Near the middle of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to Congress on Tuesday, he said something that illustrated the fundamental difference between his approach to Iran and President Obama's, and that drives their highly controversial disagreement about what to do.
The difference comes down to how Obama and Netanyahu see Iran's government. Obama thinks that the Iranian government will respond rationally enough to incentives that he can steer Iran's behavior away from a nuclear weapon.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, thinks that Iran's leaders are bent on aggression out of "radical" zeal — he compared them to ISIS and to Nazi Germany — and thus will never earnestly agree to drop their drive for a nuclear weapon. That fundamental difference of opinion gets to the heart of how to think about Iran, and it informs every policy disagreement the two leaders have.
Here's the key passage from Netanyahu's address to Congress on this point:
I don't believe that Iran's radical regime will change for the better after this deal. This regime has been in power for 36 years, and its voracious appetite for aggression grows with each passing year. This deal would whet appetite — would only whet Iran's appetite for more.
Would Iran be less aggressive when sanctions are removed and its economy is stronger? If Iran is gobbling up four countries right now while it's under sanctions, how many more countries will Iran devour when sanctions are lifted? Would Iran fund less terrorism when it has mountains of cash with which to fund more terrorism?
Why should Iran's radical regime change for the better when it can enjoy the best of both world's: aggression abroad, prosperity at home?
Netanyahu sees Iran as fundamentally bent on expanding its control over regional powers. Its endgame is the destruction of Israel and the political subjugation of the Middle East.
If that's true, then cooperating with Iran on anything is a non-starter. A deal on the nuclear program alone would inevitably be a sham, in Netanyahu's view, as Iran is hell-bent on getting the bomb. The only way to confront Iran is by forcing it to capitulate on virtually every issue, ideally through sanctions pressure but, if necessary, by force.
Obama's view is quite different. While he certainly has open eyes about Iran's aggression in the region, he seems to believe that the correct mix of incentives — sanctions and isolation to punish bad behavior, relief from sanctions as a reward for cooperation — can make it within Iranian leaders' interests to strike a deal that will keep them from getting a bomb. In other words, he sees Iran's leaders as rational people whose behavior can be steered in a desirable direction.
This fundamental disagreement about the character of the Iranian regime defines Obama and Netanyahu's disagreement over what to do about Iran's nuclear program. And that disagreement is sharp enough that it could be altering the US-Israel relationship.