This week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu broke with American protocol and delivered a speech before the US Congress without consulting the White House first.
Many Democrats viewed the speech as an attempt by a foreign leader to chastise and change Washington’s foreign policy efforts, specifically with regards to Iran over its alleged efforts to obtain nuclear weapons.
Netanyahu criticized the Obama administration, saying its efforts to negotiate a deal with Tehran “will not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It would all but guarantee that Iran gets those weapons, lots of them.”
Obama said Netanyahu didn’t offer any “viable alternatives” to the nuclear negotiations with Iran, while adding “there was nothing new” in the speech. However, there were some things Netanyahu failed to mention that deserve brief consideration.
Here are five of them.
5. Iran has taken sides with Jewish people in the past
At the beginning of his speech to US lawmakers, Netanyahu set the stage for some heated Iran fear-mongering by citing a page from ancient history. He recounted the misdeeds of a Persian viceroy named Haman “who plotted to destroy the Jewish people some 2,500 years ago.” However, the plot was foiled by the intervention of Queen Esther and the Jewish people were saved from the evil machinations of an Iranian tyrant.
But wasn’t Netanyahu cherry-picking his choice of historical legend to strengthen his argument against Tehran? After all, he could just as easily pointed to a much more recent historical episode involving the Jewish people and the Persians, and one that does not reflect so negatively on Iran.
Two thousand years after the above-mentioned incident, in 539 BC, the Persian king Cyrus conquered Babylon practically without bloodshed, thus freeing the Israelites from their long captivity. Clearly, Cyrus was not your average warlord. The tolerant king and his successors permitted the Jews the freedom of worship, as well as allowing them to return home from exile and rebuild the temple. According to historian Michael Axworthy (“Iran: Empire of the Mind,” 2007), this act of generosity did not go unnoticed. In Jewish scripture, Cyrus acquired a “unique status” among Gentile monarchs, he noted.
Although it may seem ridiculous to harp on ancient history in such a modern context, as Netanyahu did, it is important to remember that there have been historical examples of goodwill on the part of the Iranians towards the Jewish people, and vice-versa. There is no reason to suggest that such an atmosphere of trust could not prevail once again between the two countries.
Instead, Netanyahu called Iran a "threat to the entire world".
4. Iraq was (wrongly) attacked for WMDs
Netanyahu’s address to US Congress was liberally littered with apocalyptic allusions to Iran, a country that “cannot be trusted,” blaming it for a future “nuclear nightmare.” However, the Israeli leader’s speech conspicuously ignored the tragic tale of another country that once featured high on his hit list and for eerily similar reasons.
On September 2, 2002, one year after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Netanyahu, speaking this time as a private citizen and “expert” before US Congress, warned US lawmakers about the nuclear ambitions of another apparent Middle East belligerent, the Baathist regime of Iraq.
“With no question whatsoever that Saddam is seeking and is working and is advancing towards the development of nuclear weapons. No question whatsoever…Saddam is hell bent on achieving atomic capabilities as soon as he can.”
Did Netanyahu believe that inspections would prevent Iraq from obtaining the weapons they were allegedly seeking? No, he didn’t. “I believe that free and unfettered inspections will not uncover these portable manufacturing sites of mass death,” he told US Congress members.
However, the question of whether or not regular inspections would have worked to contain Iraq’s alleged nuclear aspirations turned out to be a moot point because no such facilities to develop nuclear weapons of mass destruction were ever discovered in Iraq. This is exactly what UN weapons inspectors were saying in the weeks and months leading up to the full-blown invasion.
On March 19, 2003, the United States launched a massive military offensive against Iraq, dropping thousands of pounds of ordnance on the Arab nation over a 10-year period, which has culminated in the death of an estimated 135,810-153,446 civilians, according to Iraqi Body Count.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu has been actively portraying Iran as a potential nuclear threat for over 20 years.
In 1992, while serving as an Israeli parliamentarian, Netanyahu warned his colleagues that Tehran is about 5 years from producing a nuclear weapon, and that the threat must be "uprooted by an international front headed by the US."
Now, given that Netanyahu, as well as many other world leaders at the time of the Iraq War, including Tony Blair and George W. Bush, was so patently wrong concerning the threat allegedly posed by Iraq back in 2002, the question must be asked why he was allowed to speak before US Congress concerning Iran’s present nuclear ambitions.
Whatever the case may be, Netanyahu’s much-discussed speech provided convenient ground cover for some controversial legislation that passed that day, including full funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which now heads to Obama’s desk for his expected signature. So Obama at least got something from the Netanyahu visit.
3. Israel has nuclear weapons and Iran is not suicidal
Netanyahu’s speech left the impression of a helpless Jewish state on the verge of annihilation by a hostile neighbor. “Iran's regime poses a grave threat, not only to Israel, but also the peace of the entire world,” he warned. He then made a bit of stretch, comparing the Islamic Republic of Iran, a nation that does enjoy a high level of culture, as well as intelligent, educated people, to the most loathsome group of fundamentalists on the global stage today, the Islamic State.
“Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam. One calls itself the Islamic Republic. The other calls itself the Islamic State. Both want to impose a militant Islamic empire first on the region and then on the entire world. They just disagree among themselves who will be the ruler of that empire.”
