WATCH: Benjamin Netanyahu launched a blistering attack on the Obama administration and nuclear negotiations with Iran. Jackson Proskow reports.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday delivered a speech about the security threat posed by Iran and its nuclear program – the same message he’s presented a number of times before, at the United Nations.
Despite the two countries’ longstanding partnership, Netanyahu was accused of undermining the president by taking the Republicans up on their invitation.
“I feel a profound obligation to speak to you about an issue that could well threaten the survival of my country and the future of my people —Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons,” he said, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in Montreux, Switzerland ahead of a negotiation deadline later this month.
It’s hoped the talks will result in an agreement that will that would see Iran curb its nuclear program in exchange for the easing of sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
“That deal will not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, it will all but guarantee that Iran gets those weapons – lots of them,” Netanyahu declared.
Reaction among experts on Tuesday was, as expected, divided.
Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Center for Israel Jewish Affairs said he believes Netanyahu made a “very compelling case” against a possible deal with Iran, and that the debate over whether the prime minister was right to address Congress helped put much-needed focus on the importance of the Iran issue.
“He stood nothing to gain from that,” Fogel told Global News. “His coming to Washington, his focus on this, I think was clearly driven by his singular focus on Iran as not just an existential threat to Israel but the source of virtually all instability in the region. And he laid that out very clearly in his remarks.”
Netanyahu, making a Game of Thrones reference, said Iran may be contributing to the fight against ISIS in Iraq, but said both ISIS and the Iranian regime are bent on establishing “a militant Islamic empire, first on the region and then on the world.
“The difference is that ISIS is armed with butcher knives, captured weapons and YouTube. Whereas, Iran could soon be armed with intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear bombs,” Netanyahu asserted.
He also warned of a “nuclear arms race in the most dangerous part of the planet,” should Iran be able to develop a nuclear weapon.
“This deal won’t be a farewell to arms. It would be a farewell to arms control. And the Middle East would soon be crisscrossed by nuclear tripwires. A region where small skirmishes can trigger big wars would turn into a nuclear tinderbox,” Netanyahu said.
Thomas Juneau, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, said Netanyahu had a “habit of being over the top” in his rhetoric.
“By referring to Iran as a threat to the entire world — not just Israel, not just the U.S. — that’s just not true. Iran is not a threat to the entire world,” he said.
“I think that if Iran had acquired the nuclear weapon itself, there would have been no guarantee of a nuclear cascade in the Middle East, and with this deal there’s even less of a likelihood of that.”
Juneau said there are no illusions that Iran and the U.S. are going to become fast friends should an agreement in the nuclear talks be reached.
“There’s still going to be serious problems between the two countries with absolutely no guarantees these problems are going to be solved.”
Obama didn’t meet with Netanyahu in Washington, nor, he said, did he watch the prime minister’s speech, which was applauded by Congress repeatedly.
Addressing media at the White House afterward, Obama declared Netanyahu said “nothing new.”
Obama said that although he agrees with Netanyahu that Iran “has been a dangerous regime,” he said the Israeli prime minister offered no “viable alternatives” to a dealing with the country.
Obama added there has been progress in negotiating with the Iranian government.
“Keep in mind that when we shaped that interim deal, Prime Minister Netanyahu made almost the precise same speech about how dangerous that deal was going to be,” the president said. “And yet, over a year later, even Israeli intelligence officers and, in some cases, members of the Israeli government have to acknowledge that it has kept Iran from further pursuing its nuclear program.”
He added having a deal with Iran would be the best way to keep eyes on its nuclear program and that this agreement, if reached, could be “the best deal possible to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. “Nothing else comes close.”
Fogel said that was the Obama administration “spin” and that Netanyahu’s alternative was a better, tougher deal that would force Iran to agree to concessions and “not reward them on the hope that they are somehow going to conform on your expectations because until now they haven’t.”
But Juneau doesn’t see it that way at all. He agrees with Obama’s plan.
“The best that you could hope for is a deal that constrains its nuclear program and puts it under a stringent inspection regime, which appears to be what is emerging,” he said.
Netanyahu is just two weeks away from an election, which was one reason Obama called the visit and the speech “a mistake.”
“As a matter of policy, we think it’s a mistake for the prime minister of any country to come to speak before Congress a few weeks before they’re about to have an election. It makes it look like we are taking sides,” Obama told Reuters ahead of Netanyahu’s Congress appearance.
Fogel said Netanyahu had nothing to gain by making a pre-election appearance.
“I don’t think that the argument that he did this for electoral gain back home really has any purchase because… there were as many people opposed to it as there were in favour of it,” he said.
“There are elections in Israel in two weeks,” he said. “Some of his main competition is on the right. So, he needs to hold his ground with security-minded voters and one of the good ways to do that is to… present himself as the one leader who is able to guarantee the security of Israel but also as the one leader who can stand up to the U.S., in particular to Obama who is not very popular in Israel.”