WASHINGTON – National Security Adviser Susan Rice, the face of the Obama administration in a fierce debate with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over nuclear negotiations with Iran, broadly defended US President Barack Obama’s approach on Monday night.
Speaking to thousands of delegates at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference in Washington, Rice repeatedly underscored Obama’s commitment to Israel’s security.
But regarding Netanyahu, who is in Washington without a single meeting on his schedule with administration officials, Rice chose fighting words to address both the politics of the moment surrounding his highly anticipated address to Congress on Tuesday, as well as the substantive differences separating their governments concerning Iran.
“The question now is whether we can achieve a comprehensive deal – a good deal,” Rice stated. “We cannot let a totally unachievable ideal stand in the way of a good deal.”
A good deal, according the White House, will expand Iran’s breakout time – the amount of time required to acquire the necessary materials and assemble a nuclear weapon – for a decade or more.
They seek a comprehensive agreement by the end of June and a political framework agreement by the end of this month, that “cuts off every single pathway” they may have to adequate fissile material, she told the crowd of roughly 16,000.
The US also seeks to trace the entire supply chain of Iran’s program, starting with the mining of raw materials, in order to best ensure visibility into possible covert activity through the siphoning of that material.
“We cannot let a totally unachievable ideal stand in the way of a good deal,” Rice said.
“I know that some of you will be urging Congress to insist that Iran forgo its domestic enrichment capacity entirely. But as desirable as that would be,” she said to dissenting applause, “it is neither realistic nor achievable.
Even our closest international partners in the P5+1 do not support denying Iran the ability ever to pursue peaceful nuclear energy – if that is our goal, our partners will abandon us.
“Simply put, that is not a viable negotiating position,” she continued. “Nor is it even attainable. The plain fact is, no one can make Iran unlearn the scientific and nuclear expertise it already possesses.”
Rice said the US stands behind Israel come hell or high water.
But doing so, she said, means supporting a good deal, as currently defined by the administration.
A collapse in the talks, she warned, would likely lead Tehran to rapidly ramp up its nuclear program.
“Sound bites won’t stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Rice continued, in an apparent swipe at Netanyahu’s pending address. “Strong diplomacy backed by pressure can.”
“No wonder Israelis view this as an existential threat,” Rice told AIPAC. “But this is not simply a challenge for Israel. Its a danger to the entire world, including the United States.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), also addressed the AIPAC conference on Monday. Menendez, author of legislation that would trigger new sanctions on Iran if negotiations fail to reach agreement on its nuclear program, harshly criticized the Obama administration’s current position in the talks on Monday night as “simply not good enough.”
“It is not a good deal if it leaves Iran as a threshold nuclear state, or if Iran decides to kick out inspectors,” he said.
“It’s not a good deal if Iran proceeds on a covert path and we have no more than a year to respond. It’s not enough time for us to do anything other than exercise a military option.”
The senator, who also supports a new bill that would require a congressional vote of approval for Obama to lift US sanctions, took overt swipes at senior administration officials involved in the negotiations.
Criticizing Rice, who spoke moments before him to the conference, for calling Netanyahu’s visit to Washington “destructive of the fabric of the relationship” between Israel and the United States, Menendez took issue and said he will be proud to personally escort the premier into the House chamber on Tuesday.
“Prime Minister Cameron of Great Britain came to Washington in January – and lobbied Congress against Iran sanctions,” he said. “It seems to me that if it’s okay for one prime minister to express his views, it should be good for all prime ministers.”
Menendez has had an openly hostile relationship with the White House ever since the president threatened twice to veto his bill.
“Here we are, near the end of negotiations, and the goal posts have moved from dismantlement to reconfiguration, Menendez said. “From a peaceful nuclear program to just enough to detect break out. From no right-to-enrichment to getting an alarm system.”