The Illogic of Netanyahu’s Speech

Last week, the U.S. Congress, especially the Republican majority, treated Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu as if he were the true commander in chief, a cringe-worthy moment for many Americans, but one that distracted from the illogic of what Netanyahu said, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

There was so much that was improper about one political party giving a foreign leader a privileged platform in the U.S. Congress for the purpose of undermining U.S. foreign policy, and so much understandable criticism of this improper action, that what now sounds like a responsible and “sober” thing to say, as Shai Feldman presents himself as saying, is that we should not get distracted by all the commotion over how Benjamin Netanyahu came to give his speech, even though there may be grounds for criticizing his strategy in giving the speech, but instead should take seriously the substance of what he said.

This posture sounds so reasonable that one can plausibly imagine Netanyahu and his American acolytes welcoming controversy over the unrespectable way in which the speech came about so that the substance of the speech would, by comparison, sound more respectable than it really was.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in 2012, drawing his own "red line" on how far he will let Iran go in refining nuclear fuel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in 2012, drawing his own “red line” on how far he will let Iran go in refining nuclear fuel.

We should not be deceived by any such framing strategy. No matter how successfully we can put out of our minds the impropriety of giving any foreign leader this platform for this kind of purpose and the underhanded way the platform was given, the most sober possible appraisal of the speech is that it was (besides being in some respects a skillful oration) a scaremongering, internally inconsistent rant aimed at tying the hands of the makers of U.S. foreign policy.

President Barack Obama was stating the obvious when he remarked that Netanyahu offered no alternative to what the United States and its five foreign partners have been endeavoring to do for the past year and a half in negotiating an agreement to keep Iran’s nuclear program peaceful.

Feldman states that a reading of the speech shows that “Israel’s Prime Minister did not travel to Washington to prevent any deal with Iran.” Of course Netanyahu didn’t say that was his purpose; if he had said that, he would have been blatantly and stupidly presenting himself as an incorrigible obstructionist.

It makes much more tactical sense for him to sustain the impression that with the right terms he would accept an agreement with Iran, somewhat like how he has tried to sustain the impression that with the right terms he would accept an agreement creating a Palestinian state. But the only plausible interpretation of Netanyahu’s behavior throughout on this issue is that preventing any agreement with Tehran is precisely his objective.

Actions speak louder than words in understanding what he is trying to do, especially the action of trying hard to kill the best, and probably for the foreseeable future the only, opportunity to place restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program.

So what is supposedly the alternative formula that Netanyahu would accept? According to Netanyahu, and to Feldman, it’s a “better deal.” That’s it; don’t expect anything more specific. Of course everyone would like a “better deal”; what do you suppose the U.S. Secretary of State has been spending an enormous amount of time and effort trying to achieve in those long negotiations?

Whatever are the terms that Netanyahu supposedly would bless, all we know is that they would not be whatever terms emerge from the current negotiations. And given the Prime Minister’s history of goalpost-moving, we have good reason to expect that no agreement, no matter what the terms, would ever get his support.

When he was displaying his cartoon bomb at the United Nations, stopping Iran’s medium-level enrichment of uranium was supposedly the main concern, but he later denounced a preliminary agreement with Iran that achieved, along with other measures, exactly that objective. Once a one-year “breakout” time sounded like it would be acceptable to Netanyahu in comparison with the couple of months without an agreement, but now that the Obama administration appears to be sticking firmly to that one-year figure Netanyahu seems to want more (but just how much more we are left to wonder).

Formerly the sine qua non of any agreement of Iran was to halt the advance of the nuclear program, but now that the negotiators seem on the brink of achieving a deal on that supposedly overriding issue, Netanyahu is talking more (as Feldman himself notes) about bringing in other issues involving other forms of Iranian behavior. And so on.

According to Netanyahu, achieving a “better deal” is a simple matter of pressuring Iran with more sanctions. But the entire history of the nuclear issue and of Iran’s other behavior, along with the realities of human nature, strongly suggest that this notion is a fantasy. We have direct, compelling experience of failure with this; when the sanctions screws were applied to Iran after the United States rejected the last previous opportunity to strike a deal on the subject with Tehran, the result was substantial expansion of the Iranian nuclear program over the subsequent decade.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi accurately commented that Netanyahu’s lecturing about threats from Iran and about nuclear proliferation was an “insult to the intelligence of the United States.” It would be an insult to the intelligence of Benjamin Netanyahu to suggest that he doesn’t understand fully that there is not some “better deal” that somehow would materialize and that rejection of whatever agreement emerges from the current negotiations would mean having no agreement at all.

