Netanyahu, Iran and the US Congress

In László Krasznahorkai’s existentially vexing and tortuous novel War & War an archivist from a provincial Hungarian town makes off for New York with a stolen manuscript to circulate it widely on the internet. The manuscript recounts the story of four comrades in arms who perpetually find themselves in different European locales throughout history, all of which share the distinction of teetering on the brink of war. As the archivist and reader soon discover, there is no alternative in space and time to where these four journeymen may escape. They are continually caught in the maddening narrative of imminent war. There is no way out. There is no peace. Just war and war.

The defiant saber-rattling rhetoric and overall theatrics of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent speech to the US Congress on Iran recall the enduring and repetitious narrative of imminent war piercing through Krasznahorkai’s novel. We hang in the balance, like the four comrades, hopefully waiting to be transported elsewhere, but the narrative is ever lasting, the outcome never really in doubt. We are told- urged, really- that there is no alternative. Have we not been here before? Have we not before been treated to shrewd arguments and historical sophistry meant to depict an enemy abroad- whose goal we are told is our destruction, whose raison d’être we are told is to threaten, undermine, and remain generally intransigent until confronted head-on and made to stop? The resounding applause, the catapulting ovations, the mostly fawning and pliant Congress, and requisite association of Iran and al-Qaeda were on full display, echoing not just another time, but our Time- our unending War on Terror time. We have been here before. We are here.

A major difference was that the person giving the speech to the US Congress was not a US elected official but a visiting head of state, compelled by the immediacy of his political fortunes and the cultivation of his own political legacy to warn us that the path of negotiation, reconciliation, and rapprochement with Iran over their nuclear program is in error, a cataclysmic miscalculation that must be remedied, no matter the cost. Like Krasznahorkai’s archivist, who carries around the burden of knowing the four men will be forever consigned to pre-conflict zones and whose story must be shared- he tells everyone he meets of the manuscript’s saga and protagonists’ state of existential purgatory, Netanyahu has borne for himself the burden of knowledge that Iran will remain a constant threat and nuisance- for Israel, the United States, and the world at large- unless properly confronted. He has defined himself as the truth-teller, the lone defiant voice, the man who must spread his tale perpetually and unabashedly by pulling back the curtain to show things as they really stand, to tell one and all that the surrounding world is not what it seems and that surely the designated course of negotiations between Iran and the P5 +1 (United States, Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany) must soon change or else.

Benjamin Netanyahu is not one of the most successful Israeli politicians since David Ben-Gurion and perhaps most iconic since Yitzhak Rabin for little reason. He attained for himself an opportunity to speak on the floor of Congress, weeks out from his own election no less, to make his pitch for confronting Iran more staunchly. And well aware of his American audience, he made his speech less about his own country’s interests than those of the United States. In the past, Netanyahu leveraged the confrontational and inexplicable statements of former Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinejad, in particular his statements of Holocaust denial, to play upon Europe’s intolerance for such speech and make the image of Iran as a radical-holocaust-denying regime bent on wiping Israel from the face of the earth stick. But here Netanyahu played upon the most pressing fear currently occupying the forefront of the American mind: ISIS. He sought to blur and conflate the lines between ISIS and Iran so that the two appeared cut from the same cloth (“Both want to impose a militant Islamic empire first on the region and then on the entire world”), while at once reminding the US not to be lulled into thinking Iran can assist in confronting ISIS (“The enemy of my enemy is my enemy.”) He went on to remind us that Iran is benefiting, its steady hand lurking, from any and all political changes across the Middle East (“In the Middle East, Iran now dominates four Arab capitals, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Sanaa”). He even urged Americans remember their fellow countrymen who suffered and died on account of Iranian actions (“Iran took dozens of Americans hostage in Tehran, murdered hundreds of American soldiers, Marines, in Beirut, and was responsible for killing and maiming thousands of American service men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan.”) Iran is the United State’s threat par excellence, now and forever, he pleaded to all listening. They are not to be trusted, not be relied upon, and certainly not to be given the opportunity to maintain any semblance of a nuclear program.

