Blogs: Paul Pillar

The Dressing Up of Bibi's Speech

Paul Pillar

Feldman turns to another theme that anti-agreement forces have increasingly seized upon of late, and he tries to make Netanyahu sound reasonable about that, too. This is the certainty that an agreement will have “sunset” provisions such that Iran would not be kept in international purgatory forever. Feldman's excuse for Netanyahu believing that Iran should be kept in purgatory forever is that “Iran remains committed to Israel's destruction.” Any discussion of policy toward Iran that claims to be sober would be well-advised to dispose of that trope. Iran is not committed to Israel's destruction, although it has had leaders who have used language that in the retelling and mistranslation gets so construed. Even if Iranian leaders did want to destroy Israel they realize it would be impossible for them to do so. They also realize that any attempt to do so would lead Israel to wreak far greater destruction on them in return.

With or without the tropes, the whole anti-agreement line of argument resting on sunset provisions is no more logical coming out of Netanyahu's mouth than it has been coming out of others. The principal reasons the argument doesn't make sense are nicely reviewed in John Allen Gay's dismantling of a similar line of argument from Ray Takeyh, who posited a strange scenario of the Iranian supreme leader planning to lie in ambush for a decade before springing a nuclear weapon on the world. One of the most glaring illogicalities of the whole anti-sunset idea is that to use this as an excuse for opposing the product of the current negotiations is to say that, while assuming the worst about Iranian intentions, we would rather face the consequences of an unrestrained Iranian nuclear program today than face it after it has been under ten years of restrictions. Besides, sunset provisions are standard diplomatic stuff, even in agreements that have been reached with Evil Empires.

Feldman talks about the need to “test” Iranian behavior over time. That is exactly what any nuclear deal, with a sunset provision, would entail. Whatever the time period involved, at the end of it Iran would face all the same disincentives, involving economic sanctions and maybe even military attack, against violating its continuing obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. In fact, if prospect theory is valid, the Iranians would feel even greater disincentive than they do now, given that such behavior would mean losing whatever economic gains they had gotten in the meantime in the form of sanctions relief.

Feldman, quoting Netanyahu, makes it sound as if there would be some open-minded “testing” of Iranian behavior, but they are not talking about observance of the provisions of a nuclear accord, and about how a decade or so of Iranian observance of the terms of the agreement would be a huge piece of evidence confirming Iran's commitment to a future without owning nuclear weapons. They are instead, in more goalpost-moving, talking about other Iranian behavior they say they don't like, and declaring that Iran should be required among other things to (in Feldman's words) “abandon...its commitment to Israel's destruction.” How exactly is Iran supposed to do that, especially if it is not committed to that objective in the first place? And how do you write something like that into an agreement?

Unmentioned in Feldman's piece are the glaring inconsistencies in Netanyahu's speech. Roger Cohen notes one of them, in which in one breath Netanyahu portrays Iran as a regional juggernaut that is “gobbling” up other countries and in a different breath says it is a “very vulnerable regime” on the brink of folding. “Well,” asks Cohen, “which is it?” One might also note inconsistency in portrayal of Iranian leaders as, on one hand, irrational, undeterrable religious fanatics who don't think like the rest of us and could never be trusted with dangerous weapons and, on the other hand, as people who, if faced with economic sanctions being cranked up a few more notches, would carefully count the hit to their foreign exchange earnings and make more concessions at the negotiating table. Again, which is it?

Feldman concludes with criticism of Netanyahu's political approach that has endangered Israel's relations with parts of the American political elite. But for U.S. citizens concerned about U.S. interests that is not the main problem in anything Netanyahu has done. The main problem is with a foreign government trying to prevent the United States from pursuing U.S. interests and international security with all the diplomatic and other tools available to it.                               

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An Agreement That Is Good for Israel, Bad for Netanyahu

Paul Pillar

Feldman turns to another theme that anti-agreement forces have increasingly seized upon of late, and he tries to make Netanyahu sound reasonable about that, too. This is the certainty that an agreement will have “sunset” provisions such that Iran would not be kept in international purgatory forever. Feldman's excuse for Netanyahu believing that Iran should be kept in purgatory forever is that “Iran remains committed to Israel's destruction.” Any discussion of policy toward Iran that claims to be sober would be well-advised to dispose of that trope. Iran is not committed to Israel's destruction, although it has had leaders who have used language that in the retelling and mistranslation gets so construed. Even if Iranian leaders did want to destroy Israel they realize it would be impossible for them to do so. They also realize that any attempt to do so would lead Israel to wreak far greater destruction on them in return.

With or without the tropes, the whole anti-agreement line of argument resting on sunset provisions is no more logical coming out of Netanyahu's mouth than it has been coming out of others. The principal reasons the argument doesn't make sense are nicely reviewed in John Allen Gay's dismantling of a similar line of argument from Ray Takeyh, who posited a strange scenario of the Iranian supreme leader planning to lie in ambush for a decade before springing a nuclear weapon on the world. One of the most glaring illogicalities of the whole anti-sunset idea is that to use this as an excuse for opposing the product of the current negotiations is to say that, while assuming the worst about Iranian intentions, we would rather face the consequences of an unrestrained Iranian nuclear program today than face it after it has been under ten years of restrictions. Besides, sunset provisions are standard diplomatic stuff, even in agreements that have been reached with Evil Empires.

Feldman talks about the need to “test” Iranian behavior over time. That is exactly what any nuclear deal, with a sunset provision, would entail. Whatever the time period involved, at the end of it Iran would face all the same disincentives, involving economic sanctions and maybe even military attack, against violating its continuing obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. In fact, if prospect theory is valid, the Iranians would feel even greater disincentive than they do now, given that such behavior would mean losing whatever economic gains they had gotten in the meantime in the form of sanctions relief.

Feldman, quoting Netanyahu, makes it sound as if there would be some open-minded “testing” of Iranian behavior, but they are not talking about observance of the provisions of a nuclear accord, and about how a decade or so of Iranian observance of the terms of the agreement would be a huge piece of evidence confirming Iran's commitment to a future without owning nuclear weapons. They are instead, in more goalpost-moving, talking about other Iranian behavior they say they don't like, and declaring that Iran should be required among other things to (in Feldman's words) “abandon...its commitment to Israel's destruction.” How exactly is Iran supposed to do that, especially if it is not committed to that objective in the first place? And how do you write something like that into an agreement?

Unmentioned in Feldman's piece are the glaring inconsistencies in Netanyahu's speech. Roger Cohen notes one of them, in which in one breath Netanyahu portrays Iran as a regional juggernaut that is “gobbling” up other countries and in a different breath says it is a “very vulnerable regime” on the brink of folding. “Well,” asks Cohen, “which is it?” One might also note inconsistency in portrayal of Iranian leaders as, on one hand, irrational, undeterrable religious fanatics who don't think like the rest of us and could never be trusted with dangerous weapons and, on the other hand, as people who, if faced with economic sanctions being cranked up a few more notches, would carefully count the hit to their foreign exchange earnings and make more concessions at the negotiating table. Again, which is it?

Feldman concludes with criticism of Netanyahu's political approach that has endangered Israel's relations with parts of the American political elite. But for U.S. citizens concerned about U.S. interests that is not the main problem in anything Netanyahu has done. The main problem is with a foreign government trying to prevent the United States from pursuing U.S. interests and international security with all the diplomatic and other tools available to it.                               

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