Obama hits back at Netanyahu's criticism of Iran negotiations

Obama hits back at Netanyahu's criticism of Iran negotiations
Obama dismissed Netanyahu's address to Congress, which criticised Iran nuclear talks, as "theatre" and "nothing new". Several other Democrats reacted angrily, finding it an "insult to the intelligence of the US"
4 min read
03 March, 2015
Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint session of the US Congress [AFP/Getty]
Israel and the United States clashed furiously over the Iran nuclear talks on Tuesday. 

After Netanyahu delivered an impassioned address to Congress criticising negotiations between Iran and the US, Obama hit back immediately, scoffing that Netanyahu had presented no viable alternative.

The address also angered several other Democrats. It was one of the most contentious speeches in years in the House, and as many as 60 Democrats boycotted it.  

Netanyahu told the US Congress that negotiations between Iran and the US would "all but guarantee" that Tehran would get nuclear weapons, a step he said the world must avoid at all costs.

Obama did not watch the speech, having arranged a video-conference with European leaders on the crisis in Ukraine, but afterwards criticised it.

"I am not focused in the politics of this. I am not focused on the theatre," Obama said. "As far as I can tell, there was nothing new".

"On the core issue, which is how to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon which would make it far more dangerous, the prime minister did not offer any viable alternatives."

"We don't yet have a deal," Obama added. "But if we are successful then, in fact, this will be the best deal possible to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapon."

Netanyahu's Speech

In his address to Congress, conducted even as Secretary of State John Kerry was in nuclear talks in Switzerland with his Iranian counterpart, Netanyahu branded Iran a global threat.

The Israeli leader's appeal comes two weeks before tight elections in which he is seeking a new term - and after the invitation to address Congress extended by House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, triggered a political furor in the US.

Although dozens of Democratic members stayed away from the event, many more lawmakers from both sides of the aisle did attend, and Netanyahu was welcomed with a warm standing ovation and left to cheers and raucous applause.

The Israeli leader was unrelenting in his condemnation of the negotiations the US administration is conducting with Tehran.

"The greatest danger facing our world is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons," Netanyahu said.

He said that with the concessions the US was prepared to make, Iran would not only gain nuclear weapons, but also eventually would become free of international economic sanctions.

Iran would be emboldened to finance even more terrorism around the Middle East and the world, he said, and the result for Iran would be "aggression abroad and prosperity at home."

Instead, he said that if Iran wants to be "treated like a normal country, it ought to behave like a normal country."

Netanyahu continued to say that Tehran "will always be an enemy of America" adding that its "participation in the battle against Islamic State did not make it a friend".

However, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said "spreading fears" about the Iran nuclear deal was "unhelpful" in what seemed to be comments directed at Netanyahu.

"I know that my speech has been the subject of much controversy. I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political," Netanyahu said, acknowledging complaints that he has endangered Israel's close ties with Washington.

He has also been accused of using the nuclear stand-off as a platform for electioneering ahead of Israeli polls that could threaten his ruling coalition.

Democrats react

Several Democrats blasted the Israeli PM as a fear-mongerer leading a stampede to war.

Those who did not boycott his speech appeared exasperated, including top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi, who was often the last to rise for standing ovations led by Republicans approval of Netanyahu's warnings.

"I was near tears... saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States ... and saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation," she said.

Lawmakers said the visiting dignitary's performance was an "affront", "condescending," and blatant "political theatre worthy of an Oscar."

The speech was "fear-mongering" that was "straight out of the Dick Cheney playbook," congressman John Yarmuth told reporters, referring to the hawkish Bush-era vice president.

One Democrat who attended the speech was congressman Earl Blumenauer, who said Netanyahu time and again has pushed the US towards war.

"I've listened to his alarmist predictions. I listened to him cheerlead for the United States' greatest single blunder in our history, the Iraq war," Blumenauer said.