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Obama, Netanyahu, Iran, Congress and the Republican Party

An intense political battle is going on over Iran on Capitol Hill. Insular Republicans underestimate at their peril international pressures driven by global security concerns.

A State of the Union speech by an American president can normally be compared to a Speech from the Throne by the Queen of England. In each case the executive takes advantage of an opportunity, in a ritualised public context, to outline its legislative and political programme for the coming year. The opposition responds as predictably, the public barely notices and political life rolls on.

Last week’s State of the Union by Barack Obama blew this tradition out of the water, advocating a range of domestic proposals anathema to the Republican establishment. Obama inflamed the Republican right by reaffirming the historic importance of opening up diplomatic relations with Cuba and by declaring his willingness to use his veto to block any move by the Republican-majority Senate to torpedo the nuclear negotiations with Iran, in a decisive final phase.

Obama, initially elected with behind him a wave of international hope that he would bid farewell to the grim US power politics of intimidation and the threat of military strikes, sadly morphed into an advocate of extra-legal drone strikes, black operations, mass surveillance and US-led military interventions in Libya, Iraq and Syria. He ceased to be a symbol of hope, and became a creature of the political establishment. Almost for the first time since first elected in November 2008, in this State of the Union he unexpectedly re-emerged as the fighter he once was, refreshingly advocating change.

Before Obama had completed his speech Republican senators were texting their rejections. He had touched on a raw nerve. The visceral hatred which has led many Republicans to strenuously oppose everything Obama has tried to achieve since he became America’s first black president burst out into the open.

It is no longer a closely-guarded secret that, on the night of Obama’s first inauguration, Republicans met to discuss how they could stymie his congressional initiatives. If Hillary Clinton had been elected, the Republican response would undoubtedly have been different.

After this State of the Union Republican leaders appeared on TV, declaring with great self-satisfaction that almost all Obama’s domestic initiatives were “dead”. One US report described John Boehner, speaker of the House of Representatives, as throwing a fit and a tantrum. Emboldened by their majority in Congress, Republicans had expected Obama to dance to their tune.

On the same wavelength: Boehner with Netanyahu when he visited Washington just four months into Obama's first term. Flickr /Talk Radio News Service. Some rights reserved.

Republicans have lost sight of the fact that US public opinion has already shifted significantly since their crushing mid-term victory in November 2014. They have also failed to acknowledge the turnout in that election—at 34% the lowest since 1942.

Obama’s initiatives on immigration and Cuba in particular have been welcomed by America at large. According to the latest Rasmussen opinion poll, his approval rating since the State of the Union is at its highest since mid-April 2013.

The Republicans and their Fox News media managers, who perceive themselves as opinion-shapers par excellence, are already out of step with public opinion. Their bellicose fulminations reflect their increasing isolation from the mainstream. Instead of enhancing Republicans’ 2016 election prospects, they may run the risk of undercutting them.

‘Doing the right thing’

The core issue at the heart of Obama’s contretemps with the Republicans is the possible deal over Iran’s nuclear programme. Whereas until now Republican spokespersons have hidden their anti-Iran agenda by pretending to be open to a decision on the outcome of the negotiations, their leader, Boehner, has declared: “No White House threat will stop us from doing the right thing to protect the US and its allies.” 

Boehner proceeded to say—in the immediate aftermath of Charlie Hebdo—that Islam and Iran posed “grave threats to our security and very way of life”. Republican support for any deal endorsed by Obama’s negotiators is all but ruled out. Because their campaign is co-led by a leading Democrat, the Republicans falsely claim it is bipartisan. It is not supported by the Democratic Party, whose leadership is strenuously supporting the negotiations.

Boehner’s statement came with his announcement that he had invited Israel’s increasingly controversial prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, to critique the ‘P5+1’ Iran negotiations (involving the permanent members of the UN Security Council and the European Union) before Congress and an international audience. Indeed Netanyahu accepted Boehner’s invitation—issued following consultation with the Republican caucus but not the White House—before Obama delivered his speech.

