JERUSALEM — The U.S.-led nuclear deal with Iran on Tuesday dealt a heavy personal blow to Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, leaving him at odds with the international community and with few options for scuttling an agreement he has spent years trying to prevent.
Netanyahu condemned the deal as a “stunning historic mistake,” saying it would not prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons capability. It also did nothing to address the Islamic Republic’s support for hostile militant groups, he said.
Addressing reporters in English, a grim-faced Netanyahu said he was not bound by the deal, which eases sanctions in exchange for curbs on the suspect Iranian nuclear program, and strongly hinted that military action remains an option.
“Israel is not bound by this deal with Iran because Iran continues to seek our destruction,” he said. “We will always defend ourselves.”
While Netanyahu’s opposition to the deal was shared by his political rivals, translating that sentiment into action won’t be easy. A planned lobbying blitz in the U.S. Congress appears to have slim odds of success, and the military option would carry grave risks and plunge Israel into deep isolation.
For Netanyahu, the deal represented perhaps one of the greatest defeats of his three-decade-long political career. Netanyahu has spent years lecturing audiences about the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran, often describing his battle against Iran as the mission of his lifetime. He has railed against Iran in high-profile speeches at the United Nations, and last March, voiced his opposition to the emerging deal in a speech to the U.S. Congress that enraged the White House.
The White House announced late Tuesday that President Barack Obama had spoken to Netanyahu and told him the deal won’t lessen U.S. concerns about Iran’s support for militant groups and its threats toward Israel. Obama said a planned visit to Israel next week by U.S. Defence Secretary Ash Carter reflects the high level of security co-operation between the two allies.
But apparently neither Obama’s conciliatory language nor Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s assurances earlier in the day that Iran will “never” seek a nuclear weapon calmed the Israeli leader.
Netanyahu said the agreement would lift painful economic sanctions against Iran — bringing in a much needed influx of funds — without stopping it from developing a capacity to produce nuclear weapons.
“This cash bonanza will fuel Iran’s terrorism worldwide, its aggression in region, and its efforts to destroy Israel, which are ongoing,” he said.
Netanyahu has repeatedly criticized Iran’s support for hostile groups like the Palestinian Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah, and calls by Iranian leaders for Israel’s destruction.
Netanyahu also said the deal “repeats the mistakes” of an earlier international agreement with North Korea, in which a system of inspections and verifications failed to prevent the country from developing a nuclear weapons capability.
He said that in a decade, when key aspects of the Iranian deal expire, “an unreformed, unrepentant and far richer terrorist regime” will emerge with the ability to make “an entire nuclear arsenal with the means to deliver it.”
“What a stunning historic mistake,” he said.
As for Israel’s first course of action — the expected intense lobbying in the U.S. Congress — there is little that can be done against the deal despite strong Republican opposition, mainly because Obama doesn’t need Congressional approval.
Under an agreement that Obama struck with lawmakers, Congress has 60 days to review the agreement before he can start easing sanctions. Lawmakers will likely try to derail it by passing new sanctions or preventing Obama from lifting existing sanctions — the key incentive for Iran to comply with the deal.
Obama on Tuesday threatened to veto any resolutions from Congress seeking to undermine the deal, meaning opponents would have to muster a two-thirds majority in Congress to override the veto. That would require dozens of Democrats to vote against the president, which appears unlikely. Obama could also use his presidential powers to offer substantial sanctions relief on his own.
Likewise, the odds of taking unilateral military action appear slim.
Israel has long warned that the military option is real, but it refrained from taking action due to the risky nature of a long-range operation and because of opposition from its allies. A military strike would now become even riskier, given the widespread international backing for the deal.
Netanyahu may seek to strengthen what he says is a behind-the-scenes alliance with U.S.-allied Gulf Arab governments that share Israel’s fear that the deal will not prevent Iran from building a bomb.
Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia remained silent on Tuesday’s deal, though Egypt called it an important development while the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait welcomed the agreement.
Many in the Gulf and hard-line Sunnis fear the deal would boost the Shiite-led Iran’s push to spread its influence even more in the Arab world.
“Iran is moving according to a well-studied, clear vision, absorbing its adversaries,” tweeted one prominent Saudi cleric, Salman al-Ouda. “Where are the Arab governments?
In his speech announcing the deal, Rouhani sought to ward off a conflation of interests between Arab states and Israel against the accord. “Nations of the region and neighbouring nations, beware of being deceived by the Zionist regime,” he said.
Netanyahu’s coalition partners and opposition leaders angrily criticized Tuesday’s agreement, reflecting the widespread opposition to the deal in Israel.
“This is a regime based in deceit, and now they are going to do what they did for the last 20 years, which is trying to get themselves nuclear weapons behind the back of the world,” Yair Lapid, the head of the opposition Yesh Atid Party, told The Associated Press.
But opposition politicians also blamed Netanyahu for the setback, saying he had unnecessarily antagonized the U.S. and other allies.
“It’s inconceivable that we should reach this crucial moment with zero influence over the emerging agreement,” opposition leader Isaac Herzog told the Yediot Ahronot daily. “That is the result of a personal and exclusive failure by Netanyahu.”
On the eve of the deal, Lapid even called on Netanyahu to resign. “He knows better than anyone that while he is prime minister, the United States won’t listen to us and the world won’t take our concerns seriously,” Lapid said.
Netanyahu called on all sides to “put petty politics aside” and unite behind opposing Iran.
Yoaz Hendel, a former Netanyahu spokesman, said Tuesday’s deal marked a “big failure” for his former boss. But he said some of the criticism was unfair, saying the U.S. had acted to protect its own interests and even at times of warm relations, past prime ministers have lost important diplomatic battles with American presidents.
“I’m not sure a personal relationship and personal feelings would change anything,” he said.