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Netanyahu warns US Congress of Iran’s ‘march of terror’

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the AIPAC pro-Israel US lobby on March 2, a day before his speech to Congress

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned US lawmakers that any nuclear deal with Iran would threaten US and international security in a controversial speech Tuesday to a joint session of the US Congress.

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In a pugnacious speech, interrupted by numerous rounds of applause and occasional cheers from his audience, Netanyahu called on the US Congress to “stand together to stop Iran’s march on conquest, subjugation and terror”.

Expressing his staunch opposition to ongoing nuclear negotiations between the US and Iran, Netanyahu maintained that “Iran has proven time and again that it cannot be trusted” and warned that any deal would “all but guarantee” that Tehran will get nuclear weapons.

The leader of what is widely believed to be the only nuclear armed nation in the Middle East, despite Israel’s refusal to acknowledge its nuclear arsenal, also warned that “the greatest danger facing our world is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons''.

Netanyahu’s speech came as US Secretary of State John Kerry was meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in the Swiss lakeside town of Montreux, in a bid to reach a framework nuclear deal ahead of a late March deadline.

Expressing stark opposition to US President Barack Obama’s bid to contain Iran’s nuclear ambition through negotiations, Netanyahu noted that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, before stressing “this is a very bad deal, we’re better off without it”.

The Israeli leader's appeal to the US Congress came two weeks before elections in which he is seeking a new term, sparking criticism within Israel over Netanyahu politically exploiting his Washington visit.

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The speech also sparked a bipartisan war of words within the US political establishment, with the White House criticising Republican House Speaker John Boehner for bypassing protocols and extending an invitation to Netanyahu. It has also exposed rifts within the US Jewish community and led a number of US politicians to question a “special relationship” that requires Washington to put Israel’s interests above those of the USA.

Despite the reservations inside Washington, Netanyahu was greeted with whoops and cheers as he walked down the central aisle of the House chamber, stopping to greet lawmakers along the way. His nearly 40-minute speech had several lawmakers rising to their feet, although some Democrats were noticeably more restrained.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi conspicuously refrained from applauding on several occasions. When the Israeli leader called for holding out for a better deal with Iran, she held her hands wide and shook her head in disagreement.

Mirroring themes of AIPAC speech

In an address to a powerful pro-Israel lobby on the eve of his US Congress speech, Netanyahu attempted to soften his criticism of US President Barack Obama, declaring, “My speech [to US Congress] is not intended to show any disrespect to President Obama or the esteemed office he holds. I have great respect for both.”

However, addressing the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on Monday, Netanyahu continued to assail Obama’s bid for a nuclear deal with Iran. “I have a moral obligation to speak up in the face of these dangers while there is still time to avert them,'' he said.

Netanyahu’s address to the US Congress on Tuesday mirrored the themes of his AIPAC speech, beginning with declarations of gratitude to Obama before proceeding to denounce the US president’s attempts to reduce an Iranian nuclear threat and draw Tehran back into the international community.

“If Iran wants to be treated like a normal country, let it act like a normal country,” thundered Netanyahu to another round of applause from his audience.

‘Nothing new,’ says Obama; ‘boring,’ says Iran

Reacting to the Israeli prime minister’s speech Tuesday, Obama said that Netanyahu failed to offer any “viable alternatives” to nuclear negotiations with Iran.

"I am not focused in the politics of this. I am not focused on the theatre," Obama said. "As far as I can tell, there was nothing new.

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"On the core issue, which is how to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, which would make it far more dangerous, the prime minister did not offer any viable alternatives."

Meanwhile, Iran rejected Netanyahu’s speech, according to state news agency IRNA.

"The speech today by the Zionist regime's prime minister was boring and repetitive ... and part of the hardliners' election campaign in Tel Aviv," said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham, IRNA reported.

Iran maintains its nuclear programme is solely for civilian purposes.

No enrichment means no deal

While Israel refuses to provide details of its nuclear arms programme, it maintains a “zero enrichment” position on Iran.

"If the deal now being negotiated is accepted by Iran, that deal will not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, it will all but guarantee that Iran will get those nuclear weapons -- lots of them," said Netanyahu. "This deal won't be a farewell to arms, it will be a farewell to arms control ... a countdown to a potential nuclear nightmare," he insisted.

Supporters of the ongoing P5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany) negotiations note that a no-enrichment position effectively means no deal, and a return to a threatening Tehran in one of the world’s most dangerous regions.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS)

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