Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forcefully argued against a nuclear deal with Iran, telling a joint meeting of Congress on Tuesday that such an agreement would have the opposite effect of what the international community intends because it would effectively supply Iran with the means to produce a nuclear weapon.
Netanyahu's speech generated a swirl of controversy before it was even delivered and laid bare fissures between the prime minister and the Obama administration. Netanyahu used the address to paint Iran as a sponsor of terrorism that is aggressively marching across the Middle East and would exploit a deal to satisfy its own nuclear ambitions.
Netanyahu said the country's "tentacles of terror" pose a "grave threat" to Israel and the world. The prime minister expressed his concerns about enriched uranium and Iranian nuclear research and development, as well as his worries about the approach taken to the international nuclear talks.
"This is a bad deal. A very bad deal. We are better off without it," he said. "Why should Iran’s radical regime change for the better when it can enjoy the best of both worlds? Aggression abroad, prosperity at home?"
He was greeted with raucous applause in the House chamber and was interrupted numerous times by standing ovations.
“We must all stand together to stop Iran’s march of conquest, subjugation and terror," he said, asserting that Iran and the Islamic State are "competing for the crown of militant Islam."
Meanwhile, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif were talking in Geneva on Tuesday ahead of a March 24 deadline on the framework for a nuclear deal.
Speaking in the Oval Office, President Obama said Netanyahu "didn't offer any viable alternatives" to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Obama was on a teleconference call on Ukraine and other issues with other world leaders, including British Prime Minister David Cameron, and did not watch the speech. "I did have a chance to take a look at the transcript, and as far as I can tell there was nothing new," he said.
"The central question is how can we stop them from getting a nuclear weapon?" Obama said.
A senior U.S. official said that "simply demanding that Iran completely capitulate is not a plan" and would not garner international support.
This person said the United States has been using, and continues to use, the pressure of sanctions to try to achieve a deal, and it does not trust the Iranian regime. The negotiations are insisting on transparency and "are not an opening to a rapprochement with Iran," this person said, and their clear objective has been to prevent Iran from acquiring a weapon.
"The logic of the prime minister’s speech is regime change, not a nuclear speech," this person said.
Netanyahu said a deal would only "whet Iran's appetite" for more nuclear material. He evoked Hemingway, asserting that a deal would be a "farewell to arms control," and said it would cause the Middle East to be "criss-crossed by nuclear trip wires." He deployed a physics lesson on uranium and centrifuges to help make his case -- one the administration said was short on specifics.
The prime minister spoke of the Jewish holiday of Purim, which begins Wednesday night. It celebrates the Jewish Book of Esther, which describes a high-ranking member of the Persian empire plotting to kill Jews -- a plot foiled by Queen Esther, who is Jewish.
"Today the Jewish people face another attempt by yet another Persian potentate to destroy us," Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu praised Obama, publicly attempting to paper over some of the tensions that erupted between the Israeli government and the administration since the speech was announced in January. The temperature reached a boiling point last week. Netanyahu also thanked Congress for approving money for Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system.
"We appreciate all that President Obama has done for Israel," Netanyahu said to applause. Some of what the president has done, he said, isn't known publicly, but is known to Netanyahu.
"I know that my speech has been the subject of much controversy. I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political. That was never my intention," Netanyahu said. He thanked Democrats and Republicans for their support for Israel. The relationship between the two countries, he said, "has always been above politics" and "must always remain above politics."
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) invited Netanyahu to speak, without consulting the White House in advance; critics have described his decision as a breach of protocol. Obama said he would not meet with the prime minister because the visit comes too close to the Israeli elections on March 17. There is bipartisan legislation before Congress that would impose additional sanctions on Iran. Obama has said he would veto the bill because it would undermine the talks with Iran.
Boehner said in a statement that the speech was one that "the American people needed to hear, plain and simple. It addressed the gravity of the threats we face and why we cannot allow a nuclear Iran, or any semblance of a path to a nuclear Iran."
The Netanyahu speech was extraordinary, both for the content and the controversy which it has generated. Last week, national security adviser Susan E. Rice said the speech would be "destructive" to U.S.-Israeli relations and inject partisanship into their association. She and Obama tried to turn down the temperature Monday; Obama said it was a distraction that would not permanently undermine relations.
Netanyahu's political future is at stake. He faces a potentially difficult reelection to an unprecedented fourth term on March 17. The speech was delayed by five minutes in Israel, where it ran in the evening, so that the country's electoral monitors could screen it for illegal campaigning.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who left the chamber as Netanyahu was saying goodbyes, said in a statement she was "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."
Pelosi is very agitated in this portion of the speech. Literally on edge of her seat. Not happy.— Paul Kane (@pkcapitol) March 3, 2015
Most who did not show up cited a combination of factors, including a reticence to participate in what they described as the politicization of the U.S.-Israel relationship and as a protest to the perceived affront of inviting a foreign leader without conferring with Obama.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who faced pressure from Israel supporters after he said he was undecided on attending, said he "anguished" over the decision but "finally came to the conclusion that I can go without compromising any principle."
The U.S.-Israel relationship "supercedes this prime minister and his behavior," Connolly said. "I cherish and value that relationship and want to make a statement about that."
With nearly a quarter of the 232 congressional Democrats saying they would skip the speech, some Republicans seized on the division. On Monday, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) called the no-shows "petty" and "immature."
"I think it's a mistake for a member of Congress to miss a speech of this importance," Graham said. "The politics of the moment pale in comparison to the long-term consequences of a bad deal with Iran."
Obama and Rice gave a glimpse Monday of what a potential nuclear deal could look like. Obama said in an interview with Reuters that the United States is prepared to agree if Iran "is willing to agree to double-digit years of keeping their [nuclear] program where it is right now and, in fact, rolling back elements of it that currently exist.... If we’ve got that, and we’ve got a way of verifying that, there’s no other steps we can take that would give us such assurance that they don’t have a nuclear weapon.”
Although rarely mentioned, another complication in the nuclear talks is Israel’s own undeclared -- but widely assumed -- nuclear program and its snub of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, which oversees the spread of nuclear technology around the world. Iran has repeatedly accused the West of applying what it calls a “double standard” on nuclear issues -- a clear reference to Israel. Iran is a signatory of the NPT; Israel is not.
Publicly, Israel neither confirms nor denies that it has nuclear weapons. But many experts in nuclear arms believe that Israel has extensive capabilities. In 1986, Mordechai Vanunu, a disgruntled Israeli technician at a suspected nuclear facility, leaked photos to a British newspaper that led foreign experts to conclude that Israel had a large nuclear arsenal. Israeli intelligence agents later arrested Vanunu in Rome.
Obama said the goal is to ensure there is a year-long lag between any potential decision by Iran to build a nuclear weapon and when it can actually produce one. Netanyahu said the position doesn't go far enough.
"No country has a greater stake -- no country has a greater stake than Israel in a good deal that peacefully removes this threat," Netanyahu said.
Mike DeBonis, Anne Gearan and Steven Mufson contributed reporting.