Will Netanyahu’s speech derail nuclear talks with Iran?

Netanyahu's speech to Congress may cause its members to impose new sanctions if no nuclear deal is reached by March 24.

This article was first published by the Telegraph.

After much build-up and controversy, Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a joint session of the US Congress on Tuesday for about 40 minutes, scaremongering on the threat posed by Iran and what he portrayed as the country’s “quest for nuclear weapons”.

The Israeli Prime Minister, who has been clashing with President Barack Obama over the Iranian nuclear dossier for the past three years, was invited in January by House Speaker, Republican John Boehner, without prior consultation with the White House.

Congress, also at odds with the White House over how to best deal with Iran, was thus deemed to be the venue Netanyahu would have used to try to hamper the on-going nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 (permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany), which are due to reach a final agreement by the end of June.

Criticism without alternatives

Netanyahu made no secret of his opposition to the negotiations and to the terms of the agreement which are currently being discussed in Switzerland by the P5+1 and Iran, based on a formula which would curb Iran's nuclear activities for a double-digit number of years, whilst allowing some level of enrichment. He did not miss the opportunity to stress how the US administration is negotiating a “very bad deal” with Iran, which “will not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.”

He added that his idea of an alternative would not be war, but “a much better deal”. However, as promptly pointed out by Obama, he did not offer any “viable alternative” or specifics on what such a deal would look like. In fact, the US President claimed that Netanyahu’s words resembled the Israeli Prime Minister’s reaction to the Joint Plan of Action (JPA), an interim deal, signed in November 2013, committing Iran to curb its most sensitive nuclear activities in exchange for some limited and reversible sanction relief.

The fact that Netanyahu failed to advance any new policy on Iran, inadvertently strengthened, rather than hampered, the current strategy adopted by the US administration to deal with the Iranian nuclear ambitions, which now more than ever seems to represent the best available option.

Furthermore, despite concerns raised by the US administration over the past weeks, Netanyahu did not proceed in wrecking negotiations with Iran, as threatened, steering away from revealing secret details about the talks.

What impact on the talks?

Even though Netanyahu’s speech did not constitute a significant challenge to the talks, his appearance before Congress might still indirectly undermine a successful outcome of the negotiations.

After he advised Congress to maintain pressure on Tehran, those US lawmakers which are already nervous about a deal with Tehran might push for fast-tracking a legislation which would impose new sanctions against Iran, should a framework agreement not be reached by March 24.

Should they be able to override the presidential veto that Obama threatened to impose on any additional sanction against Tehran, this move could potentially drive Iran to pull out of talks with the P5+1, derailing the negotiations and the hopes of finding a peaceful solution to the nuclear impasse.

Was it really about Iran?

Regardless of his Iran-centric speech, all signs seem to indicate that, rather than being about the Iranian threat, the speech was aimed at trying to win votes ahead of the Israeli March 17 elections. With only two weeks left before the elections and polls showing Netanyahu neck-and-neck with opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, he might have decided to go all-out in seeking an unprecedented fourth term as Israel’s Prime Minister. By using the grand stage of Congress on the day in which the election propaganda officially kicked off on Israeli television, he indirectly addressed his electors by portraying Iran as the pinnacle of his campaign and by making of his toughness on national security issues his secret weapon to strengthen his re-election prospects.

Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi is a PhD candidate at King’s College London and an Associate Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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