The Republicans Will Be No Tougher on Iran Than Obama

Their bluster and tough-talk may fool Israel's prime minister, but when it comes to actions, the Republicans lack resolve.


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is certain that the Republican Congress will support his efforts to prevent a nuclear Iran in a way that U.S. President Barack Obama and the Democrats will not. But Mr. Netanyahu has it wrong. Once again, he has been taken in by the bluster, tough talk on Iran, and Obama-bashing of the Republican Party and the likes of Sheldon Adelson. Once again, he has greatly exaggerated the differing views of the two major parties on matters related to the Islamic Republic. And the State of Israel will pay the price.

The Iranian issue is a profound problem – one that Netanyahu has repeatedly said compels him to address the U.S. Congress, even without the Obama administration's agreement. In accepting Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner's invitation to make the speech, Netanyahu has taken many risks: he defied the U.S. president, enraged Democrat leaders, and brought Israeli-American relations to an all-time low. As major commentators have pointed out, the only reason for Netanyahu to take such risks is that he perceives the Obama administration as too weak to stand up to Iran, and has decided instead to appeal to – and rely on – the Republican-controlled Congress. Neo-conservatives, such as William Kristol, have applauded the Israeli prime minister, asserting that “the Republican party and the conservative movement – and most of the American people – stand with Israel and against President Obama.”

But the idea that Republicans, conservatives and the American people line up on one side of the issue while Obama and the liberals take the other is a fantasy. I bet not one American in 100 could explain the precise difference between the administration’s position on Iran and that of the Republicans. Both sides don't want Iran to attain nuclear weapons and have said that all options must be on the table to prevent that from happening. And both sides have supported tough sanctions against the Iranian regime. Both also believe in imposing more severe sanctions should the talks fail.

Actual differences in their policy are marginal. The Republicans say, of course, that they would be tougher negotiators – but they always say that and we have no way of proving it's true. The administration is currently more concerned about keeping together the alliance of major world powers, which is essential if current and future sanctions are to work, while the Republicans are more interested in making clear what sanctions will follow if the negotiations fail. While these are matters of consequence, they certainly do not represent a yawning gap between the two camps.

I am not entirely confident that the Obama administration will achieve the most desirable outcome. While I generally support its steady and cautious foreign policy, I disapprove of the weakness and ineptness that it demonstrates from time to time. While its desire to reach a deal with Iran is admirable, I am not certain that it will insist on the right deal. More importantly, if the terms of a deal are violated or no agreement is reached at all, I am not sure that it will have the necessary resolve to take military action.

Still, I see no such resolve on the Republican side either. On the subject of the Iranian threat, Republicans offer grandiose rhetoric, to be sure, but are no less vague than the Democrats when it comes to tachlis— real, practical solutions that might include a military response.

And the public shows little commitment to a tough line on Iran that would entail real American sacrifice. Poll data indicate that Americans want their government to do more in the world, but it is hard to know what that means. A recent Fox News poll noted that 70 percent of voters say Obama has been too weak on Iran. But in the same poll, only 5 percent of voters see foreign policy as the most important matter for the president and Congress to deal with right now. Respondents viewed the economy, healthcare, jobs, immigration, the deficit and climate change as issues of greater urgency.

Clearly, Prime Minister Netanyahu was prepared to provoke the Obama administration in the belief that the Republicans would be his savior on Iran. But they won’t. The Republicans care some about Iran, but they and the American people have other things to worry about first.

If the Israeli prime minister wants to build an American consensus on the Iranian threat, the only way to do so is to postpone his speech until after the Israeli elections, stay away from Congress until then, lower the temperature, and encourage the Jewish community to work with the administration and friends in both parties to promote a more assertive stance on sanctions, a framework agreement and the consequences of Iranian defiance. 

The way not to do it is to give a speech that will be seen as an insult to a twice-elected president and an affront to his supporters, not to mention a PR circus that will remind the world just how much of a mess Israel’s government has made of ties with its greatest ally.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey.