November 16, 2018

Showdown on the Beltway

Do you know why the whole Bibi-Obama-Boehner-Iran mess gives me such a headache? There are too many moving parts: Bibi shouldn’t tick off Obama; Obama should be tougher on Iran; Boehner shouldn’t go behind Obama’s back; Bibi shouldn’t interfere with American politics; Obama shouldn’t interfere with Israeli politics; Israel shouldn’t become a partisan issue; all parties should stop playing politics, and so on—I’ve read it all.

No wonder they’re calling this a diplomatic meltdown.

As things stand, the United States Congress is considering legislation that would toughen sanctions against Iran in case the nuclear talks fail, a move President Obama has opposed. Raising the ante, House Speaker John Boehner invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress on March 3, presumably to help sell a “tougher” approach on Iran.

Remember “High Noon”? “Gunfight at the OK Corral”? This is the big “Showdown on the Beltway.” And, just to add a little drama, Bibi’s speech to Congress will coincide with his speech at the annual AIPAC convention.

Who said politics was boring?

As March 3 approaches, the tension will mount. Bibi haters will have a field day, and so will Obama haters. Bibi’s violation of diplomatic protocol, coupled with his intrusion into U.S. politics, has drawn the wrath of the White House. At the same time, since a nuclear Iran is an existential issue for Israel, it looks like Bibi has chosen to go all in and take his lumps.

For many Israel supporters who are hawks on Iran, it’s a question of priorities: A diplomatic row with your top ally may be very bad, but an aggressive nuclear Iran on your doorstep is a whole other level of bad.

“Across the greater Middle East, Iran's efforts to extend its influence have been blunt and brutal,” Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg, who has criticized Bibi’s snubbing of Obama, wrote in December. “And certainly its unceasing threats to eradicate a fellow member-state of the United Nations, Israel, suggest that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has a vision for Iran that differs from Obama’s.”

With this kind of predatory regime, you can’t afford not to play hardball. But predatory or not, Obama believes Iran is a rational actor. “If you look at Iranian behavior, they are strategic, and they’re not impulsive,” he told Goldberg in an interview. “They have a worldview, and they see their interests, and they respond to costs and benefits.”

The question, then: Is Obama making the cost of sanctions greater than the strategic benefit of becoming a nuclear power? I’m not sure.

After all, if Iran is, indeed, a rational actor, you can argue that the Congressional threat of more sanctions would give Obama more leverage to make a better deal. But, as he’s made very clear and public, Obama’s not buying it. Even though conditional sanctions would not violate the interim agreement, he believes it would upset the mullahs and make them bolt from the negotiating table.

In poker, we call that showing your anxiety and tipping your hand. As Dennis Ross, Obama’s former point man on Iran, said last week, you can’t make a good deal if the other side thinks you want a deal more than they do. And the mullahs, just like the rest of the world, know how eager Obama is to make a deal.

He’s so eager, in fact, that he’s playing hardball with Congress instead of with the mullahs.  

All this brouhaha about “Bibigate” is a distraction from the one thing that matters most: If Obama is unwilling to play hardball with Iran, the deal on the table will be a bad deal. All the rest is commentary.

“With all the justified criticism against Bibi's political clumsiness, let's not lose sight of what's really happening here,” author and political analyst Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in an email from Jerusalem. “The real villain isn't Bibi but Obama, who is clearly planning a sell-out deal with Iran which would leave Teheran within easy reach of nuclear breakout. After years of negotiations, this is the worst possible outcome.”

In other words, all this brouhaha about “Bibigate” is a distraction from the one thing that matters most: If Obama is unwilling to play hardball with Iran, the deal on the table will be a bad deal. All the rest is commentary.

Which makes me wonder: Why would Congress push conditional sanctions to induce Iran to sign a deal that it knows would be a bad deal? And why would Bibi wade into this political mess and tick off the White House just to give the same speech he can give at AIPAC?

If we agree that no deal is better than a bad deal, then what’s the best we can hope for? That negotiations will drag on another 18 months until a hard-nosed negotiator enters the White House in 2016? Like I said, somebody pass the Advil.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at