By Fighting Iran Deal, Netanyahu Made Key Win Over Obama

The Iran deal will pass, but Netanyahu's fight was worth it, because it strengthened the hands of those in the administration who are wary of turning Iran into a welcome player in the Middle East.

Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar
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Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in Congress, March 3, 2015.
Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in Congress, March 3, 2015.Credit: AP
Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar

If international politics was akin to the National Football League, then Barak Ravid, who accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of crashing Israeli policy into a wall over the Iran deal, would be right. Why? Because in sports, NFL coach Vince Lombardi's aphorism applies: winning isn't everything; it's the only thing. But in international politics, the way a victory is achieved can create favorable or unfavorable conditions for the next round. It can also have a crucial impact on timing.

Not only did the Obama administration win this fight by subverting the constitutional treaty-approval process (by refusing to label the JCPOA as a treaty), it scored victory by deliberately boxing itself in – twice. First, it allowed Iran to build its potent nuclear infrastructure to the level of a threshold state, and accepted the sanctions approach of Congress only under duress (although subsequently, U.S. President Barack Obama claimed credit for what he originally opposed). Later, it justified the JCPOA as a last resort for lengthening Iran's breakout time for a bomb, when it could have blocked this crisis by more punishing sanctions and by a credible military threat. Second, after asking Congress to defer judgment on the deal until it was finalized, Obama turned around and claimed that congressional rejection of a done deal would leave the United States isolated.

It is one thing to win on the basis of a tour de force; it's another to win by saying extrication from a deeply flawed deal would do more harm than good. This sentiment was best expressed by Obama's former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates: “I think we swallow hard, acknowledge our negotiators got out-negotiated, and that we have a flawed deal, and make the best of it.”

There were two contending approaches within the administration that nevertheless came together to support the Iran deal. The first, as expressed by Obama in his celebrated 2014 New Yorker interview with David Remnick, was a transformational approach: "if we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion—not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon — you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran." This approach was also discernible in U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's September 2 speech in Philadelphia, defending the treaty as the time "when the builders of stability seized the initiative from the destroyers of hope."

The second approach within the administration views the agreement as the least bad choice given Iran's advance toward the bomb. Despite the talk about all options being on the table, the officials who ascribe to this approach believed that U.S. public opinion would not stomach another Middle East war. However, once the deal was ratified, it was necessary to vigorously push back against Iranian attempts to destabilize the Middle East and attain regional hegemony.

Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who was a key member of the U.S. negotiating team for the 2013 interim accord in Geneva and testified in favor of the JCPOA before congressional committees, wrote in the New York Times last week that it was time for a new Truman Doctrine targeted against Iran. The follow-up to the nuclear deal was a bipartisan foreign policy "to win the long-term struggle with Iran for power in the Middle East." This, concluded Burns, would be part of "an Obama pivot back to American leadership in the Middle East." By choosing this phrase, Burns derided the transformational approach and its expectations that a new regional equilibrium would relieve America of its Middle East burdens and facilitate a withdrawal and pivot to Asia.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter also espouses the more confrontational approach to Iran. Responding to a question from Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on the likelihood that Iran would change its behavior following the deal, Carter replied: "Mr. Chairman, just speaking from my own. I don't foresee that or have any reason to foresee that."

In a sense, this situation is reminiscent the Oslo odd couple of Shimon Peres and Yizhak Rabin, who forged an equally lamentable agreement. But whereas Peres hyped it as the onset of a New Middle East, Rabin never trusted Yasser Arafat and at least by some accounts was considering pulling the plug on the process at the time of his assassination.

I do not believe that any post-JCPOA remedial action by the United States can totally compensate for a bad agreement as in the case of Oslo. However, the Burns-Carter approach to Iran is undoubtedly preferable to the approach that believes that the Islamic Republic of Iran can be tamed by the deal and displays of American humility. It also treats Israel as an ally; not as an accidental partner with the same status of Iran.

As the debate progressed, the transformational approach – based on Iran evolving toward normalcy and engagement – was progressively muted, and administration spokespersons sold the deal using the second approach, including in letters by Obama to wavering congressmen. The opposition to the deal, led by Netanyahu, helped push public and congressional opinion away from the transformational approach, which views Iran as a normal and even welcome part of a Middle East equilibrium, and toward the more hard-headed one. Thus, it strengthened the hands of those in the administration who are wary of Iran.

The Hudson Institute's Michael Doran correctly argues that the shift toward describing the deal as the least bad choice was tactical, and that Obama remains an advocate of the transformational approach. Now that the battle with Congress has been won, he can and will go back to his favored approach. But, to use a phrase from the negotiations, the "breakout time" for Obama doing so has been lengthened, and the time he has left in office has been abbreviated. These too can be attributed to Netanyahu's decision to fight.

Amiel Ungar is a political scientist.

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