Obama goes on offensive ahead of Netanyahu’s speech to Congress + Video


President seeks to head off Israeli prime minister’s criticism of Iran nuclear talks, declaring freeze on weapons program far better than sanctions or military action 

US president tackles the Israeli prime minister’s objections over negotiations with Iran.

The White House has delivered a pre-emptive strike against Binyamin Netanyahu’s anticipated attack on US negotiations with Iran – with Barack Obama revealing key details of an emerging deal that is designed to prevent Tehran developing nuclear weapons for “a decade or more”.

The Israeli prime minister is expected on Tuesday to criticise the proposals as threatening his country’s “survival” in a highly charged speech to Congress that has angered Democrats and plunged US relations with Israel to new lows.

“Soundbites won’t stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, told a conference of pro-Israeli activists in Washington in an uncompromising speech that did little to ease tensions.

Earlier Obama appeared to confirm rumours, previously denied, that the deal with Iran could last as little as 10 years, although he pledged the duration would at least be “double digits”.

“If in fact Iran can accept terms that would ensure a one-year breakout period for 10 years or longer and during that period we know Iran is not developing a nuclear weapon … why would we not take that deal when we know the alternatives, whether through sanctions or military actions, will not result in as much assurance that Iran [is not] developing a nuclear weapon?” the president told Reuters.

According to those involved the negotiations, the duration of the agreement is one of several variables being juggled by diplomats to try to bridge the remaining gap between the international coalition and the Iranian government over the extent of its civil enrichment capability.

Obama said the chances of successful deal remained difficult but his interview appeared to contradict recent denials by his press secretary that a 10-year option was under consideration. Officials later told the Guardian there was “no discrepancy” because the president also said it could be longer.

A similar timeframe was suggested by Rice, who insisted it was the best option available and critics were “unrealistic” to expect Iran would agree to permanent restraints on what it sees a vital components of its civil nuclear program.

“A deal that extends for a decade or more would accomplish this goal better than any other course of action – longer, by far, than military strikes, which would only set back Iran’s program for a fraction of the time,” said Rice.

But her insistence that Iran should also be allowed to retain significant numbers of centrifuges – which are used to enrich uranium fuel for power stations but can also create material for a bomb – was met with derision by some 16,000 delegates watching her speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac).

“I know that some of you will be urging Congress to insist that Iran forgo its domestic enrichment capacity entirely,” said Rice, before she was interrupted by an ironic standing ovation. “But, as desirable as that would be, it is neither realistic nor achievable,” she added once the crowd eventually went quiet.

“There’s simply no alternative that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon better – or longer – than the type of deal we seek.”

Despite briefly breaking into Hebrew on six separate occasions during her speech at Aipac, Rice received only muted applause for her insistence that the US remained fully committed to Israel’s security.

Speaking away from the Aipac conference, which was attended by both Rice and Obama’s UN ambassador, Samantha Power, on Monday, the president was less diplomatic and more scathing of Netanyahu’s position.

“[He] thinks that the best way to do that is either through doubling down on more sanctions or through military action, ensuring that Iran has absolutely no enrichment capabilities whatsoever,” Obama told Reuters.

“And there’s no expert on Iran or nuclear proliferation around the world that seriously thinks that Iran is going to respond to additional sanctions by eliminating its nuclear program.”

He also repeated his criticism of Netanyahu’s decision to visit Washington – just two weeks before an Israeli election – calling it a “distraction” from the priority of negotiations with Iran.

“Not only does it look like it politicises the relationship but what’s also a problem is when the topic of the prime minister’s speech is an area where the executive branch – the US president and his team – have a disagreement with the other side,” said Obama.

“As a matter of policy, we think it’s a mistake for the prime minister of any country to come to speak before Congress a few weeks before they are about to have an election,” he said. “It makes it look like we are taking sides.”

The polarising effect of the row even among Democrats was underlined when pro-Israel Senator Bob Menendez received rapturous applause by contrasting recent lobbying in support of Obama by the British prime minister, David Cameron.

“It feels to me that if it’s OK for one prime minister to express his views, it should be good for all prime ministers,” said Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey.

“[This rumoured deal] is not a good deal if it leaves Iran as a threshold nuclear state and we have no more than a year to respond.”


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