Think of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the bad cop in the dealings with Iran. While the others on his side are making nice, he’s the one making nasty. He plays an important role: When the U.S. and its allies make a bargain with Iran, slightly easing sanctions in return for a temporary freeze on developing nuclear weapons for the Ayatollahs, Netanyahu’s snarling reaction paradoxically increases the chances of success. When he calls the agreement a “historic mistake,” he’s giving it credibility in the Persian Empire. That’s significant because the relatively moderate leadership there is always jousting with hardliners.
Of course, we have our own, including those who oppose all things Obama. So when the president, in a late-Saturday-night White House statement, says, “For the first time in nearly a decade, we have halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program, and key parts of the program will be rolled back,” the Republicans immediately jumped at the chance to argue that the deal was no big deal. Old reliable hawk Lindsey Graham tweeted, “We really haven’t gained anything.” Some in the GOP ranks, like Sen. John Cornyn, of Texas, even charged that this was a subterfuge by the White House to “distract” from the problems with health care.
When Congress returns, we can expect a renewed push to impose greater and harsher sanctions on Iran, even as this new pact lightens up on them a little. Again, if this is handled properly by our geniuses on Capitol Hill, this might actually help. Fancy that. If the final legislation imposes the tougher economic punishment but delays taking effect for the six months the arrangement covers, that may be pressure on Tehran to abide by the terms and pursue more progress.
One of the main obstacles is the intense hostilities between Iran and Israel, Iran and its bitter Mideast religious rival Saudi Arabia and, of course, Iran and its “Great Satan,” the United States. For more than 30 years, since the takeover of the American embassy, our two countries have had no formal diplomatic relations. The bitterness runs deep. So much so that, according to the Associated Press, the current deal was made possible only after years of surreptitious meetings between representatives of the two countries. Oman took on the role of intermediary in discussions that long predated the election of a new leader who advocated engaging the West. One has to wonder whether there are other super-secret efforts under way to unravel many of the other flashpoint crises that divide our two nations. Terrorism certainly comes to mind. Unravelling the hatreds that defined decades of confrontation could help with other threats to peace. Secretary of State John Kerry took to Twitter to declare: “First step makes world safer.” Maybe. It is all temporary — a little breathing room. This new nuclear deal not only has to work, but it has to lead to guarantees that Iran will not continue to place itself and the rest of us on the precipice of annihilation. First, the parties have to show each other that they are not engaged in subterfuge, that they really are interested in overcoming this barrier to stability before the crisis grows into disaster.
It is more, though, than just Iran living up to its promises. The country’s President Hassan Rouhani endorsed the deal, but said that “trust is a two-way street.” There is a huge amount of distrust and hostility, so one of the first orders of business is to convince the harsh skeptics on all sides that reconciling differences is even plausible. That cannot happen if there’s no progress. This deal is just a small start, and a treacherous one if it doesn’t go anywhere. We end up in a worse place than we started. So complacency would be a huge mistake. Bibi Netanyahu and the other bad cops need to continue rattling cages to make sure the danger doesn’t escape.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.