On the eve of his big speech before Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed AIPAC on Monday, and again outlined his skepticism about the Iranian nuclear talks. President Obama downplayed the tensions in an interview with Reuters, saying that while the disagreement wouldn’t be “permanently destructive,” it is a “distraction”:
I don’t think it’s permanently destructive. I think that it is a distraction from what should be our focus. And our focus should be,‘How do we stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon?’ Now keep in mind the prime minister, when we signed up for this interim deal that would essentially freeze Iran’s program, roll back its highly enriched uranium – its 20 percent highly enriched uranium – and so reduce the possibility that Iran might breakout while we were engaged in these negotiations, when we first announced this interim a deal, Prime Minister Netanyahu made all sorts of claims. This was going to be a terrible deal. This was going to result in Iran getting 50 billion dollars worth of relief. Iran would not abide by the agreement. None of that has come true.
While Netanyahu has faced heavy criticism over his decision to pull an end-run around President Obama, with the dastardly assistance of Speaker John Boehner, there is an argument to be made that Netanyahu’s unyielding skepticism could actually be helpful to the negotiations. Aside from sanctions and security guarantees, one of Iran’s main incentives to get a deal done, a good one, is that Obama is the only thing standing between Iran and the crazy phone book-wielding homicide detective who can’t wait to get into the box with them and really get it on. As it happens, I don’t think Netanyahu is acting, but either way, Iran has to know that if they don’t reach a deal that Israel can live with, they will have him to deal with.
At Monday’s White House briefing, I made that argument to Press Secretary Josh Earnest, and here’s what he thought about that:
Tommy Christopher: “I know a lot’s been made about politicization and the speech that he’s giving, but, to what extent if any do you think it’s helpful for the prime minister to take such a hard line, like skeptical line against the negotiations, in terms of leverage at the bargaining table?”
Josh Earnest: “As I mentioned in response to Nadia’s question, I don’t think that these comments will have much of an impact on the ultimate outcome. The President has made very clear what this negotiated agreement must result in, and that is shutting down these four pathways to a nuclear weapon for Iran. And that’s the only way we’ll reach an agreement, and that is the baseline, and that is something Iran will have to make a decision about whether or not they’re wiling ot agree to. And again, the way that we’ll successfully complete these negotiation is not just by satisfying those concerns but also putting in place a strict regime to verify Iran’s compliance.”
Translation: no, not helpful, which, to be fair, is just what you’d expect them to say. The good cop can’t say, out loud, what a big help the bad cop is being. One thing is for certain, though, and that is that John Boehner’s role in this has been to erode some of the leverage that Netanyahu might otherwise have provided. The effectiveness of good cop/bad cop hinges on the belief that the good cop can actually protect the mope in the box from his partner. By undermining President Obama, Boehner has effectively told Iran that maybe they’re going to get the phone book upside the head no matter what.