Opinion

In Argentina, Netanyahu Jabs Trump Hard on Iran Deal - but at a Safe Distance

The Iran nuclear deal deadline looming, Buenos Aires was a perfect platform for Israel's PM to blast Iranian terror and send Trump a forceful message too politically awkward to deliver face-to-face

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu receives a box with digital documentation of the Holocaust from Argentina's President Mauricio Macri. Buenos Aires, Argentina. Sept. 12, 2017
Natacha Pisarenko/AP

Benjamin Netanyahu this week visited Argentina as part of a much-heralded 'historic' visit as the first Israeli prime minister ever to do so, but the real focus of his attention and much of his rhetoric wasn't in Buenos Aires. It was directly squarely at Washington and Tehran, and at President Donald Trump.

Besides Buenos Aires’ photogenic beauty, which, in a visit lasting 48 hours Netanyahu barely observed, the city offered him a providential backdrop to tackle a difficult task: how to convince Donald Trump to abandon the Iran deal without antagonizing the prickly president ahead of their meeting in New York on Monday.

Ignoring the historic nature of his visit, the flourishing  local Jewish community and even his host, Argentina’s enigmatic, modernizing president Mauricio Macri, Netanyahu's main message as he told CNN en Español, was that, "In eight to 10 years, according to the agreement, Iran will be able to enrich uranium on an industrial scale. This agreement should be changed. It should be changed so that the removal of restrictions on Iran's nuclear program should be not a matter of the change of the calendar, but a change in Iran's aggressive behavior."

Then-candidate Donald Trump speaks during a Tea Party Patriots rally against the Iran nuclear deal on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Sept. 9, 2015
Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

A web of reasons enabled Netanyahu to use his trip to Argentina as a platform to lobby Trump, who he did not name, to cancel the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA, which, as a candidate, Trump said would lead to a "nuclear holocaust" and vowed to "dismantle.” 

Argentina, struggling for global diplomatic significance, is not a party to the agreement. In fact, Argentina would like nothing more than to forget Iran, accused of masterminding the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires and the explosion that destroyed AMIA, the Jewish community’s administrative center, in 1994, killing a total of 114 people.

Iran is also central to a more recent trauma linked to those bloody terror attacks.

On  January 14, 2015, federal prosecutor Alberto Nisman accused then-president Cristina Kirchner of attempting to cover-up Iran’s involvement in the AMIA bombing, that he had investigated for 10 years.

Four days later, Nisman, 51, was found dead in his bathroom, a single bullet in his brain.

The cases he pursued have languished and revived since then, but on September 11, the day Netanyahu landed in Argentina, the federal judiciary authorized the state to try Cristina Kirchner for the cover-up and for high treason, as evidenced by a secret memorandum her foreign minister, Jorge Timerman, signed with Iran. A conviction could land her in jail for years.

A demonstrator holds a placard denouncing Palestinian genocide protesting the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in front of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires. September 12, 2017
JUAN MABROMATA/AFP

Unlike European leaders, who championed the Iran deal alongside President Obama and openly tire of Netanyahu’s rants against Iran, Macri, who won a tough presidential race against Kirchner’s designated successor, and whose principal aim is to drag Argentina out of the diplomatic and economic isolation of the Kirchner years, is in no position to mitigate any of the Israeli prime minister’s jeremiads regarding Iran.

In fact, there is probably no safer place on earth to attack Iran than Buenos Aires, and Netanyahu made the most of it.

At each public opportunity, without so much as mentioning Trump’s name, he hammered his message home.

At the site of the embassy bombing, an hour after landing, Netanyahu said, "We are determined to fight Iran’s terrorism, and we are determined to prevent it from establishing itself near our border," alluding to the recent Russian-American agreement on a Syrian cease-fire, that Israel opposes, another matter he is expected to bring up with Trump. 

He went on: "Iran’s terrorist octopus, from the Middle East, along with its proxy Hezbollah, continues to send arms to all parts of the world."

Holding up portraits of victims of the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center, people commemorate the 23rd anniversary of the attack in Buenos Aires, Argentina. July 18, 2017
MARCOS BRINDICCI/REUTERS

At an event commemorating the AMIA blast, he noted, “Israel has been and will continue to be a spearhead in the struggle against global terrorism, and we will continue to act with determination, in various ways, to defend ourselves from the aggression and terrorism of Iran and against terrorism in general."

On the second day of his stay, at a press opportunity alongside Macri, Netanyahu said that regarding the Iran deal, "Let me take this opportunity and clarify: Our position is straightforward. This is a bad deal. Either fix it - or cancel it." 

Why such intensity? Netanyahu, who all but endorsed Trump in the 2016 elections, and has since struggled to justify the president’s failures to keep his campaign promises, including the now-vanished embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, faces a crucial deadline.

On October 15, the president must once again notify Congress whether Iran is complying with deal or not. The battle for the president’s pen is already at a peak, and Netanyahu used his Argentinian platform to broadcast his stance forcefully – but at a safe distance.