House Speaker John Boehner has invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress next month about negotiations with Iran, a visit that would come right at the time that Congress is debating controversial bills that would tighten Iranian sanctions. The Obama administration strongly opposes that legislation, warning that its passage would destroy any chance of a negotiated settlement with Iran over its nuclear program.
In a breach of protocol, the invitation to Netanyahu was extended and accepted without the involvement or even knowledge of the White House. And while it serves as a politically useful gesture of defiance by both Netanyahu and Boehner, it is also a really dumb idea.
On Boehner's part, the invitation represents a rare if not unprecedented direct intervention into foreign policy by the legislative branch, potentially undermining very serious negotiations that continue in Geneva. In Netanyahu's case, it represents a degree of meddling into American partisan politics that could have serious implications for his country. Israel cannot win that kind of game, not in the long term.
And that's before we even get into the question of how best to address Iran and its nuclear ambitions.
Again, we face three options:
1.) We can reach a settlement of the sort that the United States and its allies are now attempting to negotiate in which Iran gives up its nuclear program in return for an end to sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy and left it isolated. We don't know if that approach would work, but surely it's worth an honest try.
2.) We can accept the inevitability of an Iranian nuclear capability, including the risk it imposes on Israel and the impetus it would give to Iran's Sunni enemies in the Persian Gulf to pursue a nuclear weapon to counter Iran.
3.) We can go to war.
That's it: Those are our choices. And in considering them, it's important to understand the limitations and implications of Option Three, which seems to be the only approach that Netanyahu finds acceptable.
By all accounts, the military campaign needed to take out Iran's nuclear infrastructure would have to be intense and sustained, meaning it is guaranteed to inflame Iranian public opinion and make Iranian counter-attacks inevitable. Short of putting American boots on the ground, it's also unlikely that such attacks would succeed in destroying all of Iran's program, given the time they've had to hide facilities and harden targets against air assault.
Just as important, such a step would strengthen the radicals in Iran, cementing their long-term commitment to acquire a nuclear weapon. They would argue -- correctly -- that only when Iran becomes a nuclear power would they become invulnerable to such humiliating attacks in the future.
It's also important to note that Mossad, Israel's highly touted intelligence service, has warned both Washington and Israel that if Congress does pass another round of anti-Iranian sanctions while negotiations are underway, it would sabotage those negotiations and eliminate Option One.
"Israeli intelligence officials have apparently come around to the same view shared by both the Obama administration as well as American spy agencies who say that any attempts by lawmakers to pass tougher anti-Iran legislation could chase Tehran from the negotiating table.
Netanyahu has gone on record as enthusiastically supporting sanctions while placing little faith that talks with the Islamic Republic would yield an agreement that would meet Israel’s security needs."
In the past, Mossad has also argued strenuously against the military option, to the point that a highly respected former Mossad chief publicly condemned it as "the stupidest idea I've ever heard."
Yet in Israel and in Washington, powerful people are trying to ensure that it's the only option we have left. They don't dare argue directly for war, but they are trying to arrange things so it comes to seem inevitable.