ISRAELI PRIME Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is back in the headlines on the subject of Iran. On CBS’s “Face the Nation,’’ Netanyahu complained that there was “no sense of urgency” by the global community about Iran’s advancing nuclear program. He went on to warn that Israel will “have to address this question of how to stop Iran, perhaps before the US does.”
If you sense a “Groundhog Day’’ quality to these remarks, you would be right. Netanyahu and President Obama have tangled on the Iran issue before but appeared to have closed ranks in recent months. Netanyahu’s blunt remarks predictably drew considerable criticism in the United States and beyond.
But it would be a mistake to dismiss them altogether.
Netanyahu is right that Iran has made progress on its nuclear program in recent months, specifically more powerful centrifuges and a heavy-water reactor that could accelerate the timeline toward a nuclear weapon. He worries correctly that one of the dangers of negotiations is Iran might stay at the table forever while, behind the scenes, race ahead with its largely hidden nuclear research.
He is also right that Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon would put Israel into a strategic straitjacket. Iran’s radical, theocratic government, has regularly threatened Israel and even vowed to eradicate it. Netanyahu can’t afford to disregard these warnings, especially when the Arab revolutions have left Israel with significant threats on each of its borders.
Netanyahu also has to live in the cynical and often cruel hardball political culture of the Middle East. That is why his repeated calls for tougher sanctions and making the threat of force credible are necessary and wise. If diplomacy is to succeed, it will be because Obama and Netanyahu manage to convince Iran’s supreme leader that he is outmuscled by a stronger United States and Israel and that talking is preferable to fighting.
It’s not surprising, then, that this proud, stubborn, and very smart Israeli leader has launched yet another in-your-face challenge to the United States.
But he also overstates his case. Much of what he asks for — the tougher sanctions and threat of force — has already been put in place by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. Even Netanyahu had to admit in his Sunday interview that Iran has not yet crossed the famous Israeli red line of nuclear capability or, beyond, the United States’ red line of a nuclear weapon. No serious expert is predicting Iran will acquire a nuclear weapon in 2013. There is thus time for diplomacy and no reason yet to march to war.
The real drama in the second half of this year is likely to be at a negotiating table in Vienna, Istanbul, or Geneva, where American and Iranian diplomats may finally have their first sustained and substantive direct talks in the 34 years since diplomatic relations were broken during the Jimmy Carter administration.
And here is where Netanyahu’s warning that Israel might have to act ahead of the United States is so ill-considered. If Israel did strike when the chance of a diplomatic solution was still alive, it would create a surefire crisis between the two close friends. Despite its strength, Israel has neither the military capacity nor international credibility to engineer the kind of strike the United States could. If force needs to be used far down the line when negotiations have failed and Iran is on the verge of a weapon, it would be far better for the United States to entertain that possibility than Israel. Netanyahu is going to have to trust Obama, let him lead, and provide the time and space for the United States to explore a diplomatic alternative to war.
In both Jerusalem and Washington, this is a time for strength, but also steady nerves and patience on Iran. Israel and the United States share a common threat from Tehran. But we don’t share an interest in an early and precipitate war. It is far better for Netanyahu and Obama to stand united in what they say and what they do.
The possibility, however distant, of a negotiated agreement with Iran is still far preferable to a rash war with unpredictable consequences for the United States, Israel, the Iranian people, and the roiling Middle East.
Nicholas Burns is a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter @rnicholasburns.