Blustering Bibi

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Congress yesterday and spoke primarily of the on-going negotiations between the United States and Iran regarding the latter’s nuclear program. His speech forcefully reiterated his position that a nuclear deal with Iran is a “bad deal” that poses significant risk to the survival of Israel and to international peace. He was warmly received by Congress and his speech was interrupted several times by applause and a few standing ovations. However, many commentators – including a White House official – felt that his speech was heavy on rhetoric and light on substance. As the title of this blog post suggests, I agree.

As I watched the speech yesterday morning I was often distracted by how gimmicky it sounded. Alliteration, metaphor, a misinterpretation of a Robert Frost poem, and various cliches were used unsparingly as Netanyahu painted a picture of Iran as a messianic, terrorist regime. His characterization of the Iranian regime is not wholly inaccurate as Iran has indeed supported non-state actors in conducting terrorism and has a horrendous human rights record. But once Netanyahu began his long tirade of how “Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam” complete with – I kid you not – a Game of Thrones reference it all began to feel more like a performance piece than a genuine contribution to the debate on how best to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Because that’s the thing. Whatever the acrimony between Obama and Netanyahu, neither of them wants Iran to possess nuclear weapons. And both agree that Israel and the international community has much to fear from an Iran with that capability. The sticking point, therefore, is not whether or not it is dangerous for Iran to possess nuclear weapons but rather how best to prevent it from obtaining such capability. Netanyahu made it clear during his speech that the current negotiations are not his preferred method, but there are several reasons why engagement with Iran is the best way forward. It’s easy to get caught up in Bibi’s bluster and deem this position naive or overly optimistic but this type of dismissal ignores empirical evidence that suggests that the negotiating table may be a stronger weapon than punitive disengagement.

First, the Iranian regime is more pragmatic than many appreciate. That is not to say that they are always reasonable or ever a-religious. It is simply to suggest that as a regime Iran is not driven solely by religiosity but also by a pragmatic understanding of the political calculations it must make in order to retain power and/or achieve its political goals. For example, in the late 1980s the Supreme Leader issued a fatwa encouraging Iranian women to use birth control and making contraception widely available. His decision was motivated by a desire to slow the baby boom that was burdening the economy. This position has since been reversed as the country’s fertility rate has dropped below replacement level. If the Iranian regime were purely messianic, contraception would never have been made available in the religiously conservative country regardless of the consequences of demographic shifts. This example is highlighted not to endorse the Iranian regime’s policies on contraception but rather to illustrate that the regime practices pragmatism where necessary. Even the rise of Rouhani and previous reformers like Khatami indicate that there is some room in Iranian politics for moderation. There is thus room to incentivize cooperation and more palatable behaviour. This point seems obvious and yet if one were to judge the character of the Iranian regime based on Netanyahu’s speech alone one would be left with the opinion that Iran is devoid of rational thought and incapable of restraint.

Second, the unfortunate reality is that Iran is a sovereign state that can, and will, pursue a nuclear program without cooperating with the United States, the United Nations, or any other members of the international community. Short of declaring war on Iran (which Netanyahu seemed to hint at but most everyone else agrees would be a terrible idea) there is little that Israel, the United States, and their allies can do to physically prevent Iran from pursuing its nuclear program. That is, of course, a very scary thought. It’s also why engagement with Iran is necessary. Further isolating and sanctioning of Iran may only stoke its ambitions while leaving the international community in the dark.

Finally, the Iranian regime relies on the narrative of an evil America to consolidate its conservative base and retain power. Harsh American rhetoric (like Bush labelling Iran part of the “Axis of Evil”) and sanctions only validates the Iranian regime’s position. By negotiating with Iran in good faith, the United States helps undermine a key pillar of the regime’s legitimacy.

Engagement with Iran makes many people in the United States, Israel and beyond wary and this is understandable as there is a lot at stake. However, such discomfort should not stand in the way of meaningful negotiations as, for the reasons outlined above, they are much more likely to promote stability than isolation or sanctions. As Netanyahu himself said yesterday, “If Iran wants to be treated like a normal country, let it act like a normal country.” Well, negotiating and communicating with international partners on security issues is part of acting like a normal country. No matter the outcome, these nuclear negotiations are not a silver bullet to reform in Iran or even guaranteeing that the country remains free of nuclear weapons. But they are an opportunity to challenge Iran to prove itself as a responsible member of the international community.

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