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Bibi’s Game: Why He’s Inveighing Against a Done Deal

AFP/Getty Images

It is debatable whether the deal struck this weekend in Geneva, Switzerland between Iran and the P5+1 nations (led, the existence of secret bilateral backchannel talks indicates, by the United States) generally recognizes Iran’s right to enrich uranium. It obliges Iran to stop enriching uranium to the dangerous 20 percent level and to de-enrich the uranium that is already there; but it allows Iran to continue enriching uranium to lower levels. In exchange, Iran will receive $6 to $7 billion in sanctions relief—not a huge sum compared to the economic damage sanctions have wrought. The deal is being described as an interim step. It recognizes the right to enrich, but only over the next six months. It is the first time the West has recognized this right in any timeframe; but an ideal agreement from Iran’s perspective would likely have had some sentence definitively enshrining that right, and this agreement has no such sentence.

It is telling that Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said the agreement did encode this recognition, and he was echoed on Twitter by the new president, Hassan Rouhani. It is also telling that Zarif’s American counterpart, Secretary of State John Kerry, explicitly denied this: “This first step does not say that Iran has the right of enrichment,” he said, adding, in obvious reference to the Iranian leaders’ remarks, “no matter what interpretative comments are made.”

And it is even more telling who else believes the agreement does recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium. “Now, for the first time, the international community has formally consented that Iran continue its enrichment of uranium,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “What was concluded in Geneva last night is not a historic agreement,” he added, “it’s a historic mistake.” He wants the world to take the middle interpretation: The first nuclear agreement with the Islamic Republic involved recognition of the right to enrich, and so the fateful precedent has been set. His spokesperson compared the deal to an admittedly small hole in a tire that nonetheless will eventually drain the entire thing of air.

Netanyahu has spent the past several months advocating forcefully against an agreement he deems bad; and he deems this one bad. But is it wise of him to continue condemning the deal, now that it has been realized? Or is he closing the proverbial barn door too tardily, in the process damaging his ability to shape future events?

For the entirety of Netanyahu’s current term, he has engaged in a sustained game, in public and no doubt in private as well, with Barack Obama, whose presidency began just two months earlier than his prime ministership. The game is this: On Iran’s nuclear program, try to use Israel’s leverage in order to get the United States to go along with Israel’s interests as he perceives them. Netanyahu sees a country fewer than 1000 miles away with an avowedly anti-Zionist leadership developing a nuclear program that sure looks like it has a military component. This was strictly not-okay. In fact, he almost certainly decided that the best thing for his country would be a military strike to cripple Iran’s program.

But this game was extremely challenging. For one thing, the United States is differently situated—bigger, stronger, thousands of miles farther away—and hence has different interests. For another, Netanyahu’s bluff could always be called, and the proof of that was the fact that Netanyahu felt he needed to play the game in the first place. After all, if he wanted to bomb Iran himself, he probably could have (particularly back when his defense minister was Ehud Barak, for the first four years of his tenure). But he likely felt he could not, because a strike without U.S. cooperation would have lacked even more legitimacy in the international eye and almost certainly would have done damage not sufficient to justify it

Give Bibi credit: This was a nearly unwinnable game, and yet for nearly five years he won it. He got a liberal American president not to rule out a military strike and to insist that an Iranian nuclear weapon is unacceptable—that “containment” is not an option. Netanyahu almost certainly created a context in which the weekend’s agreement was less Iran-friendly than it would otherwise have been.

But there was always a fundamental difference, and we are now seeing it made manifest. Neither Obama nor Netanyahu is okay with Iran having nuclear weapons. But Obama is much more okay with Iran’s nuclear program developing, if it means bringing it under greater international control and generally slowly welcoming Iran back into the community of nations. That is how what Netanyahu defines as a bad deal nonetheless gets made (and don’t forget that China, Russia, Great Britain, Germany, and newly hawkish France also agreed to it). Obama likely feels this way due to his interpretation of American interests. (Personally, on these matters I like to trust people like nonproliferation expert David Albright, who says this is a good deal.) This was inevitable.

So what explains Bibi’s continued, vocal opposition? He has never seemed less powerful (and nor, not incidentally, has the vaunted “Israel lobby”). It actually happened: The Obama administration actually did the thing Netanyahu most didn’t want it to do, even if his (and ally-of-convenience Saudi Arabia’s) noisy, and totally valid, lobbying on behalf of his own country surely drove the negotiators to drive a harder bargain. There is the all-politics-is-local angle: Having just sustained a major defeat on his signature issue, Netanyahu’s Israeli rivals, on left and right, correctly smell blood in the water. He wants to ensure that the House of Representatives and the Senate—which traditionally look upon Israel’s (and Netanyahu’s) views far more favorably than the president—keep up the threat of further santions, which would scuttle the deal almost by definition. But so far, the talk on Capitol Hill, while extremely skeptical of the agreement, is of readying further sanctions if Iran fails to live up to its end of the deal. That is a lot different from passing sanctions now, and actually should in theory make the deal more likely to work, and to lead to a subsequent deal.

Ah, yes: The next deal. This ain’t over! Assuming six months passes and Iran does what it says and the P5+1 do what they say, then it will enshrine the principle that lessened sanctions can be traded for greater control, including the assured de-weaponization, of Iran’s nuclear program. Will that deal do what this one did not, and explicitly enshrine Iran’s right to enrich uranium—or even to having a homegrown nuclear program? (Past hypotheticals have considered Iran receiving nuclear fuel from outside the country.) Netanyahu wants to shape these details.

I think Netanyahu generally played a terrible hand masterfully, and so I am not sure he needs my advice. But at some point the U.S. president—any U.S. president—is going to prefer to have allies like Israel pissing from inside the tent rather than outside it. Whatever remained of the notion that Netanyahu has real leverage just evaporated before the entire world’s eyes. The question now is whether Netanyahu himself can see that.