Feldman turns to another theme that anti-agreement forces have increasingly seized upon of late, and he tries to make Netanyahu sound reasonable about that, too. This is the certainty that an agreement will have “sunset” provisions such that Iran would not be kept in international purgatory forever.

Feldman’s excuse for Netanyahu believing that Iran should be kept in purgatory forever is that “Iran remains committed to Israel’s destruction.” Any discussion of policy toward Iran that claims to be sober would be well-advised to dispose of that trope.

Iran is not committed to Israel’s destruction, although it has had leaders who have used language that in the retelling and mistranslation gets so construed. Even if Iranian leaders did want to destroy Israel they realize it would be impossible for them to do so. They also realize that any attempt to do so would lead Israel to wreak far greater destruction on them in return.

With or without the tropes, the whole anti-agreement line of argument resting on sunset provisions is no more logical coming out of Netanyahu’s mouth than it has been coming out of others. The principal reasons the argument doesn’t make sense are nicely reviewed in John Allen Gay’s dismantling of a similar line of argument from Ray Takeyh, who posited a strange scenario of the Iranian supreme leader planning to lie in ambush for a decade before springing a nuclear weapon on the world.

One of the most glaring illogicalities of the whole anti-sunset idea is that to use this as an excuse for opposing the product of the current negotiations is to say that, while assuming the worst about Iranian intentions, we would rather face the consequences of an unrestrained Iranian nuclear program today than face it after it has been under ten years of restrictions. Besides, sunset provisions are standard diplomatic stuff, even in agreements that have been reached with Evil Empires.

Feldman talks about the need to “test” Iranian behavior over time. That is exactly what any nuclear deal, with a sunset provision, would entail. Whatever the time period involved, at the end of it Iran would face all the same disincentives, involving economic sanctions and maybe even military attack, against violating its continuing obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

In fact, if prospect theory is valid, the Iranians would feel even greater disincentive than they do now, given that such behavior would mean losing whatever economic gains they had gotten in the meantime in the form of sanctions relief.

Feldman, quoting Netanyahu, makes it sound as if there would be some open-minded “testing” of Iranian behavior, but they are not talking about observance of the provisions of a nuclear accord, and about how a decade or so of Iranian observance of the terms of the agreement would be a huge piece of evidence confirming Iran’s commitment to a future without owning nuclear weapons.

They are instead, in more goalpost-moving, talking about other Iranian behavior they say they don’t like, and declaring that Iran should be required among other things to (in Feldman’s words) “abandon … its commitment to Israel’s destruction.” How exactly is Iran supposed to do that, especially if it is not committed to that objective in the first place? And how do you write something like that into an agreement?

Unmentioned in Feldman’s piece are the glaring inconsistencies in Netanyahu’s speech. Roger Cohen notes one of them, in which in one breath Netanyahu portrays Iran as a regional juggernaut that is “gobbling” up other countries and in a different breath says it is a “very vulnerable regime” on the brink of folding.

“Well,” asks Cohen, “which is it?” One might also note inconsistency in portrayal of Iranian leaders as, on one hand, irrational, undeterrable religious fanatics who don’t think like the rest of us and could never be trusted with dangerous weapons and, on the other hand, as people who, if faced with economic sanctions being cranked up a few more notches, would carefully count the hit to their foreign exchange earnings and make more concessions at the negotiating table. Again, which is it?

Feldman concludes with criticism of Netanyahu’s political approach that has endangered Israel’s relations with parts of the American political elite. But for U.S. citizens concerned about U.S. interests that is not the main problem in anything Netanyahu has done.

The main problem is with a foreign government trying to prevent the United States from pursuing U.S. interests and international security with all the diplomatic and other tools available to it.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

13 comments for “The Illogic of Netanyahu’s Speech

  1. Church
    March 14, 2015 at 06:30

    The basis for all these problems is the delusional insistence by Jews, Christians, and Muslims that there is a God watching over us and granting our wishes.

