Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was speaking to any number of audiences Tuesday with his landmark speech to Congress warning against a “bad deal” with Iran.
Most of those listening, however, have only glancing authority to stop the deal or influence negotiations now nearing a deadline.
Neither the wildly supportive Republicans who gave him multiple standing ovations nor the Democrats who showed up — but didn’t always stand up — have a direct say.
Nor does a divided Israeli electorate that may or may not return Netanyahu to power in two weeks.
President Obama, who does have a direct voice in the matter, didn’t like what he heard from the Israeli prime minister.
“I did have a chance to take a look at the transcript,” Obama told reporters at the White House afterward, noting that he was busy with other matters at the time of the speech. “And as far as I can tell, there was nothing new.”
Netanyahu’s strategy is a bank shot, using congressional support for his hard line on the nuclear deal to leverage more sanctions on Iran that could sink the negotiations or cause Iran to walk away. He is also using the backing of Congress to try to burnish his credentials as a fierce defender of Israel’s rights and image in advance of March 17 elections.
His speech was a tour de force of dire predictions, historical references and arms-control arcana. Netanyahu worked in references to Queen Esther, Moses, Robert Frost and nuclear centrifuges, along with allegations that Iran has hidden and dissembled and misled at every turn.
“I’ve come here today to tell you we don’t have to bet the security of the world on the hope that Iran will change for the better. We don’t have to gamble with our future and with our children’s future,” Netanyahu said. “We can insist that restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program not be lifted for as long as Iran continues its aggression in the region and in the world.”
Congress has no checkmate over the emerging deal but could complicate or delay it — in part because lawmakers would ultimately have to vote on removing some of the sanctions against Iran. The emerging deal will have to address exactly when and how sanctions — imposed by both Congress and the administration — would be lifted.
The Israeli leader is betting that he can raise the temperature in Congress, which is already skeptical of the deal taking shape.
The Obama administration has repeatedly said that new congressional sanctions would spoil the atmosphere for talks, anger allies eager for a deal and encourage Iran to balk.
U.S. officials have said that any new sanctions would undermine the bargaining power of Obama and his chief negotiator, Secretary of State John F. Kerry, as they offer a reduction in penalties in exchange for a rollback of the suspect Iranian program. The White House has threatened to veto any such legislation.
Seated in the Oval Office with his new defense secretary, Ashton B. Carter, Obama delivered a lengthy point-by-point rebuttal of Netanyahu’s case, his face growing tighter as he spoke.
If Netanyahu isn’t satisfied with an agreement that caps or curbs Iran’s program and installs new monitoring and other controls, just what, Obama asked, would Netanyahu do instead?
“On the core issue, which is how do we prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, which would make it far more dangerous and would give it scope for even greater action in the region, the prime minister didn’t offer any viable alternatives,” he said.
The deal among Iran and six world powers would curtail a program the West has long suspected is aimed at building weapons but would not completely dismantle it. The United States and European allies argue that such an agreement would be a diplomatic coup because it would bring Iran’s program out of the shadows and under a tighter process of U.N. verification and monitoring.
The crux of that argument is that a smaller, slower and more visible program keeps Israel, the Middle East and the rest of the world safer, while allowing Iran to pursue its stated nuclear energy goals. Iran would never agree to completely give up a nuclear fuel capacity it considers a point of national pride, U.S. officials have said.
Netanyahu scoffed at that notion Tuesday.
“Iran’s nuclear program can be rolled back well beyond the current proposal by insisting on a better deal and keeping up the pressure on a very vulnerable regime, especially given the recent collapse in the price of oil,” he said.
“Now, if Iran threatens to walk away from the table — and this often happens in a Persian bazaar — call their bluff. They’ll be back, because they need the deal a lot more than you do.”
Facing a late-March deadline for the outlines of a permanent deal, the Obama administration has begun to negotiate in public on two fronts — with the Iranians and with Congress.
Obama told Reuters on Monday that Iran must agree to a verifiable halt of at least 10 years on sensitive nuclear work. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf on Tuesday described a goal of a halt for “double-digit” years. Iran publicly rejected those terms.
“Obama’s words have been for the U.S. public’s consumption and against the Israeli prime minister’s propaganda and other hard-liners who are against a nuclear deal with Iran,” the semiofficial Fars News Agency quoted Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as saying.
“The wording Obama used is unacceptable and threatening,” Zarif said. “Iran will continue to negotiate but will not accept excessive and illogical demands.”
Even as Netanyahu was standing before Congress denouncing the nuclear talks, negotiators were meeting in Montreux, Switzerland, working out technical details of the possible deal.
Neither envoy gave any hints as to how talks were progressing, offering only vague assessments when reporters shouted questions at them as they caught them strolling through Montreux during breaks in the talks.
“We’ll try, that’s why we are here,” Zarif responded. “The only way to move forward is through negotiations.”
Last week, Kerry told Congress that a negotiated agreement should not go through a “formal approval process” on Capitol Hill.
“I don’t think there ought to be a formal approval process,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The committee’s chairman, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), has introduced legislation that would force the administration to submit any nuclear deal with Iran for congressional approval.
“I believe this falls squarely within the executive power of the president of the United States in the execution of American foreign policy,” Kerry said.
In his remarks Tuesday, Obama emphasized that there is not yet a deal with Iran and that Israeli opposition is premature.
“I have repeatedly said that I would rather have no deal than a bad deal,” Obama said. “But if we’re successful in negotiating, then, in fact, this will be the best deal possible to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Nothing else comes close. Sanctions won’t do it. Even military action would not be as successful as the deal that we have put forward.”
Carol Morello in Montreux contributed to this report.