Benjamin Netanyahu is so excited that he is cutting short his three-way summit in Cyprus and flying back so he can be in Israel when the Iran deal announcement comes through. For someone who loves summits as much as Bibi does, this is big.
Whatever U.S. President Donald Trump announces on Tuesday, it is one of Netanyahu’s proudest moments. To use the phrase he has coined, this is Bibi’s fix it or nix it moment.
From the moment he returned to power in 2009, Netanyahu has sought not only to put the Iranian nuclear issue at the top of the global agenda, but to persuade Israel’s biggest ally – the world’s only superpower – to adopt his tough attitude toward Iran. Whatever course Trump will embark upon Tuesday, whether or not he pulls out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action altogether and announces new sanctions, it will no longer be Barack Obama’s diplomacy-focused Iran deal.
It will almost certainly be something much tougher toward Tehran. Even if Netanyahu does not get all he is hoping for, he will thank Trump effusively and declare victory.
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This will be a new Iran deal, or no-deal, as Netanyahu has always tried to frame it. One where the Iranian regime is eternally suspected of trying to develop nuclear weapons and has to work much harder to earn an easing of the sanctions.
Netanyahu has been working on changing the American approach toward Iran since his first White House meeting with Obama in May 2009. Now, nine years and one president later, he is about to get what he asked for. The U.S. administration is adopting the Netanyahu Doctrine.
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Contrary to popular belief, Netanyahu did not seek war with Iran. He sincerely believed that a much tougher agreement whereby Iran would first dismantle nearly all its uranium and plutonium programs before sanctions are lifted, and accept long-term limitations – much longer than those set out in the JCPOA – was possible.
To do this, he wanted the Americans and Europeans to both drive a much harder bargain and not make do with Obama’s formulation that “all options are on the table” – presenting instead a truly credible military option. That doesn’t mean that, like his colleague during the years of negotiations of the so-called P5+1 world powers, then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak, he thought military strikes on Iran’s nuclear installations were a desirable option. Netanyahu is risk-averse and always has been. Which is why Barak finally gave up on him and retired from public life in 2013. He realized that, under Netanyahu, he was not about to get a last chance at 70 to lead Israel in war.
The Netanyahu Doctrine was tried out in a smaller scale on the Palestinians. Under Netanyahu, Israel has steadfastly refused to make any concessions to the Palestinians until the Palestinians make concessions of their own – not just any major shift in the diplomatic process, but even relatively minor concessions (recommended by senior Israeli army generals) such as allowing workers in from the Gaza Strip, or reducing the entrance of Israeli troops to Palestinians cities in the West Bank.
Has it worked? That depends whether you consider a tired and largely docile Palestinian population, with an ineffective and split leadership, an accomplishment.
Now it seems the Netanyahu Doctrine is about to be finally tested on a grand scale.
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Netanyahu’s belief has deepened in recent months as the Iranian economy has teetered on the brink of meltdown, complete with a collapse of its currency, the Rial, runs on the banks and widespread demonstrations. The Iranians can’t afford new sanctions, much less fight a war, and Netanyahu is convinced they will be back at the negotiating table before long, prepared to sign a much tougher deal in return for sanctions relief.
After Tuesday's great moment of victory for Bibi, it will remain to be seen over the next weeks and months if his doctrine works. If, despite the expected new sanctions, the Iranians do not immediately pull out of the agreement themselves and try to stick to it, without renewing large-scale uranium enrichment and escalating the situation in Syria, it will be a win for Netanyahu. He will claim Iran is imposing the JCPOA’s limitations on itself, for fear of military action and without receiving anything in return.
But if Trump’s decision precipitates a historic split between the United States and its European allies, who will come up with a package of incentives for Iran, he will have only succeeded in driving a strategic wedge into the Western alliance. Worse, if pulling out of the JCPOA leads Iran to swiftly renew its nuclear development program and precipitates war, the Netanyahu Doctrine will be proved a failure.