During a press conference with German Prime Minister Angela Merkel Monday, President Obama ruled out another extension of nuclear talks with Iran, stressing that the time has come for Iranian leaders to make a decision:
"The issues now are sufficiently narrowed and sufficiently clarified, where we're at a point where they need to make a decision. We are presenting to them in a unified fashion .... a deal that allows them to have peaceful nuclear power but gives us the absolute assurance that is verifiable that they are not pursuing a nuclear weapon. And if in fact what they claim is true, which is they have no aspiration to get a nuclear weapon, that according to their supreme leader it would be contrary to their faith to obtain a nuclear weapon -- if that is true, there should be the possibility of getting a deal. They should be able to get to 'yes'. But we don't know if that is going to happen. They have their hard-liners, they have their politics....
"We now know enough that the issues are no longer technical. The issues now are, does Iran have the political will and the desire to get a deal done."
But as Obama knows all too well well, those questions can also be asked in reverse. Do the United States and its allies have "the political will and the desire to get a deal done"? Because like Iran, we too have our hard-liners and our politics; we too have groups that are eager to reject any deal with Iran. There is, however, one notable difference:
The leader of America's hard-line contingent, the man who has tried to sabotage negotiations with Iran from the beginning, isn't even an American. Not surprisingly, the role played by Benjamin Netanyahu also came up in Obama's press conference, and here's how the president responded:
"I don't want to be coy. The prime minister and I have a very real difference around Iran sanctions. I have been very clear -- and Angela (Merkel) agrees with me and (British Prime Minister) David Cameron agrees with me and the others who are members of the negotiation agree -- that it doesn't make sense to sour the negotiations a month or two before they're about to be completed.
"And we should play that out. If in fact we can get a deal, then we should embrace that; if we can't get a deal, then we'll have to make a set of decisions and, as I said to Congress, I'll be the first one to work with them to apply even stronger measures against Iran.
"But what's the rush? Unless your view is that it's not possible to get a deal with Iran and it shouldn't even be tested. And that I cannot agree with because as president of the United States, I'm looking at what the options are if we can't get a diplomatic solution, and those options are narrow and they are not attractive."
Netanyahu, on the other hand, wants war. That is his one and only solution. He seeks to maneuver the United States and President Obama into a trap in which our only remaining option is a broad, sustained military assault on Iran, even if such an attack would toss gasoline on a Middle East that is already aflame due in part to a previous military incursion.
Addressing a Congress dominated by Obama's opponents on March 3, Netanyahu will try to goad them into undermining the president's attempt at negotiation. He will be asking them to follow his own lead on a matter of war and peace, rather than the lead of the person elected to perform that duty by the American people. And Netanyahu will be asking them to endorse an approach that is highly controversial even among his own people.
However, if he's going to make that extraordinary argument, Netanyahu should at least feel obliged to spell out for Congress and the American people exactly what his own approach entails: How would a military assault work, what would be its costs and risks, what would be its likelihood of success? How many U.S. boots will be needed on Iranian soil to ensure the dismantlement of Iran's nuclear program?
And as we listen to that explanation, we should keep in mind Netanyahu's cocksure testimony before Congress back in 2002, in which he lobbied heavily -- and unfortunately effectively -- for a pre-emptive American invasion of Iraq. It is difficult to convey the depth of his single-minded insistence on multiple, repeated wars fought by the United States -- if you have the time, I urge you to read his entire testimony, linked above -- but here is a taste?
Why was such an invasion necessary?
"There is no question whatsoever that Saddam is seeking and is working and is advancing towards the development of nuclear weapons — no question whatsoever. And there is no question that once he acquires it, history shifts immediately.... make no mistake about it, if and once Saddam has nuclear weapons, the terror network will have nuclear weapons. And once the terror network has nuclear weapons, it is only a matter of time before those weapons will be used."
Are we sure?
" .... every indication we have is that he is pursuing, pursuing with abandon, pursuing with every ounce of effort, the establishment of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. If anyone makes an opposite assumption or cannot draw the lines connecting the dots, that is simply not an objective assessment of what has happened. Saddam is hell-bent on achieving atomic bombs, atomic capabilities, as soon as he can."
What would happen if we invade?
"If you take out Saddam, Saddam’s regime, I guarantee you that it will have enormous positive reverberations on the region.… the test and the great opportunity and challenge is not merely to effect the ouster of the regime, but also transform that society and thereby begin too the process of democratizing the Arab world.”
Really? Won't the backlash instead make things much more difficult? Couldn't the removal of Saddam Hussein end up empowering Iran, for example?
"Saddam is probably in many ways the linchpin because it is possible to take out this regime with military action, and the reverberations of what happens with the collapse of Saddam's regime could very well create an implosion in a neighboring regime like Iran for the simple reason that Iran has -- I don't want to say a middle class, but it has a large population that is -- that might bring down the (Iranian) regime just as it brought down the Shah's regime."
And after invading Iraq? What would we do next?
"The three principles of winning the war on terror are the three W’s — winning, winning and winning. The more victories you amass, the easier the next victory becomes. The first victory in Afghanistan makes a second victory in Iraq that much easier. The second victory in Iraq will make the third victory that much easier, too, but it may change the nature of achieving that victory."
As he does today, he told us in 2002 that inspections wouldn't suffice and that only an invasion could ensure that we had dismantled Saddam's network of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. He told us that by invading Iraq, we would touch off pro-Western regime changes throughout the Arab world. And he haughtily dismissed any suggestion that an American invasion of Iraq would create spin-off terrorist groups because, he said, "there is no international terrorism if you take away the support of sovereign states, and the sovereign states are a few. If you want to win the war, you just have to neutralize these states."
He also assured us that an invasion of Iraq was necessary for the protection of Israel. With the Arab world now more inflamed than ever, with ISIS and similar extremist groups proliferating, with Syria in collapse and Iran ascendant, it's clear that Israel today is less secure as a result of the invasion that Netanyahu so stridently supported.
Back then, the cynical joke among the neo-cons was that “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.” Netanyahu was a "real man," and still is. So I suggest that we take into account the accuracy of such predictions when trying to assess the wisdom of our would-be new commander in chief.
Because Iran is many times more complicated, dangerous and unpredictable than Iraq.