White House warns Netanyahu not to reveal Iran details
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is bracing for Benjamin Netanyahu to spill secret details of Iran nuclear talks, as both camps traded last-minute political jabs ahead of the Israeli prime minister’s controversial address to Congress at 11 a.m. EST on Tuesday.
The White House is uncertain what precise details may come out but aides spent Monday frantically mobilizing after Israeli officials said that the prime minister planned to disclose sensitive details of an agreement taking shape in talks between six world powers and Iran, which has entered a delicate final stage.
Concern and anger among American officials about the nature of what Netanyahu might expose heightened already roiling tensions between the two countries. Secretary of State John Kerry cautioned about the damage such revelations might have on the negotiations and President Barack Obama himself attacked Netanyahu’s judgment.
Netanyahu is expected to use the details to bolster his argument before Congress that the deal under discussion will not prevent Iran from getting a bomb and could therefore threaten the Jewish state’s existence.
The speech, which was organized by House Republican Speaker John Boehner without the White House’s prior knowledge, has already fueled a bitter domestic political row, and the fallout from any shared intelligence details could result in a more fundamental break between Israel and the U.S.
“The release of that information would betray the trust between our allies, and it certainly is inconsistent with the behavior of trusted allies,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday.
Obama isn’t expected to watch Netanyahu’s address. Instead, he’ll be meeting with several of his European counterparts via video conference to discuss the situation in Ukraine, the White House announced Tuesday.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the intelligence committee, told CNN that she hadn’t been told what would be in the speech but that she was concerned. One GOP senator said Israeli officials had described the address as containing “something we have never heard before.”
Blunt words from Obama
Obama bluntly said Monday that Netanyahu had been proven wrong about his diplomatic initiative before, telling Reuters that Netanyahu has in the past made “all sorts of claims” about the deal and that “none of that has come true.”
And Kerry, who met his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif in Switzerland on Monday, cautioned against Netanyahu revealing sensitive details of the negotiations.
“I want to say clearly that doing so would make it more difficult to reach the goal that Israel and others say they share in order to get a good deal,” Kerry said.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf also sent a shot across Netanyahu’s bow, noting that Washington had provided regular classified briefings to the Israeli government on the progress of the talks and that the administration was “incredibly disappointed that some Israeli officials were saying Prime Minister Netanyahu would reveal sensitive information.”
Netanyahu’s aides say that Tuesday’s speech represents the last chance for Israel to register its dismay at the proposed deal, ahead of a late March deadline for a political framework to be reached between the parties, so it is vital that he explains to lawmakers what is in the draft.
‘A bad deal is worse than no deal’
National Security Adviser Susan Rice, meanwhile, told the America Israel Public Affairs Committee annual meeting that the administration would never sign an agreement that did not guarantee Israel’s security.
“I want to be very clear. A bad deal is worse than no deal. If that is the choice, there will be no deal.”
Rice also said that Israel’s insistence that Iran must stop all enrichment of uranium was unrealistic and took a clear shot at Netanyahu on the eve of his speech.
“Soundbites won’t stop Iran getting a nuclear weapon. Strong diplomacy backed by pressure can.”
The appearance on Capitol Hill amounts to a highly unusual case of a foreign leader, who has a fraught relationship with Obama, effectively deciding to side with Republicans in an effort to derail a potentially historic initiative that is one of the president’s top remaining priorities.
“The purpose of my address to Congress,” Netanyahu told the AIPAC on Monday “is to speak up about a potential deal with Iran that could threaten the survival of Israel.”
“I plan to speak about an Iranian regime that is threatening to destroy Israel, that’s devouring country after country in the Middle East, that’s exporting terror throughout the world and that is developing, as we speak, the capacity to make nuclear weapons, lots of them,” Netanyahu said.
The Obama administration says that a deal could verifiably freeze Iran’s nuclear program for at least a decade and stop it short enough of developing a weapon for the world to have time to act if it cheats on the agreement.
A deal that falls short?
Netanyahu however, argues that only an agreement that completely dismantles Iran’s entire nuclear infrastructure and materials is acceptable, and believes the one on the table falls far short of that demand.
Despite the fierce fight over his speech and a partial Democratic Party boycott, Netanyahu insists that he is not meddling in U.S. politics and says he respects Obama despite the personal and political gulf between them.
But his decision to accept the invitation from Boehner has exacerbated a fierce disagreement over Iran and sent political ties between the U.S and Israel tumbling into their deepest crisis in years. Rice has branded Netanyahu’s visit “destructive.”
Despite the escalating dispute over the possible future deal, Earnest said on Monday that it was still far from certain that one would emerge.
“Our likelihood of success when it comes to reaching a deal in the context of these negotiations is only at best 50-50. There are difficult decisions that need to be made by the Iranian government in terms of their willingness to sign onto this agreement. And the president has made clear that he is not going to sign a bad deal.”
Earnest also said that Obama had not watched Netanyahu’s speech to AIPAC and that he doubted the president would tune in on Tuesday when he goes to Congress. In a pointed show of administration pique over the address, Vice President Joe Biden, who normally would attend, is in Guatemala.
Despite the warnings from the State Department and harsh words from the president, the White House did try to tamp down the flaring tensions in addresses by Rice and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power to AIPAC Monday and in delivering several administration statements of support for the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Still, the President will not be meeting with Netanyahu as is customary, or even speak to him by phone. U.S. officials say that is because a meeting between Netanyahu and the President could be construed as an attempt by Washington to interfere in Israel’s general election on March 17.
CNN’s Elise Labott, Dana Bash and Jim Acosta contributed to this report.
By Stephen Collinson