Netanyahu assails Iran-nuclear talks in Congress address

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 3, 2015. In a speech that stirred political intrigue in two countries, Netanyahu told Congress that negotiations underway between Iran and the U.S. would "all but guarantee" that Tehran will get nuclear weapons, a step that the world must avoid at all costs. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON -- In a direct challenge to the White House, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood before Congress on Tuesday and bluntly warned the U.S. an emerging nuclear agreement with Iran "paves Iran's path to the bomb."

President Barack Obama pushed back sternly, saying the U.S. would never sign such a deal and Netanyahu was offering no useful alternative.

In the U.S. spotlight, the Israeli leader showed no uncertainty. "This is a bad deal. It is a very bad deal. We are better off without it," he declared in an emotionally charged speech that was arranged by Republicans, aggravated his already-strained relations with Obama and gambled with the longstanding bipartisan congressional support for Israel.

Two weeks before voting in his own re-election back home, Netanyahu took the podium of the U.S. House where presidents often make major addresses, contending any nuclear deal with Iran could threaten his nation's survival.

In a tone of disbelief, he said Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, "tweets that Israel must be annihilated -- he tweets."

Republicans cheered Netanyahu in the packed chamber, repeatedly standing.

Democrats were more restrained, frustrated with the effort to undercut Obama's negotiations.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., did little to hide her unease and later issued a blistering statement criticizing what she called Netanyahu's condescension.

At the White House, Obama said there was value in the current economic sanctions against Iran and also in the negotiations in Switzerland aimed at restraining Iran's nuclear ambitions.

"Sanctions alone are not sufficient," Obama said. "If Iran does not have some sense that sanctions will be removed, it will not have an interest in avoiding the path that it's currently on."

The administration says there is no deal yet, but Netanyahu insists he is privy to what is being put forth.

"If the deal now being negotiated is accepted by Iran, that deal will not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It would all but guarantee that Iran gets those weapons -- lots of them," he declared. He acknowledged any deal likely would include strict inspections, but he said "inspectors document violations; they don't stop them."

Obama declined to meet with the leader of Israel, a key U.S. ally, during this visit. Vice President Joe Biden was on a trip to Central America, so his seat as president of the Senate was filled by Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah, the Senate president pro tempore.

As Netanyahu spoke, Secretary of State John Kerry was holding a three-hour negotiating session with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in the Swiss resort of Montreux in hopes of completing an international framework agreement later this month to curb Tehran's nuclear program.

Netanyahu said the deal on the table offers two major concessions: Iran would be left with a vast nuclear infrastructure, and restrictions on Iran's nuclear program would be lifted in about a decade.

"It doesn't block Iran's path to the bomb," Netanyahu thundered. "It paves Iran's path to the bomb."

He said the U.S. and the other five nations in talks with Tehran should keep pressuring with economic sanctions because Tehran needs the deal most.

"Now, if Iran threatens to walk away from the table -- and this often happens in a Persian bazaar -- call their bluff. They'll be back, because they need the deal a lot more than you do."

More than four dozen House and Senate Democrats said in advance they would not attend the event, highly unusual given historically close ties between the two allies.

Many of Netanyahu's comments were greeted by loud applause from U.S. lawmakers, but not everyone was persuaded by his rhetoric.

Pelosi issued a statement saying she was "near tears throughout the prime minister's speech -- saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States."

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the Senate would debate next week on legislation that would allow a congressional vote on any deal reached with Iran.

He said legislation for stiffer sanctions could be considered.