  2. elmerfudzie
    March 10, 2015 at 21:47

    The Zionist lumpen supporting Netanyahu seem to be at odds with Security Agencies like Shin Bet and Mossad. I say this because there are two, not so visible, elementary forces working behind the scenes and against one another. One is the business community with their capitalist conquistadors and agendas (installing, controlling new oil pipelines and land grabs) the other, the State Intel security forces preoccupied with homeland security. Let’s take a look back into recent history; It was a fateful day for Iranian’s leadership but a propitious moment for Israel, when a store of medium range Shihab 3 missiles, all carefully guarded, inexplicably blew themselves up? The Mossad with their infmaous computer Trojan(s) discovered the secret location of Irans’latest missile batteries. So, perhaps with the aid of a few left over deep cover, SAVAK’s, some 007 put that C-4 just in the right spot thus a KABOOM! At that moment, the last vestige of any “out of the blue” military threat to Israeli’s’ Iron Dome strategy, came to a close. For the Israeli Intel community, the only real threat from Iran was a missile delivery system with warheads containing some sort of sophisticated dirty bomb-for example, aimed at Tel Aviv. The Intel message to Ali Khamenei and Hassan Rouhani was; you guys were making too many Shibab’s, go and make something else, aside: perhaps a great number of them could overwhelm the dome? So, with the same threat and outcome hanging over the Shihab series 3, Khamenei issued orders to produce home made cruise missiles. The cruise choice is more versatile and I’m guessing here, is easier to dispatch, more mobile, difficult to locate and requires less training to launch. The Israeli Intel folks must of had an equivalent message to Netanyahu, Iran can’t…., forgive the pun, bug us, so move on BeBe, but he can’t move on because of special interest groups, so he’ll be retired from the political scene, quietly…no messy stuff, like…Yitzhak Rabin.

  3. Abe
    March 9, 2015 at 12:23

    “I got your logic right HERE.”

    US/UK/Israel unlawful Wars of Aggression on Iraq, Iran are gangster ‘business’: an analogy
    By Carl Herman

  4. Abe
    March 9, 2015 at 00:36

    Netanyahu’s speech is all too logical:

    The economic sanctions and military threats against Iran are precisely designed to obstruct Iranian participation in Eurasian political, economic and military organizations.


    The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) was founded in 2001 in Shanghai by the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

    At the 2007 SCO summit Iranian Vice President Parviz Davudi addressed an initiative that has been garnering greater interest and assuming a heightened sense of urgency when he said, “The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is a good venue for designing a new banking system which is independent from international banking systems”.

    The address by Putin also included these comments: “We now clearly see the defectiveness of the monopoly in world finance and the policy of economic selfishness. To solve the current problem Russia will take part in changing the global financial structure so that it will be able to guarantee stability and prosperity in the world and to ensure progress”.

    “The world is seeing the emergence of a qualitatively different geo-political situation, with the emergence of new centers of economic growth and political influence”.

    “We will witness and take part in the transformation of the global and regional security and development architectures adapted to new realities of the 21st century, when stability and prosperity are becoming inseparable notions”.

    Iran currently has observer status in the organisation, and applied for full membership on 24 March 2008. However, because of ongoing sanctions levied by the United Nations, it is blocked from admission as a new member. The SCO stated that any country under U.N. sanctions cannot be admitted.


    Five major emerging national economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) are distinguished by their large, fast-growing economies and significant influence on regional and global affairs; all five are G-20 members.

    As of 2014, the five BRICS countries represent almost 3 billion people which is 40% of the world population, with a combined nominal GDP of US$16.039 trillion (20% world GDP) and an estimated US$4 trillion in combined foreign reserves. As of 2014, the BRICS nations represented 18 percent of the world economy.

    At the 6th annual BRICS Summit in Fortaleza, Brazil this year, the group signed a document to create the US$100 billion New Development Bank (NDB) and a reserve currency pool worth an additional US$100 billion. Documents on cooperation between BRICS export credit agencies and an agreement of cooperation on innovation were also signed.

    A press release from the BRICS Summit stated: “We remain disappointed and seriously concerned with the current non-implementation of the 2010 International Monetary Fund (IMF) reforms, which negatively impacts on the IMF’s legitimacy, credibility and effectiveness.” Some analysts read the announcement of the NDB as a challenge to the IMF and World Bank.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin said of the summit that it sought to reduce dependency on the U.S. dollar and strengthen the rule of international law: “In the BRICS case we see a whole set of coinciding strategic interests. First of all, this is the common intention to reform the international monetary and financial system. In the present form it is unjust to the BRICS countries and to new economies in general. We should take a more active part in the IMF and the World Bank’s decision-making system. The international monetary system itself depends a lot on the US dollar, or, to be precise, on the monetary and financial policy of the US authorities. The BRICS countries want to change this.”

    Indonesia and Turkey have been mentioned as candidates for full membership of the BRICS.

    Iran along with Egypt , Argentina, Nigeria, Syria, and most recently Germany and Bangladesh have expressed interest in joining BRICS.

    • Joe Tedesky
      March 9, 2015 at 01:54

      Let’s hope this competition doesn’t lead up to war. If Wall St., London, and the IMF were to start by taking a deep look inward first, this could be a good start. Although, their urge to use military is so their favorite bargaining chip.

