(JTA) – In his address to the U.S. Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued that the proposed nuclear deal being negotiated with Iran will lead inexorably to a nuclear-armed Iran and war in the Middle East.
“This deal has two major concessions: One, leaving Iran with a vast nuclear program, and two, lifting the restrictions on that program in about a decade,” Netanyahu said in his speech Tuesday morning. “That’s why this deal is so bad. It doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb, it paves Iran’s path to the bomb.”
Netanyahu argued that the deal under consideration – which is being negotiated with Iran by the United States and other world powers – would let most of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure stay in place, including thousands of centrifuges. That would leave Tehran with a very short “breakout time” with which it could produce nuclear weapons, he said. Netanyahu also said the inspection regime under negotiation would be insufficient, because inspectors can only document violations, not stop them, and because Iran has a history of maintaining secret nuclear facilities.
“Like North Korea, Iran too has defied international inspectors,” Netanyahu said. “Iran has proven time and again that it cannot be trusted.”
Because Iran threatens many of its neighbors, other countries in the region likely would develop their own nuclear weapons to keep pace with the Islamic Republic, the prime minister warned, leaving the region “crisscrossed with nuclear tinder-wires.”
He urged Congress to reject the deal.
“For over a year, we’ve been told that no deal is better than a bad deal,” Netanyahu said. “Well, this is a bad deal. It’s a very bad deal. We’re better off without it.”
The audience responded with a standing ovation.
This was Netanyahu’s third address to a joint session of Congress – tying him with Winston Churchill for most speeches to joint sessions of Congress by a foreign leader.
Organized by House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the Israeli prime minister unbeknownst to the White House, the speech proved highly controversial in the run-up to Tuesday. President Obama said he would not attend because of its occurrence within weeks of Israel’s scheduled elections on March 17, and Vice President Joe Biden cited a scheduling a conflict in saying he would not attend.
Numerous Democratic lawmakers, Israeli political figures and prominent American Jews called on Netanyahu to scrap the planned speech, warning that it risked the appearance of a partisan political move. More than 50 Democratic lawmakers and one Republican lawmaker – including six Jewish lawmakers — said they would not attend.
But Netanyahu insisted that the speech was necessary to warn Congress and the American people about the dangers of the developing deal with Iran.
At the outset of his address, Netanyahu sought to dismiss the notion that this was a partisan political play, praising Obama’s record on Israel and citing several specific instances of support, including U.S. assistance in helping staff at Israel’s embassy in Cairo escape unharmed during a siege in 2011 and bolstering Israel’s anti-rocket infrastructure during last summer’s Gaza war.
“The remarkable alliance between Israel and the United States has always been above politics; it must always remain above politics,” Netanyahu said. “Israel is grateful for the support of America’s people and of America’s presidents, from Harry Truman to Barack Obama.”
But, he said, “As prime minister of Israel, 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.”
In a nod to the upcoming Purim holiday, Netanyahu compared Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, to the Persian villain in the Purim story, Haman. Iran’s regime is not just a threat to Israel, Netanyahu said, but to the entire world. He noted Iran’s support for terrorism worldwide, including the bombings via its proxies of the U.S. marine barracks in Lebanon in the 1980s, the AMIA Jewish community center and Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s, and U.S. embassies in Africa in the late 1990s.
Today, Netanyahu said, Iran dominates four capitals in the region – Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sana – and its regime is as radical as ever.
“Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam,” he said. “Both want to impose a militant Islamic empire, first on the region and then on the rest of the world.”