Trump and Netanyahu Continue to Misread Iran?
Iran will top the Trump-Netanyahu agenda in
Israel. But it was Netanyahu's arrogance and
ineptitude that midwifed the unlikely U.S.-Iran
By Trita Parsi
- -Iran will top the agenda when President
Donald Trump visits Israel in a week.
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will likely use it
to celebrate America’s apparent shift against
the Iran nuclear deal and further diplomacy with
Iran. Yet the deal that the Israeli Prime
Minister argues has bolstered Iran would not
have been reached had it not been for Netanyahu
himself. His mishandling of the Iranian issue is
a major reason as to why the U.S. and Iran -
against all odds - eventually reached a nuclear
Netanyahu committed three cardinal sins that
ultimately worked in favor of the proponents of
the nuclear agreement.
First and foremost, no Israeli leader pushed the
idea that Iran was an existential threat more
than Netanyahu. Twenty years ago, however,
Netanyahu sang a different tune. During the
early years of the Oslo agreement, it was Bibi’s
Labor rivals that pushed the idea that Iran was
behind the Palestinian violence facing Israel.
Labor had a clear political incentive to blame
Iran. How could it justify a peace deal with the
Palestinians if they were so duplicitous that
they were simultaneously negotiating with Israel
and blowing up buses in Israel?
Netanyahu had the opposite political incentive.
As an opponent of the Oslo Accords, it served
his interest to blame the Palestinians and not
Iran precisely because that would help reduce
support for the land-for-peace agreement among
the Israeli public.
But for the first nine months during his initial
term as Prime Minister, Netanyahu was
conspicuously silent on Iran. Rather than paint
Iran as an existential threat, he used back
channels to explore whether he could find common
ground with Tehran. Netanyahu began echoing
Labor’s language on Iran only after being
rebuffed by Iran, which didn't take his outreach
seriously, setting the Oslo talks on a course
towards collapse. From this point on, he argued
that Iran was a global threat, the center of
Islamic radicalism and, of course, an
existential threat to Israel.
Over the years, Netanyahu took this line further
than any other Israeli leader and came to
personify the argument that any compromise with
Tehran would put Israel’s very survival in
At first, the argument succeeded in convincing
Washington to focus on Iran’s nuclear program
and to further isolate Iran. Together with
unending Israeli threats to take military action
against Iran, it also compelled Washington and
the EU to adopt increasingly harsh sanctions on
Iran, and in the case of the U.S, consider the
military option far more seriously.
“The intention," former Prime Minister Ehud
Barak admitted last week, "was both to make the
Americans increase sanctions and to carry out
the [military] operation.”
But here’s where it all went wrong for Bibi.
By defining the Iranian nuclear program as an
existential threat to Israel, Netanyahu hoped to
force Obama to take military action against
Iran. Instead, Netanyahu’s strategy eliminated
the status quo option of containing the nuclear
program while neither resolving the issue nor
acquiescing to Iran’s nuclear demands.
Once the status quo option was rejected,
Netanyahu thought he could force Obama to take
military action. Instead, Obama did something
Netanyahu had discounted—he doubled down on
Bibi thought he was forcing Obama to go to war.
Instead, he forced Obama to go to peace. Had
Netanyahu not exaggerated Iran as an existential
threat and eliminated the status quo option,
Obama would likely never have doubled down on
talks in order to avoid war.
Bibi’s second cardinal sin was his provocative
address to Congress. By taking the fight against
a sitting U.S. president to Congress, without
revealing anything new in his speech or
providing a better alternative to the nuclear
deal Obama was completing, he only achieved two
things, both of which worked to his detriment.
First, he made the nuclear deal a partisan
issue, where lawmakers would vote almost
entirely along party lines. Second, he made it a
choice between him - the Prime Minister of
Israel - and Obama, the president of the United
Making the issue partisan locked in all
Republican votes in his favor, but made it very
difficult win over any Democrats. He needed at
least eight Democrats to come to his side, since
a resolution rejecting the deal needed to pass
with 60 votes (the Republican majority in the
Senate was razor thin, only 52 Senators). But
winning eight democrats was no easy task,
particularly since Bibi had made it a choice
between him and Obama. “For a lot of people,
[choosing between Obama and Netanyahu] was
actually pretty easy,” Congresswoman Jan
Schakowsky, a leading Jewish supporter of the
deal, told me.
The irony of it all is that there was a much
easier way for Netanyahu to kill the deal he
claimed would pave Iran’s path to a nuclear
bomb. All he needed to do was to hug the
agreement. Failing to see this was his third
The Iranians had no problem handling Netanyahu’s
opposition to the nuclear talks—on the contrary,
they welcomed it. But it would have been very
challenging for them politically if Netanyahu
had gone on a victory lap and declared the deal
a defeat for Iran. “That would have been enough
to kill the deal,” Iran’s foreign minister,
Javad Zarif, admitted to me last year.
Luckily for Obama, Netanyahu’s arrogance made
him blind to his own ineptitude.
Trita Parsi is an award winning author and the
2010 recipient of the
Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order.
He is the founder and president of the
National Iranian American Council
and an expert on US-Iranian relations, Iranian
foreign politics, and the geopolitics of the
Middle East. He is the author of
Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of
Iran, Israel and the United States (Yale
University Press 2007),
for which he conducted more than 130 interviews
with senior Israeli, Iranian and American
He tweets at @tparsi.
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views expressed in this article are solely those
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