“In this deadly game of thrones, there's no place for America or for Israel, no peace for Christians, Jews or Muslims who don't share the Islamist medieval creed, no rights for women, no freedom for anyone.”
Personally, I have never heard that Iran is keen on establishing an Islamic caliphate across the Middle East.
But even if some Iranian mullahs really had vocalized such a desire, uttering such things and actually carrying them out are two entirely different matters. Israel not only possesses the most powerful military in the Middle East, it enjoys an “unbreakable bond” with the United States, the world’s superpower.
Furthermore, although it has never publicly come out of the closet on the subject, Israel is believed to possess hundreds of nuclear weapons, as well as a state-of-the-art missile defense system to protect its territory from attack.
Meanwhile, it is simply farcical to believe that Iran, in the event that it did somehow acquire nuclear weapons, would immediately initiate a nuclear strike on Israel. Just like every other nuclear-armed power in the world, Tehran would fully understand the dire consequences of such an action, which would include its own immediate destruction. This is not an argument to support Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons, but rather to simply state the logic of “mutually assured destruction” that prevents any government from resorting to these weapons.
It is no coincidence that the only time nuclear weapons have been employed in the past came at a time when only one country was in possession of them.
2. Iran (has not been) an aggressor state
In an effort to prove that Iran cannot handle the responsibility that comes with nuclear energy development, Netanyahu painted a stark picture of the Islamic Republic as a menace to global peace.
“This regime has been in power for 36 years, and its voracious appetite for aggression grows with each passing year…If Iran is gobbling up four countries right now while it's under sanctions, how many more countries will Iran devour when sanctions are lifted? Would Iran fund less terrorism when it has mountains of cash with which to fund more terrorism?”
Although Netanyahu readily makes a loose connection between Iran and the ongoing events in Lebanon and Syria (namely the arming of Hezbollah, which Israel regards as terrorist organization), which has incurred several direct attacks on its territory by Israeli forces, nowhere is the question of Israel seizing Palestinian territory brought into the equation. Indeed, the lack of a peace agreement that would give the Palestinian people their own much-anticipated state is largely to blame for much of the problems now plaguing the Middle East.
And once again, the Israeli leader connects Iran with the likes of Islamic State.
“The difference is that ISIS is armed with butcher knives, captured weapons and YouTube, whereas Iran could soon be armed with intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear bombs. We must always remember - I'll say it one more time - the greatest dangers facing our world is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons.”
Here is how Axworthy describes the social and cultural reality of Iran, which is quite far; it seems, from a country that practices a “militant Islam.”
“Iran is commonly thought of as a homogenous nation, with a strong national culture, but minorities like the Azeris, Kurds, Gilakis, Baluchis, Turkmen and others make up nearly half of the population….Iranian families have released their daughters to study and work in unprecedented numbers, such that over 60 percent of university students now are female and many women (even married women) have professional jobs. Iran has preserved some of the most stunning Islamic architecture in the world…”
How many people are aware that literature and poetry ranks high in Iranian culture?
“Iranians glory in their literary heritage and above all in their poetry, to a degree one finds in few other countries, with the possible exception of Russia.”
Does this sound like the sort of society that has a nuclear death wish? Moreover, Iranian clerics have declared that Islam forbids the development and use of all weapons of mass destruction.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran, based on its fundamental religious and legal beliefs, would never resort to the use of weapons of mass destruction," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the nation's "supreme leader, said recently. ”In contrast to the propaganda of our enemies, fundamentally we are against any production of weapons of mass destruction in any form."
Finally, while the United States, for example, has interfered in the internal affairs of dozens of sovereign states since 1945, Iran has not initiated the invasion of another country since - are you sitting down? -1798.
1. Iran was becoming more liberal before the 2003 Iraq War
Although many people are readily familiar with the former president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his numerous belligerent outbursts against the United States and Israel, few may remember that his predecessor was a soft spoken scholar and theologian by the name of Mohammad Khatami, who ruled from 1997 to 2005.
During his two terms as president, Khatami, a popular liberal reformer, advocated on behalf of freedom of expression, tolerance and civil society. Suddenly, Iran's foreign policy began moving from outright confrontation to conciliation.
Khatami initiated (in response to American academic Samuel P. Huntington’s seminal work, “The Clash of Civilizations,” which argued pessimistically that the world was heading for turmoil along cultural-religious fault-lines, as opposed to ideological) a refreshing proposal for A Dialogue among Civilizations. As a result, the United Nations proclaimed the year 2001 as the Year of Dialogue to bring about peace among countries.
Khatami’s groundbreaking work, however, was largely derailed after the United States, with the vocal support of Israel, opened up a wholly illegitimate invasion of Iraq (and despite global protests in Western capitals against the action), thus triggering a renewed wave of fear and anti-Western attitudes in Iran and elsewhere.
It is interesting to consider that Netanyahu’s present efforts to bring greater international pressure to bear on Iran over its perceived nuclear ambitions may never have been necessary had the disastrous invasion of Iraq not occurred back in 2003, which succeeded in radically altering the political calculus in Iran, then heading towards a period of liberalism, and ratcheting up tensions between Tehran and the Western world to unprecedented levels.