The importance of any political event is best measured against its opponents’ reactions. By that yardstick, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s agreement to speak about the dangers of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons before a joint session of Congress is already enormously significant.
Mr. Netanyahu’s March 3 speech will come during a period of extended discussions between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia , plus Germany (the P5 plus 1 group) — with the naive objective of bringing about an end to Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
The context of the speech is the approach of a March 1 deadline (which won’t be met) for an agreement that is to be finished in detail by July 1 as well as Congress’ action on another set of sanctions against Iran. President Obama believes new sanctions would derail or delay his negotiations, which, given Iran’s intransigence, seems likely. Republicans are angry that Mr. Obama intends to enter into an agreement without sending it to the Senate for ratification.
Though the president has said he would veto any new sanctions bill, his angry overreaction to the idea that House Speaker John Boehner and Mr. Netanyahu would cooperate in opposing him is a strong indication of the weakness of Mr. Obama’s position in the negotiations. It also indicates how badly Mr. Obama wants a deal with Iran to be part of his presidential legacy.
The extreme responses from the White House prove those points. First characterizing Mr. Boehner’s invitation as merely a departure from protocol, the Obama administration quickly escalated its rhetoric to a level that allies never speak of each other.
According to Israeli newspapers, the White House is livid, saying that Mr. Netanyahu “spat in our face,” and that Israel will “pay a price” for challenging Mr. Obama. A Washington Post report included a threat to Israel’s security, saying that sources close to Secretary of State John F. Kerry said that his patience with Israel “is not infinite” and that the speech could blunt Mr. Kerry’s “enthusiasm for being Israel’s primary defender.” Those threats have resonated with several Israeli politicians who are Mr. Netanyahu’s political opponents.
The White House is already apparently trying to exact its pound of political flesh. The Obama administration spread a false rumor that the head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency had lobbied against the new Iran sanctions, countering Mr. Netanyahu’s position. The Israelis were reportedly aghast at the fabrication.
Mr. Boehner was blunt about the purpose of the invitation. He said, “[Obama] expects us to stand idly by and do nothing while he cuts a bad deal with Iran. Hell no, we’re going to do no such thing.” The White House has said that Mr. Obama will not meet with Mr. Netanyahu while he is here for the speech.
Some Israelis are very nervous about the speech. One former high-ranking member of the Israeli intelligence community emailed me that angering Mr. Obama was the worst possible thing to do. They worry that Israeli security will become a partisan issue in the United States. But it already has. The president’s anger at Mr. Netanyahu and Israel over its settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank has led to Mr. Obama treating the Israeli prime minister as an errant teenager. Mr. Obama has insisted that the Israelis agree to a peace with the Palestinians that would require them to withdraw to the pre-1967 war borders, which the Israelis have said are indefensible. Republicans have been much more supportive of Israeli security.
In his State of the Union speech, Mr. Obama said, “Our diplomacy is at work with respect to Iran,” he said, “where, for the first time in a decade, we’ve halted the progress of its nuclear program and reduced its stockpile of nuclear material.”
However, a November report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N.’s supposed nuclear watchdog, said that Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile was growing. In truth there is no verification of any Iranian compliance with the preliminary agreement. The IAEA has no idea of what Iran is doing in many of its nuclear weapons sites, several of which are believed by US intelligence sources to remain secret.
Thus, the stage is set and the battle lines drawn. The simplest solution would be for Mr. Obama to agree to submit any agreement with Iran to the Senate for ratification. It would be considered, debated and voted on in the manner called for in the Constitution. That would obviate the need for a new sanctions bill, which will be pointless anyway because Mr. Obama will veto it. But the idea of submitting any portion of his power to congressional approval is abhorrent to this president.
This leaves us with a political drama over a vital national security interest of the United States, as well as Israel, Saudi Arabia, the rest of the Middle East and Europe. Every president since Ronald Reagan has insisted that Iran would not be allowed to have nuclear weapons. Mr. Obama, too, has said as much, but his actions during the next few months will determine whether they will, and whether our alliance with Israel will suffer irreparable damage.
• Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is a senior fellow of the London Center for Policy Research and the author of five books including “In the Words of Our Enemies.”