Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said negotiations underway between the United States and Iran would “guarantee” that Tehran would get nuclear weapons, a threat not only to the Middle East but to the world.
In an appearance before the U.S. Congress that has drawn controversy, Netanyahu stressed to lawmakers the grave danger that a nuclear Iran poses to his country.
"If the deal now being negotiated is accepted by Iran, that deal will not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons – it will all but guarantee that Iran will get those nuclear weapons – lots of them," he said.
Iran is sponsoring terrorism around the world, Netanyahu said, adding that Tehran's regime was "as radical as ever," could not be trusted and the deal being worked out with the United States would not block Iran's way to a bomb "but paves its way to a bomb."
"We've been told that no deal is better than a bad deal. Well this is a bad deal, a very bad deal," he said. "We're better off without it."
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Later Tuesday, President Barack Obama, who said he did not watch the speech but read the transcript, said there was "nothing new" in Netanyahu's remarks Tuesday, insisting the Israeli leader did not offer a better alternative to negotiations.
Netanyahu "did not offer any viable alternative," Obama said, speaking from the Oval Office. "We don't yet have a deal. But if we are successful, this will be the best deal possible with Iran to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon."
Obama said Netanyahu's alternative to talks amounts to no deal at all, adding that would lead Iran to redouble efforts to build a nuclear bomb.
Regret over politicized event
Netanyahu received a rousing standing ovation as he arrived on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday. He immediately tried to defuse the tension caused when House Speaker John Boehner invited him to speak without consulting the White House.
"I regret that some see my appearance here as political," Netanyahu said, adding that he was grateful to Obama for his public and private support of Israel, including U.S. military assistance and contributions to Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system.
"We appreciate all that President Obama has done for Israel," he added.
Nearly 60 Democratic members stayed away from the event, during which Netanyahu warned members that a nuclear deal being negotiated between the United States and Iran would threaten Israel's security.
“This was a speech the American people needed to hear, plain and simple," Boehner said in a statement. " It addressed the gravity of the threats we face and why we cannot allow a nuclear Iran, or any semblance of a path to a nuclear Iran. It demonstrated why there is such deep-seated – and bipartisan – concern about the deal that is being made.”
"Some people feel the prime minister should not be here at this time, because in a couple weeks there will be an election in Israel," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said. "My business is to find out what's best for America when it comes to defending our nation. I do not think I can adequately do my job if I do not hear from the prime minister of Israel."
Netanyahu said Iran and its leaders pose a threat not only to Israel and the Middle East, but also to nations worldwide and called for action over Iran's nuclear program.
Many of Netanyahu's comments were greeted by loud applause from U.S. lawmakers, and not just Republicans. But not everyone was persuaded by his rhetoric.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California conspicuously refrained from applauding on several occasions. And when the Israeli leader called for holding out for a better deal with Iran, she shook her head in disagreement.
"As one who values the U.S.-Israel relationship, and loves Israel, I was near tears throughout the prime minister’s speech – saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States as part of the P5+1 nations, and saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation," Pelosi said in a statement.
Netanyahu, who faces a closely contested March 17 election in Israel, said he thinks the so-called P5+1 group of global powers is planning to ease international sanctions without the ironclad safeguards needed to deny Tehran a nuclear bomb.
As a result, he predicted Iran would be able to finance more terrorism in the region and the world.
The U.S. administration says that is just not true, and warned that Netanyahu's speech could unravel the negotiations if he mobilizes U.S. lawmakers in the Republican-held Congress against it.
Democratic Senator Dick Durbin said earlier Tuesday, "We [Democrats and Republicans] are in common purpose: to stop the development of a nuclear Iran. What troubles me greatly are the criticisms I have heard on this floor about the Obama administration and this issue. ... It was President Obama who really brought together the sanctions regime that is working to bring Iran to the negotiating table.”
The deal, as it now stands, would give Tehran some limited ability to enrich uranium – but Israel wants Iran stripped of its nuclear projects all together to ensure it can't pursue a bomb.
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Tuesday that Netanyahu is trying to affect negotiations over Iran's nuclear program with his upcoming address to both chambers of the U.S. Congress.
"He's trying to, and I don't think trying to create tension and conflict helps anyone," Zarif said to CNN outside talks in Switzerland with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Michael Bowman and Cindy Saine contributed to this report. Additional material came from Reuters, AP and AFP.