Obama disparages Netanyahu’s judgment on Iran, says he ‘made all sorts of claims’

In interview ahead of PM’s Congress speech, president says dispute not personal but is a distraction, defends developing nuclear deal

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

US President Barack Obama listens as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, March 3, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
US President Barack Obama listens as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, March 3, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

US President Barack Obama cast doubt Monday on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judgment regarding a potential nuclear deal with Iran, saying that “Netanyahu made all sorts of claims” that proved inaccurate about the 2013 interim deal between Tehran and world powers.

Speaking to Reuters after Netanyahu’s AIPAC speech, and the day before the prime minister’s Congressional address, Obama said that the prime minister claimed, “This was going to be a terrible deal. This was going to result in Iran getting 50 billion dollars worth of relief. Iran would not abide by the agreement.”

“None of that has come true,” Obama emphasized.

“It has turned out that in fact, during this period we’ve seen Iran not advance its program. In many ways, it’s rolled back elements of its program.”

At the same time, Obama sought to downplay the idea that the tensions in the US-Israeli relationship stem from bad blood between him and Netanyahu. Asked whether he was angry with the prime minister for coming to Washington at this juncture, Obama replied: “This is not a personal issue. I think that it is important for every country in its relationship with the United States to recognize that the US has a process of making policy.”

Pushed, however, on whether Israel’s actions have been “disruptive to the ability to get this deal,” the president acknowledged “it’s been a distraction” but stressed that “in the meantime negotiators are going full speed ahead.”

The president said plainly that there is “substantial disagreement” between the American and Israeli governments on the means to thwart Iran. While this caused no permanent damage to the relationship, Obama said, it is “a distraction from what should be our focus,” stopping Iran’s nuclear program.

Obama said that he understood “why Israel is very concerned about Iran,” and emphasized that America shared similar reservations about Tehran’s rhetoric and behavior.

Obama also argued that a deal that freezes Iran’s nuclear program for at least ten years would be the best available means of keeping Tehran from advancing toward a nuclear weapon.

“If, in fact, Iran is willing to agree to double-digit years of keeping their 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,” Obama said.

He emphasized that, even if Iran does try to cheat, “there’s at least a year between us seeing them try to get a nuclear weapon and them actually being able to obtain one.” (Full transcript of Reuters Q and A with Obama.)

Earlier Monday, Netanyahu’s told the audience at the annual AIPAC conference that his speech to the US Congress is not intended to disrespect President Barack Obama or his administration, but to warn the world of the threat posed by Iran’s apparent pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Netanyahu is scheduled to address the US Congress on the Iranian threat Tuesday, in a move White House officials had described as damaging to bilateral ties.

The P5+1 group of world powers that are negotiating with Iran have only a few more weeks to reach a political framework for a deal, with the final technical details to be arrived at by June 30.

But Israel is worried the deal will ease sanctions on Tehran — which is what Iran wants — without applying sufficiently stringent safeguards to stop Iran acquiring enough fissile material and other capabilities to move toward nuclear weapons.

AFP and Marissa Newman contributed to this report. 

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