Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Tuesday in a landmark address to the joint houses of Congress that a nuclear deal taking shape between Iran and Western powers “paves the path for Iran” to a nuclear arsenal, rather than blocking it, and urged American leaders to walk away from what he called “a very bad deal.”
The emerging agreement, he told the assembled congresspeople and senators, would leave Tehran with “a vast nuclear infrastructure” that placed it dangerously close to the ability to break out to a nuclear bomb. It “will not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It will all but guarantee that Iran will get nuclear weapons and a lot of them.”
“Iran has proven time and again that it cannot be trusted,” no matter what it says about permitting verification of the terms of any accord designed to prevent it from getting such weapons, he said. “This is a bad deal, it’s a very bad deal. We’re better off without it.”
Netanyahu spoke shortly after Secretary of US State John Kerry met for more than two hours in Switzerland with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in the hopes of completing an international framework agreement later this month to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
But Netanyahu said that while the emerging agreement did place certain limitations on Iran’s nuclear program, they would not be enough to prevent a nuclear breakout within “about a year by US assessment, a bit shorter by Israel’s.”
He further criticized the reported clause that would see many of the limitations placed on Iran lifted after a period of 10 years. A decade, he said, was “a blink of an eye” for a nation.
Netanyahu also dismissed the effectiveness of United Nations inspections on Iran’s nuclear sites, saying, “Inspectors document violations, they don’t stop them. Inspectors knew when North Korea broke out to the bomb but that didn’t stop (the North Koreans).”
“The greatest danger facing our world is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons,” he said. He predicted that the agreement, as it stands, would change the region for the worse, create a nuclear arms race and turn the Middle East into a “nuclear tinderbox.”
In the two years since the P5+1 nations began their negotiations with Tehran, Netanyahu claimed, Tehran had not moderated but had in fact been emboldened and radicalized.
While negotiating, Iran was backing terrorism against Israel as well as threatening American interests throughout the Middle East.
He said that with the concessions the United States was prepared to make, Iran would not only gain nuclear weapons, but also eventually become free of international economic sanctions. As a result, he said, it would be emboldened to finance even more terrorism around the Middle East and the world.
The result for Iran, he said, would be “aggression abroad and prosperity at home.”
The world should insist “Iran change its behavior,” Netanyahu pleaded. “If Iran wants to be treated like a normal country, let it act like a normal country.”
The US, the prime minister insisted, must keep up pressure “on a very vulnerable regime,” particularly given dropping oil prices. If Iranians walk away from the negotiations, he said, they’ll come back, “because they need the deal a lot more than you do.”
“History has placed us at a fateful crossroads,” Netanyahu said. The world, he asserted, must choose between a path that will lead to “a nuclear-armed Iran whose unbridled aggression will inevitably lead to war” and a more difficult path that will, in the long run, prevent Tehran from becoming a regional aggressor.
He stressed that the alternative to a bad deal was not war: “It’s a much better deal.”
Instead, he called for a deal that would keep restrictions in place “until Iran’s aggression ends,” that wouldn’t “give Iran an easy path to the bomb.” He called for a deal that Israel may not love, “but with which we can live — literally.”
Before lifting sanctions, he said, the world should demand Iran cease its attacks against other countries in the region, stop supporting terrorism around the world, and “stop threatening to annihilate my country, Israel, the one and only Jewish state.”
Evoking the holiday of Purim, which commemorates the Jewish people’s survival of a Persian plot to destroy them, the prime minister said: “Today the Jewish people face another attempt by yet another Persian potentate to destroy it. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei spews the oldest hatred of anti-Semitism with new technology. He tweets in English that Israel must be destroyed.”
Netanyahu likened the Iranian threat to that posed by Islamic State and warned that Iran’s actions against IS (also known as ISIS) did not make it an ally of the US. “Don’t be fooled. The battle between Iran and ISIS doesn’t turn Iran into a friend of America,” he said. Both, he maintained, were competing to be the flag-bearers of radical Islam.
“The difference is that ISIS is armed with butcher knives, captured weapons and YouTube while Iran may soon be armed with intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads,” he declared. “When it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy.”
The Israeli leader’s appeal to Congress at the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner — but without coordination with the administration — triggered a political furor in the United States. It put Israel on a collision course with the Obama administration as it negotiates with Iran over its nuclear program. Additionally, with only two weeks to go before Netanyahu faces general elections in Israel, the speech has also sparked accusations at home that he was insisting on the speech and defying the White House chiefly in order to boost his appeal with right-wing voters.
The White House expressed its displeasure with the appearance by word and deed, dispatching Vice President Joe Biden on an overseas trip that meant he did not fill his customary seat behind the House rostrum during the speech. Nor did Obama meet at the White House with Netanyahu on his trip to the United States.
More than four dozen House and Senate Democrats said in advance they would not attend the event, a highly unusual move given historically close ties between the two allies — but one that many complained Netanyahu had forced upon them by making them choose between Israel’s leader and their president.
During his speech, the prime minister said he was keenly aware of the controversy created by his address and said it was not at all his intention.
Netanyahu took great pains to express his gratitude to Obama for his continued support to Israel. He said he was “deeply humbled” by the opportunity to speak for a third time to “the most important legislative body in the world,” and thanked it for its support of Israel “year after year, decade after decade.”
“I know that no matter on which side of the aisle you sit, you stand with Israel,” he said. The “remarkable alliance” between the US and Israel “has always been above politics, and it must always remain above politics.”
“It was never [his] intention” that his address to Congress would be conceived as political, Netanyahu said. But he believed he had “a profound obligation” to come, because he felt the Iranian nuclear program could threaten the Jewish state.
Netanyahu received a decidedly warm reception from the assembled members of Congress. The prime minister was greeted with a roaring welcome as he walked down the same center aisle of the House chamber that presidents tread before their annual State of the Union speeches. Republicans applauded Netanyahu’s remarks frequently, rising to their feet. Democratic lawmakers were far more restrained, although they cheered the Israeli leader’s praise for Obama. In all, he received 25 standing ovations.
Despite Democratic stayaways, the chamber and galleries were filled to capacity. Netanyahu singled out Holocaust Survivor Elie Wiesel, a world-renowned author, academic and activist.
“I wish I could promise you, Elie, that the lessons of history have been learned,” he said, to cheers.
A few moments later, he added, the applause swelling, “The days when the Jewish people remained passive in the face of genocidal enemies are over.”
“Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand,” he vowed, although he quickly added: “I know that Israel does not stand alone. I know that America stands with Israel. I know that you stand with Israel.”
— AP and Times of Israel staff contributed