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Benjamin Netanyahu is freaking out about the Iran deal

"Iran bad. Fire pretty."
"Iran bad. Fire pretty."
Handout/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.

The negotiations over Iran's nuclear program in Vienna appear to have reached a critical point — the latest, from the Washington Post's Carol Morello, describes a deal between world powers and Iran as "imminent."

So naturally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — one of the most prominent critics of President Obama's outreach to Iran — has been throwing a public fit. Though his hysterics probably can't stop a deal now, there's a point here: one that's perhaps best understood by looking at what Netanyahu's domestic opponents are saying.

Netanyahu declared, on Monday morning, that some of the negotiating countries (a clear reference to the Americans) were "willing to make a deal at any price."

He has no real evidence for this: Little information about the deal's terms has come out since April, when the countries reached an initial deal on the broad contours that was favorable to the US. Netanyahu's "proof" is that negotiations continued after Iran's latest annual Quds Day rally, in which a relatively modest number of ralliers in Tehran chanted "death to America." He said, "If the concessions continue even after 'death to America' chants in Tehran, then it is clear that some are willing to make a deal at any price."

It is difficult to take Netanyahu seriously here. Iran's officially sanctioned "death to America" chants 1) don't reflect the view of Iran's citizens, and 2) have exactly nothing to do with whether this deal will limit Iran's progress towards a nuclear weapon.

But perhaps his most ludicrous statement came a few days ago. In an Israeli state speech, Netanyahu essentially declared that Iran to be a Bond villain:

Iran's increasing aggression is more dangerous than that of ISIS, which is dangerous enough by itself. And this aggression will reach every corner of the world because Iran's ultimate goal is to take over the world.

It's true that Iran is a destabilizing force in the Middle East. It poses a legitimate threat to Israel and is currently helping Bashar al-Assad's regime slaughter civilians in Syria. But be real: The notion that Iran could "take over the world" or even wants to is so ridiculous that it would make Pinky and the Brain blush.

Iran is a second-rate military power opposed by substantially more powerful Israel and a hostile Sunni Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia; it can't even take over the Middle East, let alone the world. Its current objective is to secure itself and to expand its political and military influence in the region. The latter goal is dangerous, for sure, since Iran's strategy centers on the use of violent proxy groups like Hezbollah and Iraqi Shia militias who destabilize the countries they operate in. But a plot to take over the world this is not.

But there's a real point to Netanyahu's rhetoric, ridiculous as it is. The best way to understand it is to look at what Netanyahu's political opponents are saying about an Iran deal.

Isaac Herzog, head of the center-left Zionist Union and Netanyahu's chief rival for power, called the deal "terrible" for "Israel's security interests" on Monday. "Netanyahu will pay for all the mistakes he made in managing this crisis. The strategy he chose has failed," Herzog added.

There's a broad sense in the Israeli political mainstream that any plausible deal with Iran would be a disaster for Israel. Not every Israeli expert agrees, of course, but the fact that Netanyahu's leading critic to his left is calling the deal bad is telling.

Given that line of attack, it makes sense for Netanyahu to position himself as Mr. Anti-Deal. Strident rhetoric, then, is a way of distancing himself from the agreement — which, as Herzog pointed out, happened under his watch. When Netanyahu says "Iran wants to take over the world," what he's really saying is "not my fault."

Netanyahu's rhetoric may sound ludicrous to international ears. But the political strategy behind it is far from crazy.