During Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments at this week’s Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly, he endorsed the Obama administration’s sanctions regime against Iran. But he went on to employ a rather selective interpretation of recent history to justify the talking point, disseminated by both Israeli and American hawks, that Iran’s leadership can only understand the language of threats and force.
He said (my emphasis):
…[W]e have yet to see any signs that the tyrants of Tehran are reconsidering their pursuit of nuclear weapons. The only time that Iran suspended its nuclear program was for a brief period in 2003 when the regime believed it faced a credible threat of military action against it. And the simple paradox is this: if the international community, led by the United States, hopes to stop Iran’s nuclear program without resorting to military action, it will have to convince Iran that it is prepared to take such action. Containment will not work against Iran. It won’t work with a brazen regime that accuses America of bombing its own cities on 9/11, openly calls for Israel’s annihilation, and is the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism.
What Netanyahu chose to leave out of his cursory summary of recent U.S./Israel/Iran relations is that, as Stephen Walt reminded us earlier this week, in 2003, Iran sent a letter (PDF) to the Bush administration offering a grand bargain which included a deal on Iran’s nuclear program and an end to Iranian support of Hezbollah militants and Hamas. (IPS’s Gareth Porter reported on the offer, and the brusque rejection it received from the Bush administration.)
While it’s impossible to determine whether the Iranians would have followed through on their offer, the lack of an Iran-strategy which could capitalize on Iranian offers of cooperation (even if out of concern of a military attack) is still evident, seven years later, in Netanyahu’s speech. Indeed, in light of the passed up opportunity in 2003, Netanyahu’s speech might be interpreted as promoting a military attack instead of the threat of a military strike.
Netanyahu suggests that “containment will not work” against the “tyrants of Tehran” and that Iran will only respond to the threat of force. But the passed up opportunities for rapprochement–a series of Iranian attempts at outreach have been cataloged by Ambassador James Dobbins–tells a different story with doesn’t fit as neatly with Netanyahu’s generalizations and stereotypes of Iranian leadership or their behavior.