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Netanyahu's crying wolf on Iran

By Gary Sick, Special to CNN
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu July 18, 2013
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks over during the weekly cabinet meeting in his Jerusalem office on July 14.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks over during the weekly cabinet meeting in his Jerusalem office on July 14.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS

Editor's note: Gary Sick served on the National Security Council staff under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan, and was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis. Sick is a senior research scholar and adjunct professor of international affairs at Columbia University, a member of the board of Human Rights Watch in New York, and founding chair of its advisory committee on the Middle East and North Africa.

(CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not a subtle man. When he has an objective in mind, he is not above resorting to hyperbole, exaggeration, or apocalyptic scenarios to make his point. He has been crying wolf nearly as long as he has been in politics. For a very good reason: It works. And it works. And it works.

Unlike the boy in the story who lost credibility when he sounded the alarm one time too many, each new iteration by Mr. Netanyahu is greeted with nods of grave concern. The latest edition of this long-running show was his appearance on "Face the Nation" on Sunday.

Gary Sick says the election of Iranian president-elect Hassan Rouhani is a good time to revive diplomatic efforts with Iran.
Gary Sick says the election of Iranian president-elect Hassan Rouhani is a good time to revive diplomatic efforts with Iran.

More than 20 years ago, Mr. Netanyahu solemnly informed us that, unless someone intervened, Iran would have a nuclear weapon within five years. That was one of the origins of the "three to five year" mantra. Almost every year since the early 1990s, senior political figures, intelligence specialists and respected commentators have assured us that Iran would surely have a nuclear weapon in three to five years, sometimes less, unless Iran were forced to stop its mad dash for the bomb.

It is not hard to understand the logic of this assertion. Israel itself managed to develop a nuclear weapons capability in absolute secrecy in only a few years. It was not alone. South Africa, India, even poor Pakistan with virtually no heavy industrial base, managed to develop nuclear weapons in secret within a decade or so of the decision to launch a determined program. By most accounts, Iran decided to restart its nuclear program -- started under the shah and interrupted by the Iranian revolution -- in the mid-1980s, nearly 30 years ago.

Gary Sick
Gary Sick

This anomaly is almost never mentioned. Iran, endowed with a robust industrial base, exceptional engineering universities, a well-educated population, and a core of Western-trained nuclear scientists, has spent nearly three times as long on its nuclear program as other countries that were far less endowed. It still has no nuclear weapon. Why? One answer may be the consensus of all U.S. intelligence services that the leaders of Iran have not taken a decision to build a bomb. They have openly constructed the nuclear infrastructure that would permit them to do so, but they have not taken a decision.

Mr. Netanyahu did not mention that in his TV appearance. Instead, he was digging up his talking points from another crisis point in the past. Last Sunday, referring to Iran, he commented in his usual understated fashion that "all the problems that we have (in the Middle East) will be dwarfed by this messianic, apocalyptic, extreme regime that would have atomic bombs. It would make -- a terrible, catastrophic -- change for the world and for the United States."

His prescription: The U.S. "should ratchet up the sanctions and make it clear to Iran that they won't get away with it. And if sanctions don't work and they have to know that you'll be prepared to take military action, that's the only thing that will get their attention."

Some 10 years ago, Mr. Netanyahu was invited to testify before the House Government Reform Committee concerning the prospective threat from Saddam Hussein's Iraq and how to deal with it. At that time he assured the U.S. Congress that "every indication we have is that (Saddam Hussein) is pursuing, pursuing with abandon, pursuing with every ounce of effort, the establishment of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons.

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"If anyone makes an opposite assumption or cannot draw the lines connecting the dots, that is simply not an objective assessment of what has happened," he said. "Saddam is hell-bent on achieving atomic bombs, atomic capabilities, as soon as he can." He went on to advise: "If you take out Saddam, Saddam's regime, I guarantee you that it will have enormous positive reverberations on the region."

Mr. Netanyahu badly needs a new set of talking points.

At about the same time that he was appearing on "Face the Nation," a group of 29 former U.S. officials sent a letter to President Obama offering an alternative vision of the situation in Iran today and how to deal with it. I was one of the signatories.

It reads: "The election of Hassan Rouhani to be Iran's next president presents a major potential opportunity to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff over Iran's nuclear program. We strongly encourage your administration to seize the moment to pursue new multilateral and bilateral negotiations with Iran once Rouhani takes office and to avoid any provocative action that could narrow the window of opportunity for a more moderate policy out of Tehran ...

"Diplomacy will only succeed if we are prepared to leverage existing sanctions and other incentives in exchange for reciprocal Iranian concessions. Further, in the leadup to Rouhani's inauguration, it is critical that all parties abstain from provocative actions that could imperil this diplomatic opportunity."

Another letter to President Obama, sponsored by Rep. Charles Dent, R-Pennsylvania, and Rep. David Price, D-North Carolina, urges him to "pursue the potential opportunity presented by Iran's recent presidential election by reinvigorating U.S. efforts to secure a negotiated nuclear agreement." It has attracted support from more than 90 members of the House of Representatives, including many Republicans.

This is a crucial moment. A new president of Iran will be inaugurated in less than three weeks. We have a choice between the frayed talking points of the past, which point only toward a third U.S. war in the Middle East, or toward a newly energized diplomatic initiative that offers the Iranian leadership a way out of the strategic dead-ends of the past.

There is no certainty that diplomacy will work. But the failure to try would be the true policy defeat.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gary Sick.

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