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Netanyahu bruised Obama without killing the Iran deal

Netanyahu’s speech dealt a blow to the administration’s bigger narrative on Iran

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

Contempt, mistrust and lack of both political and personal chemistry has defined the relations between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This was on display for the whole world to see this week as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister took to the U.S. Congress floor and defied the American President in form and substance on the Iran deal that the administration is hoping to achieve by the end of this month.

Theatrics and standing ovations aside, Netanyahu’s speech dealt a blow to the administration’s bigger narrative on Iran but was not substantive enough to kill the chances of a nuclear deal. Netanyahu offered no alternative to the current negotiating track between Iran and the P5+1, and despite his efforts to flirt with Arab states who are very wary about Iran, there isn’t simply a regional consensus in agreeing with the Israeli Prime Minister that this is a “bad deal.”

Obama’s Iran weakness

Israel’s prime minister is a political survivor who has a history in cunning and overriding American presidents regardless of their political affiliations: George H. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have all clashed with him and at times conceded. But in this speech in particular, “Bibi” Netanyahu’s bet that he could destroy the chances of an Iran deal by getting Congress to act against Obama is premature, overconfident and by every measure an overreach.

It’s become a routine in Washington to start a guessing game on chances of an Iran deal

Joyce Karam

There is no question that Netanyahu masterfully played the audience on Tuesday and not just in Congress but also 5000 miles away in Tel Aviv. He has done so by exploiting Obama’s core weakness in dealing with Iran, being overly invested in the nuclear file, while turning a blind eye to Tehran’s detrimental regional behavior. But criticizing Iran’s regional role is one thing and scuttling a nuclear deal over number of centrifuges, level of enriched uranium and sanctions’ infrastructure is another.

Ken Sofer of the Center of the American Progress says in an interview that Netanyahu was “preaching to the choir in Congress and reinforced staunch opponents of the deal.” Sofer argues that Bibi’s and the Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner’s “unnecessarily partisan approach to the speech may have actually made a new Iran sanctions bill less likely.”

Since Netanyahu’s speech was announced last January, key Democrats in the Senate such as Robert Menendez and Harry Reid, have held off backing a new sanctions resolution or another to give Congress authorization to vote on any deal, and opted to wait until the end of March -the deadline for a deal-. Sofer explains that “Congress would need a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate to override a veto and pass new sanctions against Iran, which is (mathematically) impossible without support from both Republicans and Democrats. “

Chances and fate of any deal

It’s become a routine in Washington to start a guessing game on chances of an Iran deal. While the administration has constantly put it at 50/50, there are indications that the chances of a deal have increased in the last few weeks. Sources who follow closely the negotiations estimate them at 60/40. But these numbers change by every negotiating round, the next one on March 15th, and mostly depend on how much leeway does each party have on the three key differences: sanctions, enrichment and duration of agreement.

Given the politics inside the Republican Congress and the level of mistrust in Iran’s intentions regionally, Obama will only be able to sell a deal if it is verifiable, long term, and does not dismantle the sanctions architecture before the gradual implementation of the agreement. If Obama chooses to sign a deal that would be rejected by Congress, he would be risking both the ability to lift major sanctions and a backlash on the Democrats’ presidential hopefuls in 2016. A bad deal could unite Democrats and Republicans in Congress and produce a “veto proof majority” (more than two thirds) to stop the implementation on the agreement.

Regionally, the Arab Gulf countries have so far been willing to give Obama the timeframe needed to negotiate such deal while reserving judgment until a final draft is reached. Extending security assurances in the form of a nuclear umbrella is also under consideration from the Obama administration to the GCC countries. But at this stage there is no guarantee that a deal will be reached or that Iran will take up the P5+1 offer.

While Netanyahu’s speech has exposed the cracks in Obama’s Iran narrative by strictly focusing on the nuclear talks and turning a blind eye to its regional meddling, the fate of a nuclear deal will not be tied to the Israeli prime minister’s position. It is the negotiators in Montreux and Vienna who will determine the course of such deal, and more than anyone else the Supreme leader in Iran Ali Khamenei.

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Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.