What Netanyahu Won't Tell Congress

A speech about talks.

Photographer: Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images

However politically unwise it is for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress on Tuesday, his message on U.S. and European negotiations with Iran deserves a respectful hearing. Israel has cause for special concern about the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran emerging in the Middle East.

Netanyahu has consistently opposed the talks with Iran: He thinks any agreement that leaves its autocratic regime with the capacity to enrich uranium is unacceptable, because it might be used to build a bomb. And if there is one thing that can be predicted about any deal that might emerge from the talks (even without recent leaks), it is that Iran would retain an enrichment capability.

Netanyahu's view gained support recently from no less a realist than Henry Kissinger, who said that he fears the emerging agreement might legitimize Iran as a so-called nuclear threshold state -- a country that has sufficient fuel capacity to build a bomb. Other countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, would then want the same threshold status.

QuickTake Iran's Nuclear Program

Kissinger is right to be concerned about nuclear proliferation in such a combustible region, just as he was when Iran sought a nuclear program in the 1960s and ’70s. And critics of the current negotiations are right to say Iran’s regime can’t be trusted -- indeed, no one does trust it. To make a convincing case to abandon the talks, however, Netanyahu should use his speech to propose a more effective alternative for ensuring Iran doesn't get nuclear weapons, something he has yet to do.

Speaking before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Monday in Washington, Netanyahu made a powerful case for ensuring that Iran doesn't acquire nuclear arms. He also acknowledged that he shares this goal with President Barack Obama, but disagrees with him on how to achieve it.

It would be ideal, of course, to get Iran to give up its enrichment program altogether. For almost a decade, that was the red line that both the U.S. and the European Union kept drawing. But that approach failed. After initial talks with Iran ended in 2005, the regime progressively expanded its production of uranium. There's no evidence to suggest the current regime can now be persuaded to surrender its nuclear fuel program.

Another strategy is to impose more sanctions -- as many in Congress insist. Iran’s economy has suffered significant damage from the existing pressure, and perhaps more could push it to collapse. There are at least two problems with this thinking, however. First, sanctions have gained traction only since European states joined in. So it isn’t Congress that needs to be persuaded to increase them, but Europe, plus Russia and China. And the way for the U.S. to make that case is not to undermine the negotiations by imposing its own new sanctions.

The second problem is that the sanctions, even amplified as they have been by low oil prices, haven't brought about any sign that the Iranian regime might capitulate or collapse. The failure of these talks, on the other hand, would marginalize the Iranian pragmatists who have backed them, including President Hassan Rouhani.

The last available option is airstrikes. Yet their value would be limited -- setting Iran's program back perhaps a year or two -- and consequences for the region would be hard to foresee. In any case, this option would remain on the table should Iran break the terms of any deal reached in current talks.

Source: International Atomic Energy Agency

Iran is already further from being able to fuel a nuclear weapon today because of the terms set for the negotiations more than a year ago -- terms that Netanyahu, at the time, called a “historic mistake."

The talks resume this week in Geneva, and if they lead to a deal, its strength will depend on the details. Will Iran agree, for example, to a special inspection regime strict enough to ensure that fuel isn't diverted to a clandestine weapons program?

In the meantime, there seems to be little reason the U.S. should want the talks to collapse. If they fail, Iranian hardliners have already said they will again ramp up enrichment to 20 percent, bringing them closer to a nuclear breakout capacity far faster than any imperfect diplomatic settlement would. And on that pledge, Iran can probably be trusted.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.