“The rulers of Iran have said repeatedly that they will have an Islamic bomb and that its first target is Israel,” wrote Benjamin Netanyahu in a newspaper article called the “The greatest danger,” in which he argued that the greatest threat to Israel’s existence lay not in the Arab world but in Iran.” Bibi was at pains to warn readers just how close an Iranian bomb was: they could expect it, he breathlessly informed them, by 1999.
The article was written in 1993. Needless to say, Iran did not get a bomb by 1999, or indeed 2009 or indeed 2019. Bib never, though, stopped saying it was around the corner.
This is not to denigrate the threat to Israel – and indeed the world – from an Iranian nuke. It’s to point to wider truth; and one that is far from universally acknowledged: when it came to Iran’s nuclear programme Netanyahu talked a tough game but did little. During his second tenure as Prime Minister, which ran from 2009 – 2021, Iran made more progress on its programme than pretty much at any other point in its history. Progress that was only arrested by the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the so-called ‘nuclear deal’ – which he furiously opposed from start to finish.
The deal was far from perfect. Former US President Barack Obama decided to ring fence the nuclear issue; he decided not to make Iran’s wider regional behaviour – which is, across Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen, pretty much universally murderous – a part of negotiations. Netanyahu complained about this constantly and in and of itself he was right. But the deal did stop the Iranians enriching uranium (their easiest path to a bomb) and it did increase international inspections on its sites.
Netanyahu claimed we could have forced Iran to accept a deal that included its wider activities, but that was always a delusion. As Robert Einhorn key part of the US nuclear negotiating team with Iran, told me for my book, Nuclear Iran, The Birth of an Atomic State “If you conquer a country, like we conquered Iraq, then we can push for unlimited inspection rights, because you are dealing with a defeated country,” but with Iran he pointed out, “We weren’t dealing with a defeated country. We had to negotiate with them and so we got the best verification we could get, which was pretty damned good.”
What makes his behaviour so foolish – and deleterious to Israel – is that it was clear from even before Obama was inaugurated that Iran was his primary foreign policy focus. Former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, who advised Obama, told me that after his 2008 election win Obama went to Israel and ask Jerusalem not to strike Iran and close off his chances of a diplomatic breakthrough.
Netanyahu knew this, but he thought that he, as President of Israel, could force Obama, President of the United States, to bend to his will. Nonsense of course. Not that it stopped him from clashing with Obama for almost the entirety of the latter’s two terms. In the end Obama of course made the deal anyway. What had Netanyahu’s policy achieved? The alienation of so many Democrats that Israel is for the first time in danger of becoming a bipartisan issue in the United States.
And the actions that Israel did take against the programme: the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists were very much a security services operation that he had little input into. The policy was in fact the brainchild of Meir Dagan, a man who had strong views on what he thought were the foolish attitudes of certain Israeli politicians towards the Iran issue.
Netanyahu is a megalomanic and almost certainly corrupt, but he did do a lot of good for Israel: notably his diplomacy in Africa and the Middle East and with India. At the end of his tenure Israel is less isolated than at any time in its history, and he must take credit for that. But on security issues the man who sold himself to the world on being a tough guy was, when it came to Iran, always a bloviator of the highest order.