But make no mistake: Netanyahu’s speech, with its ideological conflations, political simplifications, and references to American dead was meant to serve the protection of Israeli interests, not those of the United States. Israel has seen the rise and fall of autocrats and monarchs, its share of military coups, and the cycling through of sub-state actors defined by socialism, Islamism, and Sunni and Shii triumphalism to know that rulers and ideologies come and go and strategies can be adapted accordingly. But that the only change made permanent which cannot be reversed and thus never to be tolerated is nuclear parity in the Middle East. No country in the Middle East must attain Israel’s same level of geo-strategic footing and all arguments- whether those tied to anti-Semitism, Islamic radicalism, or otherwise- to say nothing of actions, must be deployed to prevent such a possibility. But is this the same calculus defining US interests in negotiations and possible reconciliation with Iran?

The United States should not be eager to see any country attain nuclear weapons, but that also doesn’t mean they should be willing to forsake the benefits of having normalized relations with a country, whose interests in a fast-changing region are quickly aligning with their own, in exchange for a monitored and pared-down nuclear program where weaponization remains a far-off possibility. The United States is a thousand miles away, survived a Cold War with a nuclear-armed Soviet Union, and knows that détente works. The United States also understands that states change their behaviors over time, new events and dynamics intervene, and policies must adapt accordingly. This is a much a different calculus than that of Israel. Not that it will ever come close to this. Iran is not attaining nuclear weapons. The United States knows this. Iran knows this. Whether Israel does or does not is beside the point: they cannot tolerate even the remotest possibility of a nuclear Iran- no matter whether the perceived breakout time to a weapon is one or ten years away. It’s the reason Netanyahu has raised the alarm time and time again that Iran was on “the verge” of nuclear weapons over the last 20 years, even though the simple fact that Iran does not yet have nuclear weapons at this point continues to contradict the veracity of his claims, making each succeeding claim less believable than the previous one. It’s a strategy built not on truth, but on maintaining an unflinching position of argumentation because any acceptance of the alternative is deemed one step closer to accepting a disastrous reality.

But by making his argument before Congress predominantly about American rather than Israeli interests and how Americans should understand Iran, Netanyahu has miscalculated. He has provided the opening for a more open and frank discussion about how a nuclear deal and some semblance of normalized relations with Iran may serve the interests of the United States, shifting the debate from one of abstract existential nuclear-threat to one with a relatable context. In pre-empting his claims’ counter arguments, such as the notion that a closer relationship with Iran will not benefit the United States in confronting ISIS, Netanyahu has actually raised the possibility of speaking about such issues and others more volubly, potentially catalyzing discussion on the nature of Iranian actions and interests across the Middle East and specifically how they may align with US ones. That the New York Times ran a cover story on how Iran’s fight against ISIS is benefitting the United States just two days after Netanyahu’s speech, capitalizing on his misguided admonition that Iran should precisely not be seen as an US ally against ISIS, may be indicative of a larger trend to come. It is hoped that Iran will come to be assessed more pragmatically in relation to US interests and more generally too, shifting Netanyahu’s other political simplicities such as Iran’s supposed “control” over four Arab capitals and puppeteering of regional proxies to more nuanced understandings of how the US can leverage Iranian influence and relationship with allies- because that’s all it really is anyway- in pursuit of US interests. Ironic as it sounds, it may be Netanyahu’s speech that has provided American discourse on Iran with a new lease to rethink assumptions of our enemies and imminent states of Terror and War. He has unknowingly provided American discourse with a way out. The Obama administration’s diligent pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran, one that surely accounts for how more normalized relations can serve US interests in a variety of ways, is another way out. The question is whether Netanyahu has left a way out for himself from his own repetitious and maddening narrative should a nuclear deal with Iran come to be signed.

Kevin Schwartz is a recent Social Science Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow for Transregional Research and Visiting Scholar at Roshan Institute for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland.

Kevin L. Schwartz is a Research Fellow at the Oriental Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague where he focuses on Iran. He was previously a research fellow at the US Library of Congress and a visiting professor at the US Naval Academy. His website is