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Few US lawmakers change minds after Netanyahu Iran speech

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress heightened partisan tensions and helped accelerate plans to consider legislation on US President Barack Obama's effort to strike a nuclear deal with Iran.

[WASHINGTON] Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress heightened partisan tensions and helped accelerate plans to consider legislation on US President Barack Obama's effort to strike a nuclear deal with Iran.

The speech to a packed chamber Tuesday, with at least 40 Democratic lawmakers skipping in protest, prompted an angry response from Democrats who back Mr Obama's efforts.

Most notable in her displeasure was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, who said she was was "near tears throughout."

Ms Pelosi called Netanyahu's remarks an "insult to the intelligence of the United States," adding that she was "saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation."

Republicans lauded the speech, which they said could boost their call for a stronger congressional role in the talks.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing next week on a bill sponsored by the panel's Republican chairman and its top Democrat that would require congressional review of any deal with Iran and block the administration from suspending congressional sanctions for 60 days.

The speech, a sharp indictment of Iran's current and past behaviour on the international stage, underscored the need for congressional scrutiny of any agreement authorised by Mr Obama and the other five nations involved in the discussions, said Bob Corker, the Senate Foreign Relations committee's chairman.

"It crystallised a lot of thinking," said Mr Corker, a Tennessee Republican and sponsor of the bill to require lawmakers' approval before sanctions are lifted. "If you ran for the United States Senate, you would want to have the opportunity to vote on whether the sanctions that we put in place can be lifted based on the type of deal that ends up being negotiated if one comes to fruition."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said the Senate will debate Corker's bill next week.

Nevada Senator Harry Reid, the top Democrat in the chamber, said lawmakers should wait to act on legislation until they know whether a deal has been reached on Iran's nuclear programme.

"I'm convinced that we should all just take a deep breath and find out if there's going to be an agreement," Mr Reid said in an interview in the US Capitol after the speech and a meeting between Senate leaders and Netanyahu later in the day.


"Until we find that out, we're just short-circuiting the system," Mr Reid said.

Mr Netanyahu said in his speech that an emerging US agreement with Iran would backfire and leave the Islamic Republic with a "vast nuclear" programme.

"This is a very bad deal. We're better off without it," the Israeli leader said in a direct challenge to Mr Obama's stance on negotiations with Iran.

Those supporting Mr Obama's position held firm.

Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat who didn't attend the address and instead watched it from her office, said after that "the speech had many falsehoods about it."

Among them, she said, was that Iran can somehow "unlearn" what it now knows about how to achieve nuclear capability. She said the only way to address that issue is the kind of "careful negotiations" going on now.


The second-ranking Senate Democrat, Richard Durbin of Illinois, predicted beforehand that Netanyahu's words would change few lawmakers' minds.

Everyone wants to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, Mr Durbin said in a statement after the address. "These negotiations and the peaceful resolution we hope they yield must be given a chance to succeed," he said.

The Israeli prime minister accepted the invitation from Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio to address Congress without consulting the administration, adding to tensions with an ally that provides US$3.1 billion in annual military aid to Israel.

After the speech, Mr Obama told reporters he had read the transcript of the address.

"As far as I can tell there was nothing new," Mr Obama said. Mr Netanyahu "didn't offer any viable alternatives" on preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, he said.


Former Senator Joe Lieberman, a Democrat turned Independent, said he thought the "most significant practical impact" of the speech would be to boost support for tougher sanctions on Iran if negotiations fail or for the Senate legislation to require Congressional review if there is a deal.

Mr Netanyahu's visit occurred less than a week after Mr Corker and New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, introduced a measure that would give Congress the power to review any agreement with Iran to curb its nuclear program.

Mr Obama would veto the bill, Bernadette Meehan, a National Security Council spokeswoman, said in an e-mailed statement.

"We are in the final weeks of an international negotiation," she said. "We should give our negotiators the best chance of success, rather than complicating their efforts." It's unclear whether Congress would have the votes to override the veto.

While Menendez and Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, are also sponsors of the bill, many Democrats have resisted passing any Iran-related legislation saying they're concerned that doing so could harm the current negotiations.


Some Democrats also chose not to attend the Israeli leader's speech on Tuesday. At least 40 members of the party, including seven senators, said they would skip Mr Netanyahu's appearance before the joint meeting of Congress.

Even as some Democrats viewed the invitation as an affront to Mr Obama, there were no organised boycotts of the speech.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a potential 2016 Republican presidential contender, said political issues "are nothing more than a distraction" and the focus should be on the substance of the speech.

"The single gravest national security threat facing the United States today is the threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapon capability," Mr Cruz said in an interview at the Capitol.

The Obama administration has been seeking to reach a deal with Iran that would prevent it from enriching uranium that could be used in a nuclear weapon.

Mr Netanyahu vehemently opposes the current framework for negotiations, arguing that Tehran cannot be trusted.

Further sanctions would jeopardise the negotiations, perhaps leading to war with Iran if it then moved toward producing nuclear weapons, Mr Obama has said. The talks are due to continue to June 30.

Mr Obama ruled out meeting with Mr Netanyahu while he's in Washington, saying it comes too close to Israel's March 17 elections.