clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The 5 most telling moments from Netanyahu's speech to Congress

Netanyahu speaks to Congress.
Netanyahu speaks to Congress.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
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.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress on Tuesday was a comprehensive case against President Obama's approach to Iran. It's an issue over which of the two leaders have clashed repeatedly; tensions have gotten to the point where the long-term health of the US-Israel alliance could be compromised.

Netanyahu's speech today laid out, very clearly, why he's willing to play such a dangerous game with his most important ally. Here are the five key moments to understand Netanyahu's case against a deal with Iran and his risky gambit in Washington.

1) Comparing Iran to ISIS

Americans are terrified of ISIS. About 70 percent of Americans say ISIS is America's "biggest challenge" in the Middle East, while only 12 percent say it's Iran. In the speech today, Netanyahu argued that Americans have it exactly backward. A nuclear Iran, he argues, is the greatest threat facing the world:

Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam. One calls itself the Islamic Republic. The other calls itself the Islamic State. Both want to impose a militant Islamic empire first on the region and then on the entire world ...

The difference is that ISIS is armed with butcher knives, captured weapons and YouTube, whereas Iran could soon be armed with intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear bombs. We must always remember — I'll say it one more time — the greatest dangers facing our world is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons. To defeat ISIS and let Iran get nuclear weapons would be to win the battle, but lose the war.

What Netanyahu's doing here is, politically, quite clever. By equating Iran's ideology with ISIS', he's arguing that Americans should see the Iranians as being just as implacable as the Islamic State. No group like that could ever be reasoned with — setting up the core argument that no nuclear deal could ever work.

He's also attempting to undermine a core argument for America's outreach to Iran. In Syria and especially Iraq, Iran has taken up a major role in the battle against ISIS. Deal supporters can point to evidence that Iran and America have interests in common and that Iran can be reasoned with.

Netanyahu wants to dismiss this thinking. "When it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy," as he put it.

2) "Never again"

Netanyahu suggested that Iran, in addition to being as brutal as ISIS, is also bent on exterminating Israel and repeating the Holocaust. He spoke directly to famous Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who was in the audience at the Capitol:

My friend, standing up to Iran is not easy. Standing up to dark and murderous regimes never is. With us today is Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel.

Elie, your life and work inspires to give meaning to the words, "never again." And I wish I could promise you, Elie, that the lessons of history have been learned. I can only urge the leaders of the world not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

But I can guarantee you this, the days when the Jewish people remained passive in the face of genocidal enemies, those days are over.

The immediate subtext here is obvious: the Iranian regime's quest for nuclear weapons is a threat on the scale of Nazi Germany. Letting Iran get a nuclear weapon, then, would be a historical disaster on the level of appeasing Hitler.

This passage also speaks to a deeper part of Netanyahu's worldview. He believes that one of the fundamental purposes of the state of Israel is to ensure that Jews will always be in control of their own destiny. A nuclear-armed Iran, he fears, would take this rare security away from the Jewish people. The fact that Iran would have the capability to destroy Israel — even if Tehran did not intend to follow through — means that Jews would not control their own destiny. Netanyahu will not allow that to happen.

"For the first time in 100 generations, we, the Jewish people, can defend ourselves. This is why ... even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand," Netanyahu said.

3) Iran cannot be reasoned with

The core of Netanyahu's speech came about midway through. He argued that Iran's leaders are bent on aggression out of "radical" zeal — hence the ISIS and Nazi Germany comparisons — and thus will never earnestly agree to drop their drive for a nuclear weapon:

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 worlds: 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.

In this view, cooperating with Iran on anything is a non-starter. A deal on the nuclear program alone would inevitably be a sham, 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.

4) The case against the deal

netanyahu speech

Netanyahu speaks to Congress. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Netanyahu made the case that specific provisions in the deal, as it currently looks, would hand way too much to Iran. He pointed first to a provision allowing Iran to retain some centrifuges, which produce fissile nuclear material:

Right now, Iran could be hiding nuclear facilities that we don't know about, the U.S. and Israel. As the former head of inspections for the IAEA said in 2013, he said, "If there's no undeclared installation today in Iran, it will be the first time in 20 years that it doesn't have one." Iran has proven time and again that it cannot be trusted. And that's why the first major concession is a source of great concern. It leaves Iran with a vast nuclear infrastructure and relies on inspectors to prevent a breakout. That concession creates a real danger that Iran could get to the bomb by violating the deal.

Netanyahu also criticized a potential sunset provision on the deal; Obama has said that a deal could acceptably expire after ten-plus years. This, Netanyahu warned, would leave Iran "free to build a huge nuclear capacity that could produce many, many nuclear bombs."

Even though he's working just on fragmentary reports on negotiations that are still in progress, Netanyahu is telling Congress a very clear story: Obama is close to finalizing a deal, and it's going to be a total disaster.

Therefore, he implies, a true friend of Israel would try to stop the president. Congress could destroy the current round of talks by passing new sanctions on Iran, which would convince the Iranians that they'd never be able to get real sanctions relief. These passages quite clearly imply that it ought to do it.

5) Netanyahu's alternative to the Obama deal

This is the hardest part of Netanyahu's argument to make. One strong case for Obama's Iran deal is that all of the alternatives appear considerably worse. Years of sanctions haven't deterred Iran from getting a bomb. Military action would at best delay Iranian nuclearization and probably for less time than even a ten-year deal would. So what's Netanyahu's alternative? He proposed a plan that sets much higher bars for what Iran has to do:

The world should demand that Iran do three things. First, stop its aggression against its neighbors in the Middle East. Second ... stop supporting terrorism around the world. And third, stop threatening to annihilate my country, Israel, the one and only Jewish state.

Iran's nuclear program can be rolled back well-beyond the current proposal by insisting on a better deal and keeping up the pressure on a very vulnerable regime, especially given the recent collapse in the price of oil.

The problem, however, is that this is inconsistent with Netanyahu's arguments that the Iranian regime is a "radical" ISIS-like aggressor so bent on a nuclear warhead that it could not be deterred. In that view, Iran won't give up its nuclear program under any amount of economic pressure. By his own reasoning, Netanyahu's plan is doomed to failure.

Netanyahu, a smart man, certainly recognizes this problem, which raises a big question: if the current round of negotiations fail, and sanctions don't work (they haven't yet), then what exactly does Netanyahu think should be done? On this question, Netanyahu was silent — perhaps the biggest omission of the Congress speech.