What Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to do in his speech Tuesday is perfectly simple: He tried to advance his own re-election prospects in Israel's vote later this month, and he tried to mobilize pressure in the United States against a nuclear deal with Iran that he won't like.
Two legitimate objectives for a politician. As for the accusation that he failed to consult diplomatically with the White House on addressing Congress? Baloney. Officials at the Obama White House would have counseled against what some have treated as a Capitol Crime, and then he would have been between an even bigger rock and an even harder place.
What's really at stake is whether the West (the United States and its strongest allies) can force Iran into a deal that will provide a serious, enforceable safety-break against the threat of nuclear weapons.
The two major criticisms Netanyahu lays out are these:
He worries that the deal would leave Iran with a huge nuclear infrastructure with a potentially short "breakout" time -- the time to produce nuclear weapons from the fuel and machinery Iran has at hand -- possibly significantly shorter than present time estimates.
The deal, Netanyahu says, provides that all the restrictions on Iran's nuclear program expire in 10 years.
He also argues that this would set off a nuclear arms race in the mid-East. (It looks like that has already started, with Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia moving toward nuclear weapons.) Netanyahu did not mention in his speech that Israel has nuclear weapons.
His most compelling argument: "If anyone thinks this deal kicks the can down the road, think again. When we get down that road, we'll face a much more dangerous Iran, a Middle East littered with nuclear bombs and a countdown to a potential nuclear nightmare."
If you strip away Netanyahu's trademark swagger and exaggeration, his central objections are reasonable. If those are, indeed, the terms of whatever emerges in the ninth-inning talks between Iran and a U.S.-led team of western countries, they should not be accepted. Iran has supported and practiced terrorism; it is seeking to expand its power regionally; and it is a threat not only to Israel but to other Middle East countries, many of whom are U.S. allies.
What are the alternatives?
I see only two.
One is a pre-emptive military strike, probably with nuclear weapons, to bore down into Iran's buried nuclear facilities. That is not a live option to my mind -- the United States must never initiate hostilities against a country, anywhere, with nuclear weapons.
Two is to continue and tighten the economic sanctions that are causing Iran, and its populace, so much pain. It is unfair that a population, many of whom don't support the bellicose Iranian regime, suffers for its tyrannical leaders' stubbornness on the nuclear issue. But there is no choice. It is the only deployable large-scale weapon the West has.
It is a sign of how long we have let the situation fester that the choices today are so terrible.
There is much that Netanyahu stands for and has done that can be criticized. But on this issue he's got it right. Either Iran gives up the road to nuclear weapons, with a verifiable safety-break that can be monitored and enforced, or it doesn't. If it doesn't, we shouldn't agree to it.
Our ability to prevent worse alternatives from emerging is greater now than it will be "down the road."
Peter Goldmark is former budget director of New York State and publisher of the International Herald Tribune. He headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.