This could be destiny in the making for the Middle East and the United States.
The bitter politics that ushered Benjamin Netanyahu before a joint session of Congress aside, the Israeli Prime Minister Tuesdaylaid out a fundamental disagreement between him and President Barack Obama on how to pursue what both their nations want -- to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
Netanyahu painted Obama as a babe in the woods about to buy a bad deal that will pave the way for Iran to become a nuclear power. Crippling economic sanctions were imposed on Iran to force it to the table to negotiate the future of its drive to develop weapons-grade uranium. Netanhayu fears that Iran would not be forced to dismantle its nuclear facilities or end its aggression in the region.
He made a powerful statement of the obvious: That Iran sponsors terrorism, is committed to Israel's destruction and, if armed with nuclear weapons, would pose a threat to the region and the world. But he is a hawk seeking re-election who has been warning for more than two decades that Iran was within striking distance of developing a bomb. And he also hasn't always been right about how events would play out in the Middle East. Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, he said that deposing Saddam Hussein would help bring peace to the region.
Still Netanhayu's rhetoric will embolden this Congress not to rally behind any agreement, at least along the lines of what is publicly known. The deal that five nations standing with the United States are negotiating would apparently leave Iran within one year of developing nuclear weapons if it violated the agreement, and free it of restraints after 10 years.
But we shouldn't pass up the opportunity for a deal. And while Netanyahu called for ramping up sanctions, which he said would force Iran to continue negotiating, the evidence of the last decade is that economic sanctions alone haven't been enough to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
A non-nuclear Iran forever would be ideal. But politics is the art of the possible. A good deal would stall Iran's nuclear program and open its facilities to international inspection. That could buy time during which regime change in Iran or future deals might do more to defuse the situation. At best, Netanyahu's high-profile critique of the deal as it is shaping up could strengthen Obama's hand in negotiations. But, unfortunately, it has left the United States little choice but to gamble that insisting on more concessions from Iran won't blow up the talks altogether before the March 31 deadline.
If that happens, key participants in economic sanctions, such as China, Japan and India, could decide to resume buying Iranian oil, crippling the restrictions. And Iran would likely move quickly to amass enough enriched uranium to build nuclear weapons.
It could be that forcing Obama back to the Persian bazaar to bargain will get a better deal for the Middle East. But the risk is that failure will leave no alternative to war.