Published on TheHill.com on March 3, 2015
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu totally changed the debate on a nuclear Iran in his brilliant speech to Congress Tuesday.
Until he spoke, objections to the emerging draft treaty with Iran centered on technical, arcane issues like the number of centrifuges the agreement would let Iran continue to operate and the level of uranium enrichment it would be permitted to maintain. These technical arguments do not play well in public and assume a level of knowledge that most of us don’t have. It was easy for defenders of the deal to sidetrack our objections.
But Netanyahu changed all that, by making the issue of the agreement’s expiration date the key objection to the treaty. He was quite right that the expiration of a treaty banning nuclear weapons is tantamount to an invitation to proceed with development. That’s an argument we all can understand. It defies logic to invest in a 10- or 15-year deal with as implacable and stubborn a foe as Islamist Iran. A ban must last as long as the offensive regime itself remains in power and does not modify its behavior.
Indeed, by tying the ban on nuclear weapons to Iran’s international conduct in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen, Netanyahu created a framework for what should be U.S. policy toward Iran. While President Obama will not accept this linkage, undoubtedly a new Republican president would.
Bibi’s speech ties Obama’s hands — he now would face almost certain congressional censure and backlash if he were to sign a deal with any expiration date on it. Netanyahu’s argument is irrefutable. No congressman can ignore it.
Politically, the most important thing to remember about the Iranian issue is that it will likely be resolved, one way or the other, by Election Day 2016. Iran will either have the bomb — or be well on its way to obtaining it — or not. We will know the answer. It will be clear who was right and who was wrong. We won’t have to guess. And the answer to that question will haunt Hillary Clinton, if it turns out that her and Obama’s policies were misguided.
Very rarely are political issues subject to such closure. By the time of the 2016 elections, barring a crash, we will still be debating the sustainability of the Obama economic recovery. We will continue arguing about ObamaCare. Climate change will remain a subject of debate. But an Iranian nuclear program won’t be a matter for debate. The outcome, for better or worse, of administration policy on the issue will be clear and an accepted feature of our political debate.
Just as Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev could not go back and claim his Cuban missile adventure was wise, just as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain couldn’t reach back to justify his appeasement when German tanks rolled through Poland, Obama and Clinton’s Iran policy will be an evident failure or success by the 2016 election.
Once the verdict of history is in, its implications are ruthless. There is no appeal. And, in this case, we will know the answer before we vote on a new president.
Netanyahu has redefined the debate so that a deal with an expiration date or a sunset clause will have to be considered a failure. The logic is so clear.
If Iran actually explodes a nuclear weapon or clearly has achieved the status of “threshold nuclear power” or has agreed to a deal with a time limit, it will be obvious that Obama and Clinton’s negotiating strategy was naive and that they were had by the Ayatollah.
This situation is fraught with peril, in particular for Clinton’s candidacy. There will be no room for speculation as to whether her policies as secretary of State succeeded or failed. The outcome will be obvious to us all to see.
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