The world is now familiar with Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech last week to the American congress. While the propriety of Netanyahu delivering a speech questioning the policies of a sitting American President has attracted headlines, far more interesting is what the speech reveals about Israel’s and Iran’s relative power in the region. While Iran has suffered greatly under recent sanctions, its influence has grown. In contrast, Israel’s sphere of influence – similar to those of other US allies in the region – has been threatened by growing non-state actors and ascendant Shia powers. All of this means that the US is not likely to act against Iran outside of diplomatic channels and should it desire to do so, Israel will be forced to act independently or in conjunction with a patchwork of anti-Iranian powers in the region, creating a temporary tapestry of anti-Iran states.
Save his controversial visit, nothing about Netanyahu’s speech falls into the realm of game changers. As many (including Obama) have acknowledged, Bibi’s speech contained little in the way of new claims or information. Netanyahu repeated his previous warnings regarding Iran’s aggressive regional intentions and nuclear capabilities, updated for technological advancements while failing to put forth a new policy that could serve to fundamentally alter the balance of power in the region. While he did work in comments specific to the ongoing deal, his rejection for the current negotiations has been and remains categorical and could be best categorized as “You gotten this much. Now ask for more!” As such, there is little in the way of new demands in Netenyahu’s speech. Rather, he continues to seek to shore up opposition to a more friendly deal between Iran and the P5+1. The Israeli president did not put forth a new position; instead, his speech is best viewed as a last-ditch effort to save a floundering anti-Iran position despite years of developments in the region. Such a position is at the crux of Bibi’s failure in attempting to persuade a change in US policy towards Iran: with the stakes raised and little in the way of options, the US has no choice but to push forward with negotiations unless it wishes to push beyond what Iran is willing to give and risk severely escalating the current situation.
Why has Israel remained so categorically opposed to a nuclear Iran? Israel, despite continuing to grow economically, has seen its power relative to its neighbors decline. Abundant oil has allowed Gulf petrostates to amass incredible amounts of wealth, wealth that has been invested in a number of fields within the state, including the military. Additionally, Turkey has continued to play a dominant role in the region despite the changing geopolitical considerations that have emerged in the 20+ years after the Cold War. While Israel was and remains a small but powerful state, the region has seen other states grow in power to a greater degree in recent years, forcing Israel to reconsider its position in the region and ensure that traditional alliances – especially ones as decisive as its alliance with the US – remain in place to preserve the status quo. This is especially important given Israel’s controversial policy choices towards Palestinians at home and unfriendly states abroad, further isolating the power and indicating that – despite economic successes – Israel is a state stuck in stasis or, worse yet, decline.
While Israel has seen its stock fall relative to other regional powers in recent years, Iran’s influence has grown. Despite the weight of sanctions, Iran has grown into a major regional player. This has been highlighted by a number of regional powers in addition to Israel, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia. While sanctions and current low oil prices have proven damaging to the Iranian economy, Iran has benefited from the fallout from the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. This, along with Hezbollah’s hold on the Shia electorate in Lebanon and Bashar al-Assad’s deft maneuvering in Syria – cleaving international support away from the opposition by allowing ISIS to grow – has ensured that, far from losing influence, Iran has gained despite suffering under the weight of sanctions. A nuclear bomb would offer an alternative to the US nuclear umbrella in the region, allowing a power with serious ideological credentials to project itself in the region independent of a major backer. Such a development would be a true game changer – the first ever alternative to US hegemony from within the region. While the US has not acquiesced to such a reality, it can exploit its position as a global power to twist such a revelation to its liking. Israel, though powerful for its size, cannot do so; a nuclear Iran represents a threat that it cannot overcome domestically and is forced to seek support from abroad. The US has proven reticent in this regard and Israel is worried that the status quo – a peace deal with two powerful neighbors and extremely friendly relations with the US – could change in the near future, necessitating its prolonged, artificial survival or a cataclysmic shakeup that postpones such a change for years to come.
Did Netanyahu’s speech push Israel and the US farther apart? This is a distinct possibility but requires careful consideration that looks beyond the headlines. While Obama and Netanyahu have personal differences, the two countries remain closer than an outside analyst might otherwise predict. As the Israeli president indicated, the US continues to extend aid to the Jewish state in a number of non-controversial realms that other states – similarly sized but deficient in historical camaraderie and geopolitical importance – do not receive. Such offers indicate that Israel continues to play a special role in the minds of US policymakers
Despite the continuity of the singular relationship between the US and Israel, cracks do appear. Obama and Netayahu have been at odds numerous times in recent years over a number of issues. Most of these issues have been international in nature or had international implications – the Iran negotiations, developments in Egypt, and the eternal Palestinian question. Although Obama has maintained the same policy as his predecessors on paper regarding settlements, few can deny that the relationship between the two state has become strained in recent years – indeed, such strain precipitated Bibi’s appearance.
