After years of deadlock and months of wrangling, a nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers was finally agreed in mid-July. The deal, endorsed by the UN Security Council, authorises the lifting of economic sanctions against Iran in return for the country curbing sensitive nuclear activities. It provides a mechanism for these UN sanctions to "snap back" if Iran does not uphold its side of the deal. For 90 days, there will be no further action as the US Congress decides whether to give its approval. While Republican parliamentarians have repeatedly voiced their opposition to the deal, they have thus far not been able to scupper it. President Barack Obama has said that even Congress overrules the deal, he will use his veto to push it through.
The opposition is not limited to conservative American politicians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also been vocally opposed to any deal between world powers and Iran. He has argued that lifting sanctions will provide money for Iran to fund terrorism and threaten Israel, and that world leaders are being naïve in trusting that Iran will stick to any agreement. After the deal was announced on Tuesday 14 July, Netanyahu said that it was a "historic mistake" and promised that he would continue to try to block its final passage. The same day, the White House released details of a phone conversation between Obama and Netanyahu, in which the president sought to reassure his Israeli counterpart that the nuclear agreement "will not diminish our concerns regarding Iran's support for terrorism and threats". He also reiterated "the unprecedented level of security cooperation between the United States and Israel".
For all these conciliatory words from Obama, Netanyahu has continued his offensive against the deal, appearing on major American news networks last week to call for Congress to oppose it. "I think the right thing to do is merely not to go ahead with this deal. There are many things to be done to stop Iran's aggression and this deal is not one of them," he told CBS.
Much of the criticism levelled at the deal by Netanyahu and his political allies in the US actually relate to Iranian policy outside the nuclear programme: its poor human rights record, its anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism, and its support for groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. These critics argue that the deal, by sticking narrowly to the nuclear programme, will allow Iran to pursue these other destructive policies with more cash and political capital since sanctions will be lifted. The argument boils down to the idea that Iran should not be negotiated with at all without regime change of some sort. Yet it was solely by focusing so closely on nuclear non-proliferation that the US managed to get international support for the deal at all.
Netanyahu has said that he will fight the bill's passage in Congress. It is highly unusual for the leader of one country to talk in such terms about the domestic politics of another, particularly a closely allied country. Yet Netanyahu has form on this – he has close ties to sections of the Republican Party and has previously broken protocol by making it clear that he favoured Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, over Obama. Earlier this year, he angered Democrats by accepting a Republican invitation to address Congress without consulting the White House. This obvious preference for the president's opponents and dabbling in America's intense partisan rivalries is a symptom of, and contributing factor to, the intense distrust between Obama and Netanyahu. Writing in the Israeli newspaper Haartez earlier this month, Chemi Shalev wrote that "while both men obviously share a rational appreciation of the ties that bind their countries, the past six years have shown that it is their mutual and arguably irrational mistrust that often determines their behaviour".
It is certainly true that relations between Israel and the US have been more consistently strained in recent years than at any other point in the last two decades – and nowhere is this more evident than on the nuclear deal with Iran. Despite the fact that Netanyahu insisted that his stance on the nuclear deal was a "respectful disagreement between friends", it is unlikely that the White House will look kindly on his stated intention to pressure American lawmakers to vote it down.
The Israeli prime minister is depending now, as he has before, on the fact that ties between the two countries are so strong that there is little chance of a major rift. While that is true, he does risk further reducing his own influence in America – at least for the remainder of Obama's term. Looking beyond the narrow debates about bilateral relations is the much bigger issue: the deal that Netanyahu is opposing represents a major diplomatic breakthrough. US Secretary of State John Kerry summarised the argument effectively: "The fact is that the real fear of that region should be that you don't have the deal. If Congress doesn't pass this, if Congress were to kill this, then we have no inspections, we have no sanctions, we have no ability to negotiate."
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