WASHINGTON — When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asks a joint session of Congress Tuesday to take a tougher stance against Iran, perhaps no American official will have more on the line — personally and professionally — than Secretary of State John F. Kerry.
Netanyahu’s highly unusual and controversial plea for the United Sstates to consider additional sanctions against Tehran comes after a nearly two-year effort by Kerry in which he has invested hundreds of hours and risked enormous diplomatic capital to negotiate a peaceful end to Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.
The hawkish Israeli leader’s arguments, aligned with those of many Republicans and some Democrats, threaten to undermine the efforts to reach a deal with Iran — and also inflict damage to Kerry’s legacy as America’s top diplomat.
“Kerry has decided to get pretty heavily involved. That shows how much of a high priority he has made this,” said Joseph Nye, a member of the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Advisory Board and a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. “If Netanyahu gives a speech that undercuts Congress’ support for what Kerry is doing, that is a direct threat to Kerry. It could derail what he has been trying to do.”
A couple dozen Democrats, including Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representatives James P. McGovern of Worcester and Katherine Clark of Melrose, are skipping the speech to protest the unprecedented manner in which the invitation was extended to Netanyahu.
Never before has a foreign leader been invited to address Congress without consulting with the White House.
The prime minister will appear Tuesday at the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner. President Obama and his chief diplomat were not involved in the invitation, a departure from protocol that has injected a sense of partisanship into the speech and outraged some Democrats.
Netanyahu offered a preview of his remarks in Washington during an appearance Monday before the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the largest pro-Israel lobby. To wild cheers and standing ovations, he said he has a “moral obligation” to speak out as “Iran envelops the entire world with its tentacles of terror.”
But in a sign of how deep the rifts have grown with the Obama administration, Netanyahu felt compelled to state that he respected the office of the United States presidency and did not want Israel to be seen as a partisan issue.
“My speech is not intended to show any disrespect to President Obama or the esteemed office that he holds. I have great respect for both,” he said.
But those who disagree on what to do about Iran do agree that the fallout over Netanyahu’s visit could damage the secretary of state’s reputation.
The former Massachusetts senator’s tenure has been buffeted by a series of seemingly intractable challenges: civil wars in Ukraine and Syria, the rise of the Islamic State terrorist group, and weakening states across the Middle East. Despite his intense personal intervention to seek an Arab-Israeli peace, progress was scuttled by both sides.
But the Iran talks, which also involve the European Union, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China, were jump-started in the first place through a secretive back channel to the Iranians that Kerry opened up through the Sultan of Oman soon after taking office in early 2013.
Since September 2013, Kerry has personally participated in talks with Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, nearly two dozen times in a number of capitals across Europe and the Middle East — the first time the US secretary of state has met face to face with the Iranian foreign minister in decades.
Kerry has met with his Iranian counterpart at least five times since the beginning of this year and will be back at the negotiating table in Switzerland as Netanyahu makes his case on Capitol Hill.
“This is one of the most important issues that this administration has had to deal with,” Marie Harf, the State Department’s deputy spokesperson, said in an interview. “We are at a critical period.”
She said if the talks break down and Iran restarts its program to enrich uranium “they are going to be really close” to having a nuclear weapon.
Specialists who have been closely monitoring the Iran nuclear talks warned that the Netanyahu speech could cause a major setback.
The talks “have definitely made progress over the last year on a number of issues that a year ago would have been considered intractable,” said Daryl G. Kimball executive director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington think tank. “They are within sight of a long term, verifiable agreement that would prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.”
He said the alternative that Netanyahu is expected to put forward -- namely that more economic sanctions are needed to force Iran to dismantle all of its nuclear infrastructure, including equipment for civilian purposes -- “is a dangerous fantasy.”
“Iran has never said it would completely dismantle its program,” he said.
Congressional Republicans are planning to welcome Netanyahu on Tuesday with much fanfare. Boehner is scheduled to present Netanyahu with a bust of Winston Churchill, the only other foreign leader to have addressed a joined meeting of Congress three times.
For the 11 a.m. speech Boehner has also invited several guests to sit in the House gallery, including former speaker Newt Gingrich and Elie Wiesel the Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Holocaust survivor.
Lawmakers who will not be in attendance emphasized that they were protesting the way the speech was handled, not Netanyahu.
“I strongly support Israel, and I remain deeply concerned about the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon, which I discussed in detail with Prime Minister Netanyahu when we met in Jerusalem last November,’’ Warren said in a statement. “It’s unfortunate that Speaker Boehner’s actions on the eve of a national election in Israel have made Tuesday’s event more political and less helpful for addressing the critical issue of nuclear non-proliferation and the safety of our most important ally in the Middle East.”
Clark struck a similar tone.
“Speaker Boehner has poisoned a critical foreign policy discussion with partisan gamesmanship,” Clark said in a statement. “I will continue my full throated support for Israel, but I will not be part of Speaker Boehner’s attempt to divide our Congress and country over one of our strongest allies.”
Kerry, too, won’t be there. He will be in Geneva, along with Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, for another round of talks with Zarif and the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi.
On Monday Kerry also sought to address head on the Israeli leader’s apparent concerns about his diplomatic effort.
“Any deal must close every potential pathway that Iran has towards fissile material, whether it’s uranium, plutonium, or a covert path,” Kerry said. “The fact is only a good, comprehensive deal in the end can actually check off all of those boxes.”
Yet others assert that Netanyahu is not alone among US allies who have doubts that the current negotiations can achieve that.
Netanyahu’s government “feels like they have to oppose this deal publicly because no one else will,” said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which supports the Israeli leader’s point of view. “Skeptics of this Iran deal are winning the argument.’’
He said the choice does not have to be between the current talks and war.
“Go back and negotiate another deal,” he advises. “We can get a better deal if we are tougher.”
Bryan Bender can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.