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Netanyahu to Congress: Iranian Nuclear Deal Will Start an 'Arms Race' in the Middle East

In a controversial speech to the US Congress Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that a deal with Iran could spark nuclear proliferation across the region.
March 3, 2015, 3:44pm
Photo by World Economic Forum via Flickr

Delivering a controversial speech to a joint session of Congress Tuesday morning, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that a potential nuclear deal between the US and Iran would "pave the way" for the latter to obtain nuclear weapons—a development he said would prompt an "arms race" in the Middle East.

The deal, he said, "would not prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, it would guarantee it—lots of them,"he said. "A region where small skirmishes can trigger big wars will turn into a nuclear tinder box."

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The address was charged with a partisan debate over whether Netanyahu should even have been invited to speak before Congress. The Israeli Prime Minister had come at the request of Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who did not inform the White House of his intentions to invite a foreign head of state to speak before the legislative body. This highly unusual, perhaps unprecedented, move looked like a big fuck-you to the White House, which is now entering the final stage of its negotiations with Iran.

The White House, perhaps unsurprisingly, sought to downplay the speech in recent days. In an exclusive interview with Reuters Monday, President Obama dismissed the speech as a "distraction," adding that while the administration has substantial disagreements with Israel over how to deal with Iran, the differences are not "permanently destructive" to the relationship. Still, the President has declined to meet with Netanyahu while he is in Washington, citing the proximity of the visit to Israeli elections, set to take place later this month. And Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry are both conveniently out of town today—in fact, Kerry is in Switzerland resuming negotiations with Iran's foreign minister.

In his speech, Netanyahu tried to diffuse some of the politics, thanking Obama for his support for Israel, and apologizing for any partisan distress his visit had caused. "I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political," he said. "That was never my intention." As predicted, however, he then went into an extended, solemn diatribe against Iran, casting the US as part of a global fight against religious extremists looking to impose their will on the Middle East.

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"Don't be fooled. The battle between Iran and ISIS doesn't turn Iran into a friend of America. Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam," he told the rapturous crowd. "To defeat ISIS but to let Iran get nuclear weapons is to win the battle but lose the war."

Having set the scene, Netanyahu laid out his chief objections to the potential US-Iranian deal. According to details that have leaked out in the press, the deal currently in the works would open Iran's program to international inspectors, and set restrictions on the number of centrifuges Iran uses to enrich uranium for at least a decade, in exchange for lifting economic sanctions. Netanyahu, however, argues that Iran "cannot be trusted," and that a deal should force the country to abandon uranium enrichment in perpetuity.

Allowing Iran to keep its nuclear infrastructure, he said, would guarantee that the country obtains a nuclear weapon, which in turn send Iran's adversaries in the Middle East—countries like Saudi Arabia, for example—to pursue their own nuclear programs. "If Iran wants to be treated like a normal country, let it act like a normal country," he said. "This is a bad deal. It's a very bad deal. We're better off without it."

Politically, the speech was about as bad for Obama as the White House could have anticipated. Netanyahu's remarks were met with raucous applause from Republican members of Congress, and seem likely to embolden the majority party to intervene in the administration's dealings with Iran. It was hard to see it as anything other than Netanyahu and Republicans using each other for their respective political advantage—Bibi seeking to gain an upper hand in his tight election contest this month, and Republicans looking to gain leverage in their fight against the president. In the meantime, a sizable chunk of Democrats in Congress decided to skip the speech this morning, and others who did attend made it clear they weren't happy about it.

"As one who values the US-Israel relationship, and loves Israel, I was near tears throughout the Prime Minister's speech," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi wrote in a statement, "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."

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