Netanyahu's visit to Washington, and his planned speech to Congress, are designed to rally Congress against President Obama's attempts to strike a nuclear deal with Iran. By so transparently undermining Obama, Netanyahu has infuriated Democrats and perhaps even threatened the bipartisan pro-Israel sentiment that helps underpin the US-Israel alliance.
Why would Netanyahu risk damaging something as important to Israel as its relationship with America? While it's possible this is a cynical stunt meant to help him in the March 17 Israeli elections, there's also a simpler explanation: he genuinely believes that Obama's nuclear deal is a grave, perhaps even existential threat to Israel's survival.
Netanyahu thinks the emerging deal could allow Iran to go nuclear
Netanyahu has been warning about the dangers of Iran's nuclear program for decades. While he is often skewered for repeatedly and wrongly predicting that Iran will produce a bomb "in five years," only to have no such bomb materialize, his alarm appears to be earnest.
Netanyahu's argument is that the emerging Iran deal trading sanctions relief for sharp limits on Iran's nuclear development would actually help the nuclear weapons program progress.
For one thing, Netanyahu doesn't believe the upcoming deal will put sufficient limits on Iran's program. "From the agreement that is forming it appears that [world powers] … are accepting that Iran will gradually, within a few years, develop capabilities to produce material for many nuclear weapons," he warned in late February.
The timelines attached to a deal appear to concern Netanyahu. Some of the early reports suggest that a deal would limit Iranian uranium enrichment for ten or fifteen years. Obama himself, in a Tuesday afternoon interview with Reuters, said that a "double digit" number of years would be fine by him. Netanyahu is worried that Iran will simply wait out this deadline, then rush to acquire a nuclear weapon. At that point, it could be more difficult for the US to engineer a new round of international sanctions to prevent Tehran from doing this.
One counter-argument to Netanyahu is that military action, the only feasible alternative for slowing Iran's program, could delay Iran's program by much less than ten years, and would probably make Tehran even more determined to complete a bomb.
Netanyahu's fears that Iran will cheat on any agreement are not unfounded. Iran's foreign policy is deeply antagonistic towards the American-led order in the Middle East, and it has a long history of duplicity regarding its nuclear program. While international inspectors are designed to hold Tehran to its word, Iran has hidden nuclear facilities before.
There's a "possibility of other factories that the Iranians have built or might have built in the future that we haven't learned about," Jacques Hymans, an associate professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, told me in November. "There's precedent for worrying about this: both of Iran's enrichment facilities were discovered by leaks to the international community. So there's some reason to worry that there could be some operation that's going on that isn't known about, and so can't be inspected in the routine way."
The basic disagreement between Netanyahu and Obama comes down not so much to trust, though, as to incentives. Obama's position is not that the Iranian government is a great bunch of folks who can be taken at their word — indeed, enforcement mechanisms in the deal show that he takes the risk of cheating seriously — but rather that a well-crafted deal will make it in Iran's interests to abandon its nuclear program by offering long-term sanctions relief and lessened international isolation.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, sees the Iranian government as so inherently untrustworthy that any commitments it makes are essentially meaningless. There's no incentive structure he thinks can deter them from seeking a nuclear bomb. In this view, granting Iran sanctions relief and even implicit international acceptance will just buy the Iranian government time and leeway to build a bomb, and make it that much harder to punish them once they do.
Why Netanyahu thinks a bomb is such a major threat
Netanyahu thinks a world with a nuclear armed Iran poses an unacceptable risk to Israeli security.
His most alarming but least convincing claim is that Iranian leaders so hate Israel that they, even without provocation, would launch a nuclear first strike against Israel, or hand off the weapons to a terrorist proxy to do the same. The argument here is that the Iranian regime despises the Jewish state, which is certainly true, and would be willing to endure a the destruction of their entire nation to accomplish that goal.
Israel has developed a nuclear second-strike capability to deter precisely this sort of threat; were Iran or any other country to attack Israel with a nuclear weapon, even after the blast Israel would still have the capability to return nuclear fire. That, to say nothing of any likely American counteraction, would certainly destroy Iran and the theocracy its leaders worked so hard to build.
More to the point, there is no indication that they are bent on, or even interested in, launching what would be a suicidal nuclear war against Israel. As Matt Duss explained here, experts in Iran's theology and political ideology have repeatedly debunked suggestions that Iranians are conspiring for a national suicide mission.
Still, Netanyahu is correct when he says that a nuclear-armed Iran would be a substantial threat to Israel, even if it never planned on using a warhead.
Iran already backs anti-Israel terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, providing them with arms and financing to terrorize Israel and Israelis. Were Iran to become nuclear-armed, it would be able to step up its support for such groups, as well as other forms of non-nuclear aggression, because its bomb would likely deter any major Israeli counterattack.
"Given [the] record of Iranian aggression without nuclear weapons, just imagine Iranian aggression with nuclear weapons," the Prime Minister argued in a 2012 speech to the UN.
He's got a point. Iranian foreign policy has sought to aggressively expand the country's influence in the Middle East, in part by supporting militant groups in Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza, not to mention Bashar al-Assad's vicious regime in Syria.
Iran already uses this network against Israel, even without a nuclear deterrent. Having that deterrent against Israel would enable further aggression. After all, who would risk escalating to a major war with a nuclear-armed power? Political scientists call this tendency for nuclear weapons to exacerbate smaller conflicts while preventing larger ones the "stability-instability paradox," and you could see why Israel would be worried about its effect on an already-hostile Iranian regime.
There's also a concern that Iran getting nukes would cause other countries in the region, such as Turkey or Saudi Arabia, to get nuclear weapons to secure themselves. This is certainly debatable; Israel's acquisition of a nuclear weapon decades ago has not yet triggered a regional nuclear arms race. Still, if more Middle Eastern states did acquire nuclear weapons, Israel reasonably worries that this would increase the risk of an accidental nuclear war, or of nuclear material getting stolen by a terrorist group. It's hard to know how much nuclear proliferation would be sparked by Iranian nuclearization for sure, but it's a possibility.
Whether or not you find these arguments persuasive, it seems pretty clear that Netanyahu does. Whether you agree or disagree, and whether or not you feel the speech gambit is more likely to backfire than to succeed as a number of observers do, it's important to at least understand where he's coming from.