Netanyahu: Iran nuke deal ‘would threaten the survival of Israel’

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JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the international community’s framework nuclear agreement with Iran early Friday, putting him on a collision course with the United States and other close allies as the world tries to close in on a final deal in the coming months.

Netanyahu, who had been outspoken critic of the world’s negotiations with Iran, said he voiced his “strong opposition” to the deal, negotiated by world powers and Iran in Lausanne, Switzerland, in a phone call with President Barack Obama. “A deal based on this framework would threaten the survival of Israel,” he said.

But with the deal being welcomed around the globe, Netanyahu could find have a tough time trying to rally opposition to it as it is finalized ahead of a June 30 deadline. His best bet could lie with the Republican-dominated U.S. Congress.

Netanyahu believes Iran is trying to develop a nuclear bomb — a concern that has been shared by much of the world. He considers a nuclear-armed Iran a threat to Israel’s very existence, given Iranian leaders’ calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, Iran’s support for hostile militant groups across the region and its development of long-range ballistic missiles.

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The framework deal includes a system of limits and inspections on Iranian nuclear facilities, but falls short of Israeli demands to dismantle the program. Netanyahu believes Iran cannot be trusted, and that leaving certain facilities intact would allow the Iranians to reach the capability of building a bomb.

“Such a deal would not block Iran’s path to the bomb. It would pave it,” Netanyahu said.

Yuval Steinitz, his Cabinet minister who monitors the Iranian nuclear program, said Israel would continue to push to cancel or at least improve the deal as it is finalized ahead of a June 30 deadline.

Yoel Guzansky, a former Iran analyst in the Israeli prime minister’s office and a research fellow at the INSS think tank in Tel Aviv, said Thursday’s announcement was a game changer.

The deal starts a process “where Iran will stop being a pariah state,” he said. “Israel will need to see how to inspect Iran on its own, and not rely on the international community.”

A key factor, he said, would be how other Arab countries that share Israel’s concerns about Iran will react. “Israel will have to cooperate and talk to them about the mutual fear about Iran,” he said.

Netanyahu has warned of Iran’s nuclear intentions for years, and has said that preventing Iran from developing a bomb is the mission of his lifetime.

In recent weeks, he stepped up his rhetoric. Last month, Netanyahu harshly criticized the emerging agreement in a speech to the U.S. Congress, enraging the White House because the visit was arranged behind its back with Republican lawmakers.

But the speech, and furious Israeli lobbying to other participants in the Iran talks, appeared to have made little difference.

Britain, Germany, France and Italy — all key European allies and all directly or indirectly involved in the negotiations in Switzerland— welcomed the deal.

“We are closer than ever to an agreement that makes it impossible for Iran to possess nuclear weapons,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. “That is a great credit to all negotiating partners.”

French President Francois Hollande saluted the work of the foreign ministers, but cautioned that sanctions remained on the horizon if the final agreement set for June 30 were not respected.

Russia, another participant in the talks, said the deal could have a “positive influence” on the region. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the framework “paves the way” for a historic agreement that could “contribute to peace and stability in the region.”

In Washington, Obama, who has had a rocky relationship with Netanyahu over Iran and other matters, tried to soothe Israeli concerns. At a news conference, he called the deal “the best option” for preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

In his phone call with Netanyahu, Obama said the framework would bring a deal “that cuts off all of Iran’s pathways to a bomb,” according to the White House. It said the deal “in no way diminishes” U.S. concerns about “Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism and threats toward Israel” or America’s commitment to Israel’s security.

Earlier, Obama said had spoken with the Saudi king, and announced that he was inviting the leaders of six Gulf nations, including Saudi Arabia, to Washington this spring.

Netanyahu has said moderate Arab states see “eye to eye” with him on Iran.

While Netanyahu has threatened in the past to attack Iranian nuclear facilities, that option seems to be a long shot at this stage.

His best bet for foiling the deal could lie with the Congress, where Israel enjoys bipartisan support. Lawmakers have been threatening to try to delay the agreement or even push for new sanctions against Iran.

Reaction from Republicans who control Congress ranged from caution to dire warnings that the pact would be a mere prelude to Tehran obtaining nuclear weapons.

House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, was among many insisting that Congress be allowed to vote on details of any agreement and expressing distrust of Iran.

“It would be naïve to suggest the Iranian regime will not continue to use its nuclear program, and any economic relief, to further destabilize the region,” said Boehner, who visited Israel and met with Netanyahu during a Mideast tour this week.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, a Republican senator from Tennessee, said that as planned, his panel will vote this month on bipartisan legislation requiring congressional review of any final nuclear deal reached by June 30. “The administration first should seek the input of the American people,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the framework. “Now is the time for thoughtful consideration, not rash action that could undermine the prospects for success,” the Nevada Democrat said.

In the Iranian capital of Tehran, hundreds of drivers began honking and flashing their headlights in celebration after the deal was announced. Many motorists, returning home from the Nowruz holiday, the Persian New Year, got out of their cars and began dancing and singing in celebration,

Earlier, President Hassan Rouhani welcomed the deal, saying on his Twitter account that “solutions on key parameters” have been reached and that the final deal will be struck by the end of June.

JOSEF FEDERMAN, Associated Press

AP writers Alan Fram in Washington, Ian Deitch in Jerusalem, Jim Heintz in Moscow, Cara Anna at the United Nations, Jill Lawless in London, Nicole Winfield in Rome, Elaine Ganley in Paris and Nasser Karimi in Tehran contributed to this report.

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