Friction between the United States and Israel is not uncommon.

On issues ranging from the 1956 Suez war to the expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank, the leaders of the U.S. and Israel have often clashed in ways that reflected different perceptions of their national interests.

Still, there is something particularly disturbing and counterproductive about the current disagreement over Iran.

Determined to prevent President Barack Obama from accepting a “bad” deal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems bent on destroying chances for a reasonable one that could prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon for at least another decade and open the door to diplomacy on other pressing regional issues.

The divide has become so bitter and so personal that Obama administration officials are reportedly withholding key details of the nuclear talks from Israel because officials there have been leaking them to the press.

Given the sensitivity and complexity of the package being assembled by Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (P5+1), releasing partial information distorts and could potentially derail an agreement.  

No deal would be a bad deal

That appears to be Netanyahu’s goal. But the alternative is not a better deal that would magically erase Iran’s entire uranium enrichment capacity or punish its economy in perpetuity.  Instead, the alternative could well be an Iran that resumes higher levels of enrichment and potentially a second, plutonium pathway to a bomb while economic sanctions erode.  

Intrusive foreign inspections of Iranian facilities would likely cease, providing less transparency about the program and giving rise to the sort of inaccurate speculation that led the George W. Bush administration to invade Iraq in 2003 – a war that Netanyahu, then a private citizen, enthusiastically supported.

No deal would also undermine Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and other pragmatists who are seeking a better relationship with the United States and collaboration on other issues, including Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

So far, Iranian forces that have been aiding the governments of Iraq and Syria against the group that calls itself the Islamic State have not been targeting U.S. troops, but that could change. The covert war between Iran and Israel could also escalate, resulting in more assassinations and cyber attacks. Ultimately, Israel might take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities in hopes of dragging the United States into a new war in the Middle East.

This is not to say that all will be sweetness and light if an agreement of the sort being negotiated now is reached.

But the concessions Iran is apparently prepared to make would meet the Obama administration’s goal of achieving a breakout period of at least a year – meaning that Iran could not produce enough fissile material for a weapon within a year without it being detected.

This is the same goal repeatedly articulated by independent nuclear experts. The restrictions would also significantly reduce Iran’s stockpile of low enriched uranium and block other avenues to building nuclear weapons. The curbs would remain in effect for at least 10 years and some aspects indefinitely.

Iran signalling willingness for concessions

Iranian officials – including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – have been preparing the ground for concessions in recent weeks.

In a major speech Feb. 8, Khamenei echoed President Obama by saying that he would approve an agreement though not a “bad deal.” He continued, “negotiations mean reaching a common point … This means that one side would not end up getting all it wants.”

Khamenei also referred to the painful decision by his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to accept a cease-fire in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Khomeini likened this to “drinking poison” because Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein – who started the war by invading Iran — remained in power.

Hawkish Friday prayer leaders who previously criticized Iranian negotiators have become more supportive. Iranian authorities this week banned a hardline publication that had also been critical of the Iranian team.

Netanyahu visit adds to partisanship

For Netanyahu, these signs suggest that at least the outlines of a deal will be reached by the end of March and that he must do something drastic to block it.  He is still scheduled to come to Washington next month and address a joint session of Congress two weeks before Israeli elections.

President Obama has already announced that he will not see Netanyahu and vowed to veto any new sanctions against Iran while negotiations continue. A number of senior Democrats – including Vice President Biden – have also said that they will not attend the Israeli’s speech, which was arranged by Israeli ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer and House Speaker John Boehner without consultation with the White House.

Netanyahu’s insistence on coming despite the injection of partisanship into Israel-U.S. relations has alarmed many members of Israel’s security establishment and supporters of Israel in the United States.

Chuck Freilich, a former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council, wrote in Haaretz Monday that Netanyahu’s gambit had “crossed a line,” creating a “deep crisis that will take a decade to remedy” and actually set back efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

While so far, key aspects of the U.S.-Israel security relationship have been kept separate from the dispute, it may be harder, Frelich argued, for the Obama administration to keep defending Israel in international forums, where the Palestinians are making gains in efforts to win recognition of an independent state.

If Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc wins Israeli parliamentary elections March 17, it will be awkward for him to work with President Obama, who will remain in office for nearly another two years.

In addition, Netanyahu risks harming Israel’s relations with the Europeans, China and Russia, which are also invested in getting an Iran agreement.

If there is a silver lining to his opposition, it is an ironic one.

By insisting so vehemently that a deal acceptable to the White House and most U.S. allies is bad, the Israeli Prime Minister may be making it easier for Iranians to approve one.

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

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