The Bibi-Biden debate

The Bibi-Biden debate

When it came to Iran, Biden wasn’t arguing with Paul Ryan on Thursday, but Netanyahu; here’s how that (imagined) face-off went

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

US Vice President Joe Biden, right, and Republican vice-presidential nominee, Rep. Paul Ryan, after the vice-presidential debate in Danville, Kentucky, on Thursday (photo credit: AP/Michael Reynolds)
US Vice President Joe Biden, right, and Republican vice-presidential nominee, Rep. Paul Ryan, after the vice-presidential debate in Danville, Kentucky, on Thursday (photo credit: AP/Michael Reynolds)

The much-anticipated vice-presidential debate came and went Thursday, with what appeared to be a collective yawn from the American viewer.

Initial polling indicated the most boring result possible: a tie. CBS showed 56% of uncommitted voters concluding Vice President Joe Biden could make an effective president and 49% saying the same of Ryan. A CNN/ORC poll reported that Ryan narrowly won the debate, with 48% percent of respondents declaring him the winner, compared with 44% favoring Biden on the night.

That may be a good thing for both campaigns. As Gallup noted on Wednesday, vice-presidential debates don’t affect the race. You can’t help your side, but in such a tight race (Romney leads nationally by an average of 0.7% as of Thursday night), you can still presumably do some damage. For this reason, vice presidents are a lot like doctors: their first rule is, “Do no harm.”

So while the party faithful cheered and sneered on Twitter, and media coverage obsessed over Biden’s combativeness and mocking tone as he interrupted his younger challenger 82 times in 90 minutes, Americans either didn’t care enough — or were too turned off by the bickering — to give a decisive victory to either side.

Luckily, another more interesting debate took place on that stage at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, Thursday night: another “empty chair” moment in the campaign, if you will. When the discussion turned to Iran, it was as though Joe Biden was not debating Ryan, but rather Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Last month at the UN General Assembly, Netanyahu delivered a cogent argument against “some who claim” that Iran’s nuclear program can be stopped at the bomb-making stage, rather than the prime minister’s preference that the West draw “red lines” at the earlier enrichment stage. On Thursday we learned that “some” of those “who claim” this include Vice President Biden.

What follows is the debate that took place between Biden’s words in Danville Thursday and Netanyahu’s in Manhattan on that sunny September afternoon. Any artistic license is in brackets.

BIDEN: [Bibi! So good to see you! Did you notice that we world leaders call you by your nickname, even in nationally televised debates? I call you Bibi because we’re such good friends, going on 39 years now, a point I mention to highlight that my opponent Ryan here is barely 42.]

[Anyway, about those Iranians. Look, because of our sanctions,] the ayatollah sees his economy being crippled. The ayatollah sees that there are 50 percent fewer exports of oil. He sees the currency going into the tank. He sees the economy going into free fall. And he sees the world for the first time totally united in opposition to him getting a nuclear weapon.

NETANYAHU: [Joe, my good friend, though probably not as good as Romney, I couldn’t agree more, or be more grateful about those sanctions.] Under the leadership of President Obama, the international community has passed some of the strongest sanctions to date… It’s had an effect. Oil exports have been curbed, and the Iranian economy has been hit hard. It’s had an affect on the economy.

But [Joe, buddy,] we must face the truth: Sanctions have not stopped Iran’s nuclear program either. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, during the last year alone, Iran has doubled the number of centrifuges in its underground nuclear facility in Qom.

BIDEN: [Come on, Bibi,] The Israelis and the United States, our military and intelligence communities are absolutely in the same exact place in terms of how close — how close the Iranians are to getting a nuclear weapon. They are a good way away. There is no difference between our view and theirs [er, I mean, yours]…

NETANYAHU: [Joe, you know it’s not that simple. We agree they don’t have a weapon. But] for a country like Iran, it takes many, many years to enrich uranium for a bomb. That requires thousands of centrifuges spinning in tandem in big — very big — industrial plants. Those uranium plants are visible, and they’re still vulnerable.

In contrast… the detonator can be made in a small workshop the size of a classroom. It may be very difficult to find and target that workshop, especially in Iran. That’s a country that’s bigger than France, Germany, Italy and Britain combined. The same is true for the small facility in which they could assemble a warhead or a nuclear device that could be placed in a container ship. Chances are you won’t find that facility either.

So, in fact, the only way that you can credibly prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon is to prevent Iran from amassing enough enriched uranium for a bomb.

BIDEN: [I hear that, but] when my friend [I mean Ryan this time, not you, Bibi… I sure have a lot of friends] talks about fissile material, they have to take this highly enriched uranium, get it from 20 percent up, then they have to be able to have something to put it in… Both the Israelis and we will know if they start the process of building a weapon.

NETANYAHU: [Will we? Will we know?] Now, there are some who claim [like you, Joe] that even if Iran completes the enrichment process, even if it crosses that red line that I just drew [on my cartoon bomb], our intelligence agencies will know when and where Iran will make the fuse, assemble the bomb and prepare the warhead.

Look, no one appreciates our intelligence agencies more than the prime minister of Israel. All these leading intelligence agencies are superb, including ours. [And the Benghazi business notwithstanding, yours too, Joe.] They’ve foiled many attacks. They’ve saved many lives.

But they are not foolproof.

For over two years our intelligence agencies didn’t know that Iran was building a huge nuclear-enrichment plant under a mountain. Do we want to risk the security of the world on the assumption that we would find in time a small workshop in a country half the size of Europe?

BIDEN: [What’s your point, Bibi?] All this bluster I keep hearing, all this loose talk, what are they talking about? What more can the president do — stand before the United Nations, tell the whole world, directly communicate to the ayatollah…? We will not let them acquire a nuclear weapon, period, unless he’s talking about going to war.

NETANYAHU: [I’m glad you asked, Joe. I don’t want war.] At this late hour, there’s only one way to peacefully prevent Iran from getting atomic bombs, and that’s by placing a clear red line on Iran’s nuclear-weapons program.

Red lines don’t lead to war. Red lines prevent war. Just look at NATO’s charter. It made clear that an attack on one member country would be considered an attack on all, and NATO’s red line helped keep the peace in Europe for nearly half a century…

Clear red lines have also worked with Iran. Earlier this year, Iran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz. The United States [led by you guys in the White House, in fact] drew a clear red line, and Iran backed off.

Ladies and gentlemen [and Joe], the relevant question is not when Iran will get the bomb. The relevant question is: At what stage can we no longer stop Iran from getting the bomb?

BIDEN: [I hear ya, Bibi, but] Let’s all calm down a little bit here. Iran is more isolated today than when we took office. It was on the ascendancy when we took office. It is totally isolated.

MARTHA RADDATZ (Thursday’s moderator, to Biden): You are acting a little bit like they [the Iranians] don’t want one [a nuclear bomb].

BIDEN: Oh, I didn’t say — no, I’m not saying that. But facts matter, Martha. You’re a foreign-policy expert. Facts matter. All this loose talk about them — “All they have to do is get to enrich uranium in a certain amount and they have a weapon” — is not true. Not true… and if we ever have to take action, unlike when we took office, we will have the world behind us, and that matters. That matters.

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