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Benjamin Netanyahu's not-so-prescient 2002 message to Congress about Iraq

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Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

In anticipation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress on March 3, expected to blast Obama's efforts to strike a nuclear deal with Iran, the administration is going after Netanyahu's record on the last major nuclear debate America had — Iraq.

"The prime minister, as you will recall, was profoundly forward-leaning and outspoken about the importance of invading Iraq under George W. Bush, and we all know what happened with that decision," Secretary of State John Kerry said. "He may have a judgement that just may not be correct [on Iran]."

Indeed, Netanyahu was a rather aggressive Iraq hawk back in the early 2000s. "There is no question whatsoever that Saddam is seeking, is working, is advancing towards to the development of nuclear weapons," Netanyahu said in 2002 testimony to Congress. "Once Saddam has nuclear weapons, the terror network will have nuclear weapons,"

Not only did Netanyahu get the nuclear issue wrong — Saddam was not building a nuclear program after all — but he incorrectly predicted that the war would inspire an Iranian democratic uprising that would topple the theocratic regime.

"If you take out Saddam, Saddam's regime, I guarantee you that it will have enormous positive reverberations on the region," Netanyahu claimed. "And I think that people sitting right next door in Iran, young people, and many others, will say the time of such regimes, of such despots is gone." Here's video:

Kerry dredging up these comments is both a little hypocritical and a little unfair. In 2002, then-Senator Kerry very famously voted to authorize the war against Iraq. And his talk on Iraq's nuclear weapons sounded, at the time, a lot like Netanyahu's.

"According to the CIA's report, all U.S. intelligence experts agree that Iraq is seeking nuclear weapons," Kerry said in October 2002. "There is little question that Saddam Hussein wants to develop nuclear weapons."

If Kerry's argument, then, is that Americans should ignore Netanyahu because he was wrong on Iraq's supposed nuclear program, then by that same logic we should ignore Kerry as well.

Moreover, Iraq and Iran are very different cases. There's no question that Iran has a nuclear program; Iranian leaders have repeatedly acknowledged as much, and UN inspectors are visiting the country's still-operating enrichment facilities now. The operative question, rather, is if Iran is actively seeking a nuclear warhead, or if its program is entirely peaceful as Tehran claims, or if it is taking middle-ground steps in the direction of nuclear weapons capability.

That said, Kerry still has a little bit of a point. As Iran expert Gary Sick explains, Netanyahu has been warning of an imminent threat from Iranian nukes for decades. "More than 20 years ago, Mr. Netanyahu solemnly informed us that, unless someone intervened, Iran would have a nuclear weapon within five years," Sick writes.

Netanyahu less-than-perfect track record on nuclear issues suggests it might be smart to take his more extreme rhetoric on such issues with a grain of salt.