In such a situation, it is important to recall the effect that Hugo Chavez’s speech to the UN in 2006 had domestically. In a time of political polarization against the Iraq War, Chavez attacked a numer of unpopular policies of then sitting president George W. Bush. Far from galvanizing support against a relatively unpopular president, the speech served to rally politicians domestically, even those who disliked the Iraq War. In doing so, Chavez (and potentially Bibi) forgot an important lesson from the playground: no one can beat up my brother but me. Two parties fighting domestically will often band together when faced with an outside power that challenges the legitimacy of both of those fighting. Bibi certainly identified cleavages between Democrats and Republicans, but the blowback has been strong enough to question the wisdom of delivering the speech in the first place. While Netanyahu received a standing ovation from those in attendance, his popularity fell among the American people as a whole. Such a fall is counterproductive given the important role Israel places on its relationship with the US – the Jewish state cannot alienate the American left in order to court the right.
This would all be a moot point if Netanyahu succeeded in cementing a stronger deal that favors Israeli interests better than the expected deal does. Did he succeed? No. The current negotiations are the project of the past two sitting presidents. While Republicans have favored a deal that more strongly curbs Iran’s nuclear program, they do not have the power to undo Obama’s diplomatic efforts and face questions of alternatives if they should choose to do so. Additionally, the current controversy surrounding a letter to Iran – whose commentary was delivered by isolationist Rand Paul, no less – highlights the domestic concerns underlying the choice of Republicans to reject anything Obama gains. Under our current partisan divide, anything that makes Obama look weak seems to make Republicans look strong by comparison. This is only more true amid an election cycle that is bereft of Republican candidates who can burnish serious foreign policy credentials. While Netenyahu did draw a crowd, he did not succeed in changing the minds of those he most needed to reach – the non-converted. Israel undoubtedly has a special place in the hearts of most Americans – conservative or liberal – but republican attendance was driven not by Zionist zeal but partisan objectives.
In the end, Benjamin Netenyahu did not get what he wanted and likely will not in the near future: a stronger US stand against Iran and assurances of mutual military action against the Middle East’s most surging power should other checks prove inadequate. The US will not risk confrontation with a rising power in order to appease a dependable but controversial ally. While this does bode poorly for Israel, it does give the Jewish state allies in the form of other non-Iranian allied state in the region, chief among them Saudi Arabia. Israel might feel forced to act, but it will not have to do so alone and will have at its side some of the most technologically-advanced armies and air forces in the Middle East. Still, these powers are constrained by their relationship with the US. They may be able to act independently in this regard, but will not be able to remain independent vis-a-vis trade deals and other important elements that make up the life blood of many states. A strike by Israel – possibly in concert with other, off the books, Arab allies – would force them to seek support from an ally other than the US, undermining the precarious position that pushed them to take action in the first place. Israel is thus stuck in a classic Catch 22 – it cannot depend on international support to fight off unfriendly regimes but cannot act as doing so would alienate the very allies upon which it depends.
In the end, a negotiated deal regarding Iran’s nuclear program benefits all, but benefits Iran more than Israel, leaving Israel to make up for these uneven gains. Iran would shirk the chains of international sanctions while being able to export more of its oil, guaranteeing both energy independence and economic power. Iran’s trading partners in East Asia would be happy to accept increased oil flows at lower than current prices. The US would be able to deal with a new state in the region, confident – to a degree – that the existing agreement pushes off a fundamental change in the balance of power within the region for years to come. Such an agreement would also allow the US to concentrate its efforts elsewhere, allowing the much vaunted but often elusive ‘pivot to Asia’. Finally, an agreement would allow Israel and Saudi Arabia some degree of safety as they pursue their own strategic goals within the region, safe in the knowledge that while Iran is ascending, it will not do so immediately. Still, a negotiated final deal between Iran and the P5+1 would signal an ascendant Iran with the region suggesting that while Israel may rest easy in the near future, it must fundamentally reevaluate its geostrategic calculations in the future should it desire to remain a viable power for years to come.