NATION
Editorial

Netanyahu offers little new to the Iran debate

On Iran, diplomacy still seems the wiser course

When Benjamin Netanyahu accepted an invitation from House Republicans to address Congress on Iran, some expected the Israeli prime minister to offer damning new details about the nuclear agreement that appears to be taking shape. In fact, his speech focused less on the specific shortcomings of what he called “a very bad deal” than on the fact that it would empower an unsavory regime of religious zealots.

Netanyahu reiterated his well-known concern that the U.S. and other world powers are willing to accept an agreement that would leave Iran with the ability to “break out” and quickly develop a nuclear weapon. But his speech was primarily an indictment of the very notion of negotiating with a regime he portrayed as aggressive, fanatical and anti-Semitic.

Indeed, Netanyahu argued that there is no significant difference between Iran and Islamic State. “One calls itself the Islamic Republic,” he said. “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. They just disagree … who will be the ruler of that empire.”

Netanyahu was right to point to Iran's repression of dissidents, journalists and gays, its alliance with Syria's Bashar Assad and its sponsorship of militants in Lebanon and Yemen. It's also true that Iranian leaders have indulged in repeated denunciations of Israel over the years; few can forget the annihilative threats of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But it's possible to condemn Iran's violations of human rights, its meddling in other countries, its anti-Semitic, anti-Israel rants and still take advantage of the current Iranian leadership's apparent willingness to negotiate restrictions on its nuclear program — restrictions that can also serve Israel's interests.

The details of the emerging deal have not been made public, so it's impossible at this point for us to support or oppose them. But Netanyahu's speech made it clear that his differences with President Obama are not primarily about the fine print. The real difference is that Netanyahu believes Iran is implacably evil and fundamentally untrustworthy, while Obama and his negotiating partners — and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, among other military leaders — believe that Iran is a rational country that responds to incentives and disincentives.

To trust Iran is a gamble. But in our view, it is a risk worth taking — as long as that country's assertions of good faith are balanced by serious and verifiable restrictions on its behavior (including the number of centrifuges and the amount of enriched uranium it may possess) and backed by a robust regime of monitoring and inspections.

Given the alternative — military action that many believe would slow Iran's nuclear progress for a few years at best — diplomacy still seems the wiser course.

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