In a sharp rebuke of the White House’s Iran diplomacy, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Congress on Tuesday and blasted the nuclear deal being negotiated between world powers and Tehran, warning that the agreement in the works “paves Iran’s path to a bomb.”
The Israeli leader urged his audience to reject the deal currently under negotiation, telling them that escalating pressure on Iran would result in a “better deal” — a proposition long challenged by U.S. and other Western officials.
Netanyahu’s speech before a joint meeting of Congress — his third as a leader of Israel — came amid weeks of controversy over the timing of the speech as Iran and six world powers race to reach an agreement by a self-imposed deadline later this month.
Even before he uttered his first words, the address came under criticism. European Union Foreign Affairs Representative Federica Mogherini told reporters that “spreading fear” was not helpful at this stage of the delicate nuclear talks. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif accused Netanyahu of “trying to create tension.”
And dozens of Democrats stayed away from the chamber amid claims that the speech was a political attempt to undermine President Barack Obama.
In the chamber the address received a rapturous reception punctuated with numerous standing ovations. For his part, Netanyahu stayed clear of direct criticism of Obama. But White House policy on Tehran came under attack.
Netanyahu said that U.S.-led negotiations, where they stand, would provide two major concessions to Iran by “leaving Iran with a vast nuclear program” and “lifting the restriction on the program within a decade.”
He argued that the deal being negotiated would allow Iran to build nuclear weapons and threaten the region’s future. “We don’t have to gamble with our future and our children’s future,” he said.
He insisted that as a condition for any deal, world powers should demand that Iran must stop “its aggression” in the region, “stop supporting terrorism around the world” and stop “threatening my country, the one and only Jewish state.”
And he warned that Iran could not be trusted to honor any deal it signed.
After the speech, President Obama, speaking from the Oval Office, said he did not watch Netanyahu's speech, but had read a transcript and that the Israeli leader was not offering any "viable alternatives" to curbing Iran's nuclear capabilities. Obama also defended the negotiations, saying they had already prevented Iran from forging forward with its nuclear capacity.
"Foreign policy runs through the executive branch and the President, and I think it’s important for us to stay focused on the problem at hand," he said. "The specific problem being debated now is not whether we trust the Iranian regime or not... The central question is how do we stop them from getting a nuclear weapon."
Netanyahu’s speech also drew a harsh rebuke from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. “As one who values the U.S.-Israel relationship and loves Israel, I was near tears throughout the prime minister’s speech,” she said in a statement afterward, "saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States as part of the P5+1 nations and saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the vice chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, criticized Netanyahu for not offering specifics on what exactly Israel wanted.
"What he didn't say was what would happen if there was no deal," Feinstein said on CNN. “And he didn't make a suggestion as to what Israel would find agreeable. He simply said, ‘There's nothing that we agree with here.' And then he made a number of pronouncements of terrible things that could happen.”
For weeks the prime minister’s address has been the subject of controversy, with many accusing Netanyahu of thumbing his nose at the Obama administration by accepting Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to speak before a joint meeting of Congress without first notifying the administration — a breach of protocol.
Obama administration officials subsequently refused to meet with Netanyahu on his visit to Washington, citing the proximity of the Israeli general election on March 17 and custom that dictates avoiding any perception of interference in another country’s electoral politics. Neither the president nor Vice President Joe Biden, in his capacity has president of the Senate, was in attendance for the speech.
National Security Adviser Susan Rice last week called the speech “destructive to the fabric of U.S.-Israeli ties.”
The diplomatic friction was apparent on Tuesday, with more than 60 Democratic legislators signaling their displeasure with the protocol breach by skipping the speech. Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Al Franken and Bernie Sanders were expected to join more than 50 of their Democratic colleagues from the House in not attending.
Diplomatic niceties and personal relationships aside, the most consequential disagreement between Israeli and U.S. leaders remains one of policy, over the contours of a potential nuclear deal with Iran.
Before the speech, both camps tried to set the narrative surrounding Iran.
Speaking before the annual American-Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference, Netanyahu painted the issue of Iran’s program as an existential crisis. “U.S. leaders worry about the security of their country,” he said. “Israeli leaders worry about the survival of their country.”
He blasted the signing of an interim deal between Iran and six world powers in November 2013, calling it “the deal of the century for Iran,” and has since publicly disputed the White House’s negotiating posture.
Defending his administration’s approach in an interview on Monday with Reuters, Obama disputed Netanyahu’s framing of the issue, saying that while they agreed on the broad issue of trying to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, their approach was very different.
“When we first announced this interim a deal, Prime Minister Netanyahu made all sorts of claims — this was going to be a terrible deal, this was going to result in Iran getting $50 billion worth of relief, Iran would not abide by the agreement.”
“None of that has come true,” Obama said. He added that Netanyahu’s apparent preference for wanting a deal that allowed Iran no enrichment capacity and keeping sanctions in place should Tehran oppose that was impossible for trying to achieve Israel’s and the United States’ shared goal of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
“There’s no expert on Iran or nuclear proliferation around the world that seriously thinks that Iran is going to respond to additional sanctions by eliminating its nuclear program,” the president said.
Iran has consistently denied that it is seeking nuclear weapons and said that it merely is seeking a civilian nuclear energy program.
Netanyahu's position has many supporters in Congress, especially among Republicans. Until now, however, legislative efforts to institute any new U.S. sanctions against Iran, which both Iranian leaders and the Obama administration say would kill any possibility of a deal, have been put on hold in Congress, with Senate Democrats preferring to let diplomacy to first run its course.