week, Moniz and Salehi, along with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, came close to reaching the agreement that the American-Israeli, now better known as Benjamin Netanyahu, is trying to thwart. Had it not been clear that he was acting out of personal and political interests – despite what he knows, and not because he isn’t very familiar with the material – one might say that Netanyahu was paying the price for the courses Nitay didn’t complete at MIT.
The principal barrier to Iran racing toward a nuclear weapon from the parking lot it hasn’t left in years is political will. Its leadership, under Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, still prefers not to pay the price of doing so. But it also isn’t willing to retreat from that parking lot and suffer the humiliation of a seeming capitulation.
Obama, who has a clear-eyed approach, knows three basic facts: Iran will agree to some formula for a freeze, but not to dismantle its nuclear program; the six powers’ alliance against Iran’s nuclear program is fragile, and support from the other five for tough American negotiating demands isn’t guaranteed; and he lacks both a nation and an army ready and willing to wage war against Iran. What Netanyahu terms a “bad agreement” is, from Obama’s standpoint, a regrettable but bearable reflection of a difficult reality.
U.S. foreign policy must also take other arenas into consideration – for instance, Ukraine, where America is confronting Russia and coordinating with Germany, France and Britain. The combative Republicans in Congress who are pressing Obama to make tougher demands of Tehran are the same ones pressing him not to pay Russia in Ukrainian coin for its support of an Iran deal. A contradiction? It’s not their job to reconcile it; that’s the president’s problem.
What bothers Israel most about Tehran’s nuclear program is the nature of the Iranian regime. If the Pahlavi dynasty were to resume power, disavow revolutionary Islam, rejoin the West and abandon Iran’s enmity toward Israel, any government in Jerusalem would put up with an Iranian nuclear bomb. The fear of a nuclear arms race involving Ankara, Riyadh and Cairo would still exist, but the existential fear would subside, and with it Israel’s threat to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The Pahlavis and their ideological allies, who are more democratic than Iran’s current Holocaust-denying tyrants, don’t currently look to be anywhere near a counterrevolution, but Obama is hoping to build a bridge of time until a regime devoid of hostility to the West (and Israel) arises. Based on his global situation assessment and his contact with Khamenei, Iranian President Hassan Rohani and their emissaries Zarif and Salehi, Obama believes that in another 10 or 15 years, a different Iran is likely to emerge. And if the current Iranian regime seeks to acquire nuclear weapons in gross violation of its commitments, the next president will have an easier time mobilizing both domestic and international support for using force against it.
Since he stopped being Nitay, Netanyahu has learned about two issues of supreme importance – the nuclear understandings with the White House that date back to Prime Minister Golda Meir and President Richard Nixon in 1969, and the Israeli defense establishment’s preparations for action against Iran should the government so decide. But his crude behavior toward Obama endangers the delicate fabric of these understandings (Netanyahu isn’t prepared to bargain over Israeli concessions in exchange for Iranian concessions) and ignores Israel’s ability, which is known to key figures in the political and defense establishments, to greatly limit the damage caused by an Iranian strike on Israel should a conflict break out. Nevertheless, this capability hasn’t yet been tested under real-life conditions, and in time, the balance of power could change to Israel’s detriment.
What Netanyahu could have demanded
Therefore, if Netanyahu’s moves were really guided by fear for Israel’s security rather than for his own political survival, he would not have opted for confrontation with Obama and an alliance with the president’s Republican rivals. He would have sought to get the Obama-Khamenei agreement to include an official Iranian disavowal of its dream of destroying Israel – an idea senior defense officials approve – and at the same time to extract a promise from Obama that Washington would consent to an Israeli attack on Iran if both countries’ intelligence agencies concur that the Iranians have violated the agreement and are racing for the bomb. An Israeli attack – not an American one.
In his inflated resume, Nitay/Netanyahu wrote that during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he returned to Israel to do reserve duty. Even without having completed his doctorate in political science, he ought to know very well how close Israel came to losing that war, and that it was saved thanks to an American arms airlift – but that even then, Israel never asked American soldiers to risk their lives on its behalf.
Netanyahu can’t prevent the six powers’ agreement with Iran. But his effort to do so is tantamount to asking American soldiers, for the first time in Israel’s history, to risk their lives in a war where the commander in chief wouldn’t be their own president, but Israel’s prime minister. The residue of this outrageous chutzpah will continue weighing on the relationship long after Netanyahu vacates the Prime Minister’s Office.
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