The White House press secretary diplomatically noted that the Republicans had departed from protocol. But an unattributed White House source spoke volumes: “He spat in our face publicly … Netanyahu ought to remember that President Obama has a year and a half left to his presidency, and that there will be a price.” According to the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Obama has warned Netanyahu to stop urging Congress to back laws imposing new sanctions on Iran.

Nancy Pelosi, the house minority Leader, aptly described Boehner’s actions as evidence of hubris. The same could be said of Netanyahu, who also neglected to consult Obama at any stage and could possibly be defeated in the forthcoming Israeli elections—being far less popular in Israel than in Congress. 

His obsessive concern to grandstand was never more evident than during the recent Charlie Hebdo demonstration in Paris. Although the French president, François Hollande, had requested him not to attend, Netanyahu did, forcing himself into the front row—almost next to Hollande—where his security guard apparently manhandled a French cabinet minister.

France may now be tempted not to support Israel in forthcoming votes on the UN Security Council and elsewhere. Two members of Netanyahu’s cabinet have warned that, if he does address Congress, he may be compromising Israel’s ties with the US for the sake of his campaign.

‘Throwing a grenade’

With the EU’s new foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, at his side, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, entered the fray by saying that “top intelligence personnel” in Israel had advised a visiting congressional delegation that if additional sanctions were announced “It would be like throwing a grenade into the process”. Although the Israeli government made an unconvincing attempt at damage control, it is generally understood that the Mossad chief, Tamir Pardo, has added his name to those of successive heads of the intelligence agency who have publicly challenged Netanyahu’s policies on Iran. Mossad can see that, if the negotiations were derailed, an already dangerously unstable region would be further destabilised.

Kerry also stressed that the US position on the Iran negotiations reflected the view of key EU allies: France, Germany and the UK. If Congress were to pull the plug on arduous negotiations backed by the US president, the international political fallout would be far-reaching. The US would lose not just face but international credibility.

Meantime, it went almost unnoticed on Capitol Hill that, in its most recent Joint Programme of Action report, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found Iran had complied with its obligations under the Non-proliferation Treaty and honoured its commitment not to expand its nuclear activities. Indeed, successive National Intelligence Estimates by US agencies have found that, since 1994, Iran has not aimed to develop nuclear weapons. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Zarif, has also weighed in, saying new sanctions would “kill” a nuclear deal, with Iran’s Majlis (parliament) taking counter-action.

Before his State of the Union, Obama unsettled some leading Republicans by encouraging the UK prime minister, David Cameron, to approach key congressional players in support of the P5+1. Now Republicans have invited Netanyahu to speak to both houses of Congress, they cannot object to further intense lobbying by governments supporting the negotiations. Mogherini recently circulated to all members of Congress a letter on behalf of EU foreign ministers: “We have a real chance to resolve one of the world’s long-standing security threats—and the chance to do it peacefully … We have a historic opportunity that may not come again.”

Narcissistic microcosm

If the bubble of US exceptionalism can be pricked through unaccustomed exposure to the views of the international community, this will undoubtedly stir some rethinking in Republican and Democratic ranks. Congress is a narcissistic microcosm of an insular society startlingly ignorant of the outside world. Most American adults have never left the United States. Their elected representatives can only benefit from discovering that, whether they like it or not, they are also part of a global community—and now lack the capacity to ride roughshod over its interests and wishes. 

The political heat is on and Congress has become a crucible, with all kinds of resolutions being crafted by Republicans and their few Democratic allies to achieve the 67 Senate votes required to override Obama’s presidential veto. Although Netanyahu’s speech to Congress was originally set down for early February, it is now scheduled to take place on 3 March, which happens to be the last day of the 2015 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference.

Mossad can see that, if the negotiations were derailed, an already dangerously unstable region would be further destabilised.

