Obama: Netanyahu's Congress Speech Distracts From Preventing Nuclear-armed Iran

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U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during an exclusive interview with Reuters, March 2, 2015.Credit: Reuters

WASHINGTON - U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech before Congress would not be harm ties with Israel beyond repair, but that he sees it as a distraction from preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

"I don’t think it’s permanently destructive [for U.S.-Israeli relations]. I think that it is a distraction from what should be our focus. And our focus should be, ‘How do we stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon?'"

In an interview with Reuters, one day before Netanyahu's speech, Obama said he understands Netanyahu's concerns over Iran's nuclear program, but also that, as a matter of policy, he thinks it is "a mistake for the prime minister of any country to come to speak before Congress a few weeks before they’re about to have an election. It makes it look like we are taking sides."

Obama stressed in the interview that the relationship between Israel and the U.S. was unbreakable, adding that under his administration the U.S. has spent billions of dollars on Israel's security and has expanded intelligence cooperation to an unprecedented level.

The U.S. president noted that Israel and the U.S. both strive towards the goal of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran, but that there is a disagreement on what is the best way to reach that goal.

"Netanyahu 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 said. "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."

Obama added that he was concerned the speech could give the impression of politicizing the Israel-U.S. relationship, especially since the topic of the speech is an area where the administration disagrees with "those who offered the invitation," referring to Republican House Speaker John Boehner.

"It’s worth asking them whether when George W. Bush had initiated the war in Iraq and Democrats were controlling Congress, if they had invited let’s say the president of France to appear before Congress to criticize or to air those disagreements," Obama said. "I think most people would say, well that wouldn't be the right thing to do."

Obama said he is trying to negotiate a deal with that would guarantee that Iran would need at least a year in order obtain enough enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb. The one-year breakout capacity, he said, would give the U.S. enough time for a military action to stop Iran, should it decide to obtain nuclear weapons.

Obama said that if Iran agrees to the demands of the P5+1, concerning a tough inspection regime and significantly reduced capability of uranium enrichment, "it would be far more effective in controlling their nuclear program than any military action we could take, any military action Israel could take and far more effective than sanctions will be," Obama said.

The U.S. president said that as long as the U.S. is trying to finalize a deal with Iran, it's worthwhile to see whether a deal can be reached and whether Iran would agree to said deal.

"There's no good reason not to let the negotiations play themselves out," Obama said. "I am confident that if in fact a deal is arrived at, then it's going to be a deal that is most likely to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon."

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