Netanyahu Urges U.S. To Hold Out For Better Nuclear Deal With Iran

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In a controversial address to Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the Obama administration's negotiations on limiting the Iranian nuclear program.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Israel's prime minister urged the U.S. Congress today to hold out for a better nuclear deal with Iran, but President Obama says Benjamin Netanyahu offered no viable alternative. We're going to begin this hour with reaction to Netanyahu's speech, including the view from Switzerland. That's where Secretary of State John Kerry negotiated with his Iranian counterpart today. First, here's NPR's Michele Kelemen on how Netanyahu's address was received in Washington.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: While Netanyahu began his speech with a nod to President Obama's support for Israel, he quickly turned to his major critique of U.S. foreign-policy. He says the U.S. is giving Iran too many concessions, negotiating a deal that would leave Iran with - in his words - a vast nuclear infrastructure and facing restrictions that would only last about a decade.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: It doesn't block Iran's path to the bomb. It paves Iran's path to the bomb. So why would anyone make this deal?

KELEMEN: He says Iran's regime is, quote, "radical as ever." The Israeli prime minister says he thinks the greatest danger in the world today is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons. So he wants the U.S. to hold out for a deal that would prevent Iran from acquiring them and threatening Israel's very survival.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NETANYAHU: A better deal that won't give Iran an easy path to the bomb, a better deal that Israel and its neighbors may not like, but with which we could live - literally.

KELEMEN: The members of Congress who attended this speech gave him numerous standing ovations, but dozens of Democrats stayed away.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN YARMUTH: This speech was straight out of the Dick Cheney playbook. This was fear mongering at its ultimate.

KELEMEN: That's Kentucky Congressman John Yarmuth, who says he resents the Israeli prime minister's attempts to tell the Obama administration how to negotiate. Illinois Democrat Jan Schakowsky adds, she thinks Netanyahu is trying to, quote, "stampede the U.S. into war once again."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REPRESENTATIVE JAN SCHAKOWSKY: We should be able to continue to lock down and roll back in a verifiable way Iran's ability to achieve a nuclear weapon. That's the goal. We can't achieve it Bibi Netanyahu's way.

KELEMEN: President Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, made a similar case to the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC last night, telling them, quote, "we cannot let a totally unachievable ideal stand in the way of a good agreement."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SUSAN RICE: I know that some of you will be urging Congress to insist that Iran forgo its domestic enrichment capacity entirely.

(APPLAUSE)

KELEMEN: That was clearly not meant as an applause line. Rice had to wait for the crowd to sit back down to finish her thought.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICE: But as desirable as that would be, it is neither realistic nor achievable.

KELEMEN: No one, she says, can make Iran unlearn the expertise it already has. Netanyahu, in his speech to Congress, says it's the infrastructure that matters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NETANYAHU: Nuclear know how without nuclear infrastructure doesn't get you very much. A racecar driver without a car can't drive. A pilot without a plane can't fly. Without thousands of centrifuges, tons of enriched uranium or heavy water facilities, Iran can't make nuclear weapons.

KELEMEN: President Obama says he didn't watch Netanyahu's speech, but read the transcript and didn't find anything new.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: On the core issue, which is how do we prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, which would make it far more dangerous and would give it scope for even greater action in the region, the prime minister didn't offer any viable alternatives.

KELEMEN: He says Netanyahu made almost the same speech last year when the U.S. and other world powers reached a temporary agreement with Iran. That deal has held, Obama says, and he calls the current negotiations the best chance the U.S. and its partners have to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.