      If the BRIC’s are smart they will structure themselves around honest to goodness infrastructure economics. If they were to reverse themselves away from ‘Shock Doctrine’ policies, well then this would be a good thing for mankind. The West has leaned to hard on making money off of debt. Interest rates have replaced food sales.

      As far as Bibi goes, everyone is saying he’s through. Yet, somehow I can’t imagine life without him. If he is to go, my hope is Israel may produce a leader who may bring peace to the Mideast. Just doing that could mean a life time position.

  5. March 8, 2015 at 22:14

    Provided below is the hyperlink of my latest essay for possible publication in our outlet.

    Ehsan Ahrari

    “US-Iran’s Nuclear Conflict and the Exercise of Arab/Iran Realpolitik”

    Ehsan Ahrari, PhD, is an independent defense consultant and a specialist in Great Power relations and transnational security. He has 20 years of experience teaching in various senior military educational institutions, including the US Air War College, Joint Forces Staff College of the National Defense University, and the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (Honolulu, HI). He has consulted with and briefed top officials of USCENTCOM and USPACOM. His latest book on Great Power relations is The Great Powers versus the Hegemon (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011). He can be reached at [email protected].

  6. Abe
    March 8, 2015 at 19:05

    The Netanyahu government of Israel adamantly is NOT a friend to the interests of the American people. Neither are the collaborationist Members of Congress who ecstatically applauded Netanyahu’s pack of lies.

    Congress interrupted to applaud 39 times. 23 of these were standing ovations. 10:55 of the Netanyahu’s 40:30 minute delusional tirade consisted of applause.

    No lie is too outrageous for murderous, nuclear-armed Jewish ethno-racists seeking to “completely blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven”.

    Netanyahu and the current regime of Israel remain fervently committed to Iran’s destruction as they have been to the destruction of Syria, Libya, Iraq, Egypt and yes, their “allies” Saudi Arabia and Qatar (the state sponsors of ISIS).

    With Netanyahu’s steaming pile dropped on the floor of Congress, a political line has been finally and unequivocally drawn by the War Party in the US.

    If the American people don’t firmly reject the War Party, then we all are complicit in the disaster that surely will follow.

    The Republic of Iran borders the Caspian Sea. The Russian Federation is acting to protect its interests, China is very much concerned, and Iran certainly will retaliate if it is attacked. Israeli/US military aggression against Iran may initiate a nuclear World War.

    Every collaborationist Member of Congress who applauded Netanyahu’s pack of lies should be sent packing as soon as possible. Review your local collaborationist’s election status and get busy.

  7. AL Esh
    March 8, 2015 at 17:22

    In Clayton Swisher’s book, The Truth About Camp David, Joe Lockhart, former White House spokesman for Bill Clinton, described Netanyahu as “one of the most obnoxious individuals, just a liar and a cheat. He could open his mouth and you could have no confidence that anything that came of it was the truth.”

  8. Been Here Before
    March 8, 2015 at 15:08

    More political “Gotcha”… much like asking, “Are you sleeping better now that you’ve considered not beating your children?” I think it’s foolish for any sovereign nation to lose sight of this fact… only one nation has ever used an atomic and a nuclear weapon on an unsuspecting civilian population. And we willingly gave that technology to our allies, including Israel.

  9. Simon Potter
    March 8, 2015 at 13:16

    Mr. Pillar, I am surprised at you. You think “a foreign government trying to prevent the United States from pursuing U.S. interests and international security with all the diplomatic and other tools available to it” is a problem for the United States people? How utterly absurd to think foreign leaders aren’t regularly trying to influence our foreign policy especially when they believe we are making an enormous blunder that will NOT be in U.S. interests and or helpful in international security. When it is a friend making such efforts, I would pray that we (the American people) give him the respect of hearing him out. We don’t have to listen to our friends warnings, but I hope they will use all means to warn us when they perceive we are making a dangerous mistake. You, sir, seem to have spent too many years in your ivory tower and maybe have forgotten to use some reason and basic common sense. Foreign leaders and U.S. leaders are constantly trying to influence the foreign policy of other nations.

    • Bill Bodden
      March 8, 2015 at 13:47

      Foreign leaders and U.S. leaders are constantly trying to influence the foreign policy of other nations.

      Fair enough, up to a point, but can you name any other nation since the end of World War II that has come close to causing the United States as many problems as has Israel and its puppets in Congress?

    • Joe Tedesky
      March 8, 2015 at 19:22

      Would it be okay, for the sense of balance, to have Rouhani come and speak to our congress?

      • Nigel
        March 10, 2015 at 02:17

        That’s a good point…

Comments are closed.