Playing politics on Iran

The new Republican-controlled Congress wants to poison the nuclear talks with Iran, Jim W. Dean says.

Normally, the visit of a world leader to the United States would be arranged by the White House. But in a breach of sense and diplomacy, House Speaker John Boehner and Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, have taken it upon themselves to invite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to Congress to challenge President Obama’s approach to achieving a nuclear agreement with Iran.

Mr. Netanyahu, facing an election on March 17, apparently believes that winning the applause of Congress by rebuking Mr. Obama will bolster his standing as a leader capable of keeping Israel safe. Mr. Boehner seems determined to use whatever means is available to undermine and attack Mr. Obama on national security policy.

Lawmakers have every right to disagree with presidents; so do foreign leaders. But this event, to be staged in March a mile from the White House, is a hostile attempt to lobby Congress to enact more sanctions against Iran, a measure that Mr. Obama has rightly threatened to veto.

In his State of the Union address, Mr. Obama laid out an approach to international engagement that includes shrinking America’s military commitments overseas and negotiating limits on Iran’s nuclear activities in return for a gradual lifting of sanctions. A move by Congress to pass legislation proposing new sanctions could blow up the talks and divide the major powers that have been united in pressuring Iran. Given an excuse to withdraw from talks, Iran could accelerate its nuclear program, curbed for a year under an interim agreement, and force the United States or Israel to use military action or a cyberattack to keep Tehran from producing nuclear weapons.

In a recent Washington Post op-ed article, the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Germany and the European Union also implored Congress to hold off on new sanctions. Similar messages have come from scores of other experts, including two former American national security advisers, Brent Scowcroft, a Republican, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Democrat. According to Secretary of State John Kerry, even Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, warned Congress that new sanctions would scuttle the talks, saying it would “be like throwing a grenade into the process.” Mossad later tried to paper over any perceived differences with Mr. Netanyahu.

Mr. Netanyahu has long defined Iran as Israel’s top threat and made clear his contempt for negotiations. Like his Congressional allies, however, he has never offered a real alternative, except more sanctions (which can’t work if the rest of the world eases up on Iran) or military action. If a deal is finally reached and Congress finds it lacking, tougher sanctions can be imposed then.

Domestic politics are also at work. Republicans apparently see value in trying to sabotage any possible success for Mr. Obama, even if it harms American interests.

As for Mr. Netanyahu, it’s hard to see how disrespecting an American president whom even he says has significantly advanced Israel’s security can benefit his country.

There is no doubt that Mr. Obama will maintain America’s security commitments to Israel, whatever the tensions over the Iran issue. But this event is bound to further harm a bilateral relationship that has endured a lot of battering over the past six years. The White House has said that, understandably, Mr. Obama will not meet with Mr. Netanyahu when he is in town. Even Mr. Kerry, who recently called almost 50 world leaders in an effort to block the Palestinians’ attempt to join the International Criminal Court, is losing patience with Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to “play politics,” according to his aides. Can Mr. Netanyahu really afford to dismiss such allies?

This article was written by The Editorial Board of The New York Times on January 24, 2015.

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