Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is about to intensify his campaign to wreck nuclear negotiations with Iran. The world can only hope he fails.
Mr. Netanyahu influences U.S. policy through shrewd use of the Israeli political lobby in Congress, friendly voices in the news media and backers in the business world. Next Tuesday, he will address Congress at the invitation of the Republican leadership, warning the United States against signing any nuclear deal with Iran.
His near-apocalyptic warnings have infuriated President Barack Obama's administration to the point that he will not meet the Israeli leader. This presidential snub is entirely justified, since Mr. Netanyahu, himself campaigning in an election, is defiantly injecting himself into U.S. politics.
The five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany have been negotiating with Iran, with a deadline for the outline of a final deal set for the end of March. Both sides say major issues remain, which is understandable since the issues are complicated and the stakes are high.
A first-phase, interim agreement was reached in November, 2013. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran fulfilled all of its commitments in that agreement. (The IAEA did complain that Iran had not answered several questions about potential military components of its nuclear program.)
The elements of a deal to stop Iran from producing a nuclear weapon are present: a reduction in centrifuges, no additional enrichment facilities, intrusive international inspections and the gradual lifting of economic sanctions. Of course, there are myriad important technical issues that are now being negotiated, and these could easily be seized upon by critics of a deal to wreck it.
What the critics in Israel, the United States and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government (which acts as an echo chamber for Mr. Netanyahu) have failed to answer is what would happen to stop an Iranian nuclear weapon if negotiations fail.
Either the world would have to live with Iran moving ever-forward toward "breakout" capacity for a weapon, or a military attack would have to slow down Tehran's nuclear program. Substantial air strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities would further destabilize a fragile region. They would slow but not halt the Iranian program, and they would badly injure the political moderates who won the last Iranian election. (In Iran's system, final decisions on foreign and defence policies are made by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.)
That Iran has been covertly working for a long time on a nuclear program is widely known. Indeed, Iran's nuclear program began under the Shah, before the Iranian revolution toppled him in 1979. But intelligence agencies in Washington and Tel Aviv have contradicted political declarations in both countries that Iran is close to producing a nuclear bomb.
The core issue has always been what purpose Iran intends for its nuclear program. Tehran has always insisted that the program is entirely for peaceful purposes, but a long history of outright lies and disingenuous explanations have made its declarations suspect.
More likely, Iran wants to position itself to get a nuclear weapon if it feels threatened. How far it is from developing a weapon – the "breakout" – is central to any deal. Israel (and Ottawa) insist that Iran should be left with so few centrifuges that no nuclear weapon could ever be possible. Obviously, this would be so one-sided that no Iranian government could accept the terms. After all, negotiations are about a balance of risks and opportunities, not capitulation.
Circumstances have come together to make Iran more flexible than at any time since the revolution. Economic sanctions are hurting and the collapse of international oil prices is damaging the economy and the government's budget. Middle-class Iranians, who pay only lip service to the religious regime, want their country to rejoin the international community. Reflecting these aspirations, the country's elected leadership is the most moderate since the revolution.
Perhaps next month's negotiations will collapse on their own if the parties are unable to settle the important remaining questions. The Israeli lobby, which is hugely influential in the Republican Party and in certain Democratic Party circles, will certainly try to wreck the deal in Washington. And even if agreement is reached, Iranian hard-liners, such as the Revolutionary Guards, will likely oppose it.
If it does fall apart, a momentous opportunity will have been missed.