Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, without a seat at the negotiating table on a deal he says would impact the security of his country, made his last-ditch case on Tuesday to President Obama to back off the pending Iran nuclear agreement — a call that at the very least got U.S. lawmakers’ attention.
The president himself made clear he has no plans to shift course. Speaking during a meeting with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Obama stressed “we don’t yet have a deal” and urged all sides not to “speculate.”
He said he didn’t watch Netanyahu’s address but read the transcript and it contained “nothing new.” Obama claimed the prime minister did not offer any “viable alternatives” to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
But while some Democrats continued to seethe over House Speaker John Boehner’s decision to invite Netanyahu, other lawmakers said the prime minister delivered an important message.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., called the speech “powerful, persuasive and correct.”
“The deal being negotiated today is reminiscent of Munich in 1938,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, referring to the deal handing over parts of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany.
The question now is whether lawmakers would be able to throw up any roadblocks to a potential Iran agreement.
One option in the works is a bill that would call for a vote in Congress on any deal.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced Tuesday that the Senate would vote on that bill next week. Obama has threatened to veto the legislation, but it’s unclear whether Congress might be able to override.
Congress also has put on hold a bill that would tee up additional sanctions against Iran if a deal falls through.
For now, Obama and his advisers say they are intent on keeping Iran to its word, should a deal be reached.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the approach is “distrust and verify.”
Obama said if he signs off on any agreement, it would be because he sees it as the best way to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. “For us to pass up on that potential opportunity would be a great mistake,” he said.
Netanyahu gave a starkly different assessment Tuesday.
He warned the “bad deal” in the works “paves Iran’s path to the bomb” and could lead to a “potential nuclear nightmare.”
He said the agreement in the works makes two major concessions. First, it would leave in place a “vast nuclear infrastructure,” since it wouldn’t require nuclear facilities to be destroyed — some centrifuges would be allowed to keep running, while others would merely be disconnected, he said.
Second, Netanyahu said the restrictions would “automatically expire” in about a decade.
“It’s the blink of an eye in the life of a nation,” Netanyahu said.
The deal, he said, “doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb. It paves Iran’s path to the bomb.” He reminded the audience of Iran’s deep history of funding terror and threatening Israel.
After the address, some Democrats continued to hammer his invitation and his message.
“I resent the condescending tone,” Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., said during a lengthy press conference where House Democrats sounded off over the speech Tuesday afternoon. Democrats are angry in large part over the process — Boehner invited Netanyahu without involvement from the White House, which is considered a breach in protocol.
Yarmuth also accused Netanyahu of “fear-mongering” and said: “Now he can go home.”
Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., leveled the same accusation.
“If you can make the people afraid, you can make them do anything,” he said. “That’s what Prime Minister Netanyahu was doing. He was trying to make people afraid.”
In his opening remarks, Netanyahu said he regrets some have perceived his visit as political. “That was never my intention,” he said.
Despite the controversy, he received a standing ovation from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and was interrupted roughly 40 times by applause.