Battle of words: Netanyahu gears up to face Congress, but will Obama be happy?

Published March 3rd, 2015 - 12:00 GMT

US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sparred over Iran's nuclear program on Monday, as the American leader pointedly warned that the Israeli premier had been wrong about the issue before.

On the eve of a disputed speech to the US Congress, Netanyahu declared that a US-Iran deal on curtailing Tehran's nuclear ambitions "could threaten the survival of Israel."

He spoke even as US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart Mohammed Javad Zarif met in Switzerland for talks which are expected to end on Wednesday.

But Obama and his leading foreign policy officials did not leave the field to the Israeli leader, insisting their plan was the best way to contain Iran's alleged threat.

Obama and Netanyahu both insisted the traditional alliance between their countries remains strong, but the US president pointedly criticized the Israeli's previous declarations.

Referring to criticism of a previous interim US-Iran deal that paved the way for this week's ongoing talks in Switzerland, Obama said: "Netanyahu made all sorts of claims.”

"This was going to be a terrible deal," he told Reuters. "This was going to result in Iran getting $50 billion worth of relief. Iran would not abide by the agreement. None of that has come true."

Netanyahu's lobbying trip to Washington came as Kerry was in Geneva and culminates on Tuesday with the address to Congress, seen as a last-ditch bid to derail that effort, one of the last key goals of Obama's foreign policy.

He was invited by Speaker of the House John Boehner, one of Obama's leading Republican opponents, and he accepted with neither party informing the White House.

"My speech is not intended to show any disrespect to President Obama or the office that he holds. I have great respect for both," Netanyahu told thousands of activists at pro-Israel lobby AIPAC's annual conference on Monday.

The pace of the negotiations to hammer out a deal to rein in Iran's suspected nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief has gathered pace as a March 31 deadline nears.

Iran has repeatedly denied its nuclear program has any military aspect. Leaks from Israeli secret service Mossad also showed Iran was "not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons," according to a recent report by The Guardian.

Netanyahu aides say Israel has "excellent information" that talks between the Islamic republic and the world power negotiating the deal are heading toward an easing of international sanctions without the ironclad safeguards the Zionist state says are essential to deny Iran a nuclear bomb.

An official told journalists traveling on Netanyahu's flight to Washington: "In our view, it is a bad agreement."

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, would not indicate the source of the information but said Netanyahu would elaborate in his congressional address on Tuesday.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said that, if the details came from confidential US briefings to Israelis, revealing them would be seen as a betrayal of trust.

Netanyahu's opponents at home and abroad accuse him of endangering Israel's special relationship with the United States in order to further his policy agenda.

He is running for re-election in a March 17 general election.

Similar criticism has been leveled at Obama's Republican opponents in the US Congress.

Meanwhile, Washington political journal The Hill said that 42 Democrat lawmakers plan to boycott Netanyahu's speech on Tuesday.

Obama's National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, did not mince her words in warning Congress not to slap more sanctions on Tehran.

"Congress has played a hugely important role in helping to build our sanctions on Iran, but they shouldn't play the spoiler now," she thundered.

"Additional sanctions or restrictive legislation enacted during the negotiation would blow up the (nuclear) talks, divide the international community and cause the United States to be blamed for the failure to reach a deal."

Iran-US talks continues in Switzerland

Meanwhile, top diplomats from Iran and the US launched a new round of marathon talks on a nuclear deal late Monday in Switzerland.

Kerry and Zarif met twice in a Swiss lakeside hotel at the start of a series of sessions which are scheduled to stretch into Wednesday afternoon.

They were accompanied by US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi, who, according to the Iranian news agency IRNA, had met earlier for about 90 minutes.

Iranian negotiators Abbas Araghchi and Majid Takht Ravanchi also held talks with US Under-Secretary Wendy Sherman as well as the EU's deputy foreign policy chief Helga Schmid, IRNA added.

"We are all focused simultaneously on the need to elicit from Iran answers to questions about their nuclear program — not just answers for today, but answers that are capable of lasting well into the future," Kerry told reporters in Geneva.

He stressed that global powers, grouped under the P5+1, were not seeking "a deal at any cost" but wanted to ensure that the "four pathways to a nuclear bomb have been closed off."

"We hope we can get there, but there is no guarantee," Kerry added.

Kerry and Zarif first met for about 50 minutes on Monday evening, and after a short break, held a second 25-minute meeting before calling it a night.

They were due to resume their talks early Tuesday, for what US officials have promised would likely be "a flowing meeting that runs into another."

Kerry and Zarif have met frequently in past weeks in European cities, hoping to pin down a deal which has eluded the international community for more than a decade.

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