It's an unparalleled insult. Republican House Speaker John Boehner invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington without even informing President Obama that he was doing so. Netanyahu is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress on March 3. With that invitation, the Republicans kill two birds with one stone. First, on the foreign policy front, they seek to undermine Obama's attempts to reach an agreement with Iran regarding its nuclear program. Secondly, on the domestic scene, they want to cast Obama in the role of a lame duck.
What a brutal rejection of the old American tradition of seeking common ground in foreign policy above and beyond the pitfalls of partisan politics. Republican-style politics as practiced in Washington runs not only contrary to America's best interests — it endangers the whole of international diplomacy.
Along with the Americans, five additional powers are jointly negotiating with Iran: Russia, China, France, Great Britain and Germany are also involved. They all hope to reach an agreement on a framework by July that will result in a permanent solution to the confrontation with Tehran.
The deal basically calls for Iran to reduce the number of gas centrifuges used for uranium enrichment from 19,000down to about 4,000. In return, the economic sanctions against Iran would be gradually lifted step by step.
The hardliners in Congress insist every single centrifuge be removed. Like Netanyahu, they are convinced that Iran is only pretending to cooperate, whereas in reality they won't let anything stand in the way of their nuclear weapon plans. That's why they insist pressure on Iran be increased and the sanctions not only be kept in place, but, in fact, strengthened.
In his State of the Union address last week, Obama criticized Republican obstructionists and promised that he would veto any proposed legislation that would increase sanctions against Iran, which Obama said would “all but guarantee that diplomacy fails .”
The chances of the negotiations ever succeeding were never great, and now their chances have grown even worse. Tehran has its hardliners as well: From the Revolutionary Guards on up to their highest spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, those opposed to any agreement would have their suspicions of America — “Great Satan,” and Israel — “Little Satan,” — only confirmed.
Boehner's break with “sense and diplomacy” comes at a moment when Iranian influence in the Middle East is on the rise. The Economist magazine reports that the tone is being set by Tehran in three Arab capitals: Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut. Now a fourth may be added: the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, where the Shiite Houthi militia has now taken over.
In the fight against the murderous gangs of the Islamic State, the West and Iran both have similar interests. That may not result in direct cooperation between both nations, but may well result in a dialogue about shared responsibilities and how the regional power of Iran could play a role.
A breakdown in the nuclear talks would therefore have far-reaching strategic significance. The worst case scenario: another nuclear arms race, this one in the Middle East. The Iranian centrifuges would turn even faster, ensuring that the feared breakout — the period when Iran would be producing the fissionable material necessary for a nuclear bomb — would arrive even sooner.
How do Netanyahu and the Republicans want Obama to react? With military action against Iran? Or do they really expect increased sanctions to drive Iran into ruin and force its capitulation in that way?
By inviting Netanyahu to address Congress, the Republicans have fired the opening shot in the 2016 presidential elections. Boehner invited Netanyahu to tell America about “the grave threats radical Islam and Iran pose to our security and way of life.” Without saying so out loud, Boehner thinks Obama's policies are too soft and flexible. America's security, he thinks, is in bad hands with the Democrats.
Small wonder that the White House doors will stay shut during the Israeli leader's visit. Even Secretary of State John Kerry will not meet with him. Netanyahu will face reelection in the parliamentary elections to be held March 17 in Israel. Will he have done himself and his country a favor with his U.S. visit?
Worse yet are the consequences for security in the Middle East. The shirt-sleeve style with which the Republicans meddle in Obama's affairs could derail his negotiations with Iran on the final stretch to the finish line. A conflict that the world and international politics have been trying to quell for 12 years could again flare up and become the most dangerous of all. And that, right at a time when the Middle East is already aflame in every nook and cranny.