Netanyahu stokes tensions on Iran talks

Kathleen Miller
Bloomberg News

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress heightened partisan tensions and helped accelerate plans to consider legislation on U.S. President Barack Obama’s effort to strike a nuclear deal with Iran.

In a direct challenge to the White House, Netanyahu stood before Congress on Tuesday and bluntly warned the U.S. that an emerging nuclear agreement with Iran “paves Iran’s path to the bomb.”

Obama pushed back sternly, saying the U.S. would never sign such a deal and Netanyahu was offering no useful alternative.

In the U.S. spotlight for a day, the Israeli leader showed no uncertainty.

“This is a bad deal. It is a very bad deal. We are better off without it,” he declared in an emotionally charged speech that was arranged by Republicans. It aggravated his already-strained relations with Obama and gambled with the longstanding bipartisan congressional support for Israel.

The speech to a packed chamber Tuesday, with at least 40 Democratic lawmakers skipping in protest, prompted an angry response from Democrats who back Obama’s efforts. Republicans loudly cheered Netanyahu, repeatedly standing. Democrats were more restrained, frustrated with the effort to undercut Obama’s negotiations.

Most notable in her displeasure was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, who said she was was “near tears throughout.”

At one point, when Netanyahu suggested his nation’s relationship with the United States should be above politics, Pelosi looked at her lap and shook her head. When he declared that, “if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand,” Pelosi threw her hands up in exasperation.

Pelosi called Netanyahu’s remarks an “insult to the intelligence of the United States.”

Republicans lauded the speech, which they said could boost their call for a stronger congressional role in the talks. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing next week on a bill sponsored by the panel’s Republican chairman and its top Democrat that would require congressional review of any deal with Iran and block the administration from suspending congressional sanctions for 60 days.

Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, said she got to the speech early to get an aisle seat — the first time in 13 years in Congress she tried to do it. She shook hands with Netanyahu on the way in.

“I told him: ‘Please stay strong, we stand with you,’ ” said Miller, vice chairwoman

of the House Homeland Security Committee.

The speech, a sharp indictment of Iran’s current and past behavior on the international stage, underscored the need for congressional scrutiny of any agreement authorized by Obama and the other five nations involved in the discussions, said Bob Corker, the Senate Foreign Relations committee’s chairman.

Michigan’s senior Republican, Rep. Fred Upton of St. Joseph, said he hopes the speech makes it more likely that Congress will vote on any deal the Obama administration reaches with Iran.

“You shouldn’t ignore the will of Congress,” Upton said. “They are not telling us a word of what’s going on.”

Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, the top Democrat in the chamber, said lawmakers should wait to act on legislation until they know whether a deal has been reached.

At the White House, Obama said there was value in the current economic sanctions against Iran and also in the negotiations in Switzerland aimed at restraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“Sanctions alone are not sufficient,” Obama said. “If Iran does not have some sense that sanctions will be removed, it will not have an interest in avoiding the path that it’s currently on.”

The administration says there is no deal yet, but Netanyahu insists he is privy to the notions.

“If the deal now being negotiated is accepted by Iran, that deal will not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It would all but guarantee that Iran gets those weapons — lots of them,” he declared. He acknowledged that any deal would likely include strict inspections, but he said “inspectors document violations; they don’t stop them.”

As Netanyahu spoke, Secretary of State John Kerry was holding a three-hour negotiating session with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in hopes of completing an international framework agreement to curb Tehran’s nuclear program.

According to Netanyahu, the deal on the table offers two major concessions: Iran would be left with a vast nuclear infrastructure and restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program would be lifted in about a decade.

“It doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb,” Netanyahu thundered. “It paves Iran’s path to the bomb.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., called the speech it “phenomenal” in that it clearly stated “why this deal is going to be very damaging for world security, U.S. interests in Israel.”

Democrats said “alarmist” predictions by Netanyahu have been wrong before.

“This is a prime minister who’s never seen a war he didn’t want our country to fight,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif.

The Israeli prime minister accepted the invitation from Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio to address Congress without consulting the Obama administration.

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, praised Netanyahu’s remarks, but said he was still disappointed in how the prime minister was invited.

“We understand the seriousness of the issue, and we need to do everything we can to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” Peters told The Detroit News.

Associated Press and Detroit News Staff Writer David Shepardson contributed.