By addressing two very different audiences within three days, amid heightened international media attention, Netanyahu can pose as a polished diplomat before Congress and an articulate street-fighter before AIPAC, which attracts about 14,000 delegates—including as many as two-thirds of members of Congress. At least some may however absent themselves from the conference this time. They can give Netanyahu a hearing on their own turf and if they brave TV cameras and an international audience for a second bite of his poisoned cherry it could be to their political disadvantage. 

Netanyahu could still decide to address only AIPAC. He could get his message across to his key target audience without infuriating almost everyone on whom Israel depends for support. If not, his decision to postpone his US visit for the publicity value of two headline-grabbing speeches, just two weeks before the Israeli elections, could rebound on him and his congressional supporters.

Obama’s team has a golden opportunity to pull out all the stops in lobbying members of Congress. Any inhibitions key overseas supporters of a deal might otherwise have had about interfering in US domestic processes will be swept aside. Members will be hit from all sides by intense lobbying, including from abroad. This is likely to encourage Democratic waverers to play it safe and may encourage some Republicans to vote with their conscience rather than their party. In recent days two key Fox News pundits have sharply criticised Netanyahu’s decision to address Congress, revealing splits at the heart of the Republican camp.

The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, now controlled by the Republicans, will in the interim hear submissions from two conservative think tanks. But it will also hear from the Republican godfather Henry Kissinger, who has in advanced old age upset Republican apple-carts over Ukraine. Quite unexpectedly, Kissinger will once again find himself in the eye of a major political storm, with nothing to lose.

By inviting Netanyahu to address Congress, the Republicans are encouraging an internationally unpopular leader to undermine a key foreign-policy objective of the US government, humiliate an elected president and undo two years of hard political labour by the P5+1. This may well anger Americans on both sides of the political fence. AIPAC’s teflon façade will be indelibly scratched.

Beginning of the end

If the Republicans are unable to achieve their aim of torpedoing the nuclear negotiations, this will be a massive defeat and a huge loss of political credibility, domestically and internationally. It could even mark the beginning of the end of their presidential campaign for 2016.

But what if they were to succeed in torpedoing the nuclear negotiations? Until now the Israeli/US mantra has been that if Iran does not arrive at a negotiated settlement all options, especially war, are on the table. When the negotiations began, war may have appeared a feasible option, at least to hardliners in Israel and the Pentagon. Mossad has however consistently been opposed.

But now, in the Islamic State (IS) environment, a conventional or nuclear attack on Iran would trigger unpredictable eruptions throughout the Middle East, in the West and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Iran’s hardliners would seize the initiative and its political leadership would be neutralised or thrown out. The Iraqi and Syrian governments would attack any such intervention. The Saudi and Bahraini governments would be as fearful of public opinion at home as they would be of the US and would try to straddle barbed-wire fences. As for Libya, Yemen, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt, who knows? If the US were associated with an attack on Iran, any Middle Eastern government which allowed US or Israeli aircraft to overfly its airspace or use airbases on its territory would be risking its neck.

IS and al-Qaeda would be immeasurably strengthened and would seize a golden opportunity to profile themselves and their work. In the absence of a friendly understanding between Iran and the US, the fragile anti-IS coalition would disintegrate. Public rage at Israel and Netanyahu would trigger a wave of anti-Israeli activity, including from within Israel and the occupied territories. Hizbullah would have nothing to lose by attacking Israel with its new generation of long-range rockets. 

War with Iran would thus appear to be off the table for the foreseeable future. The lesser option of a diplomatic rupture would almost ensure that international moves to put the genie of Islamist militancy back into the bottle will be stillborn. Given a choice between a negotiated agreement with Iran and a variation on the above scenarios, the international community is likely to favour keeping the lid on the Middle East, at least for the time being.

About the author

Bob Rigg is former senior editor with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and a former chair of the New Zealand National Consultative Committee on Disarmament. He is a freelance researcher and writer specialising in nuclear issues, the Middle East, Central Asia, and US foreign policy.


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