WASHINGTON - With 59 of the 232 members of Congress from US President Barack Obama’s Democratic Party boycotting and top White officials absent, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netayahu Tuesday warned Washington against accepting a nuclear deal with Iran that would be a ‘countdown to a potential nuclear nightmare’ by a country that “will always be an enemy of America”.

In a 39-minute address to the joint session of US Congress, Netanyahu accused the US of negotiating a ‘bad deal’ with Iran. He said that the nuclear agreement would provide Iran “with a short breakout time for a bomb.”

In accepting an invitation by House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, to deliver the address before consulting the White House, Netanyahu made overt a tacit alliance between his conservative Likud Party and the Republican Party.

Netanyahu’s critics in Israel and the US argued he appears to be using the speech in a bid to boost his standing with hawkish Israeli voters a few weeks before he stands for reelection.

But Netanyahu argued he had a moral obligation to denounce US efforts to cut a deal with Iran that the prime minister says would do too little to limit Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

“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.

Netanyahu said Iran’s regime was ‘as radical as ever,’ could not be trusted and the deal being worked out with world powers would not block Iran’s way to a bomb “but paves its way to a bomb.”

“This deal won’t be a farewell to arms, it will be a farewell to arms control ... a countdown to a potential nuclear nightmare,” Netanyahu told lawmakers and visitors in the House of Representatives. His speech drew 26 standing ovations.

At the start of the speech, he sought to defuse the intense politicisation of his appearance, which has hardened divisions between Republicans and Democrats over the White House’s approach to stopping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

He said he was grateful to Obama for his public and private support of Israel, including US military assistance and contributions to Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system.

“I regret that some see my appearance here as political,” he said. “I know that no matter which side of the aisle you sit on, you stand with Israel.” The speech escalated Netanyahu’s campaign against Obama’s Iran diplomacy, putting unprecedented stress on the two leaders’ ties.

Although given the cold shoulder by the US administration, Netanyahu on Monday offered an olive branch, saying he meant no disrespect to Obama by accepting an invitation to speak to US lawmakers that was orchestrated by the president’s rival Republicans.

He said the United States should not ease its restrictions until Iran ‘changes its behaviour’, a comment that could stiffen support among Republicans to maintain US sanctions on Iran or seek to escalate them. But the Israeli leader did not specifically call for new penalties, something Obama has said would undermine ongoing talks and would prompt a veto if passed by Congress.

“If the world powers are not prepared to insist that Iran change its behaviour before a deal is signed, they should at the very least be prepared to insist that Iran changes its behavior before the deal expires,” he said.

He added that the drop in oil prices put the United States and other countries in a stronger position to negotiate with Iran.

“Iran’s nuclear program can be rolled back well beyond the current proposal by insisting on a better deal and keeping up the pressure on a very vulnerable regime, especially given the recent collapse of the price of oil.” On Monday, Obama appeared to wave off any prospect that the bedrock US alliance with Israel might be ruined by the rancor.

Netanyahu, considered a war-monger politician who has played up his security credentials ahead of a closely contested March 17 election in Israel, had denied his speech would have any design other than national survival.

He introduced Nobel peace laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, 86, to prolonged applause and said: “Elie, your life and work inspires and gives meaning to the words ‘Never Again.’ I wish I could promise you, Elie, that the lessons of history have been learned. I can only urge the leaders of the world not to repeat the mistakes of the past.” Wiesel sat in the gallery next to Netanyahu’s wife Sara.

Netanyahu wants the Iranians stripped of nuclear projects that might be used to get a bomb - something Tehran insists it does not want. Washington deems the Israeli demand unrealistic.

Under a 2013 interim deal, the United States and five other powers agreed in principle to let Iran maintain limited uranium enrichment technologies. US National Security Adviser Susan Rice argued on Monday that this commitment could not be undone.

PELOSI: SPEECH AN INSULT TO US INTELLIGENCE

Democrat Minority Leader of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi attacked Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu following his speech before the Congress saying, “As a person who values the relations between the United States and Israel, and who loves Israel, I was close to tears during the entire speech,” she said.

“I was saddened because the entire speech was an insult to the United States’ intelligence, and was full of condescension regarding our knowledge the threat posed by Iran,” she added.

Meanwhile, State Department official claimed that America will “confront aggressively” Iran’s bid to expand its influence across the Middle East even if a nuclear deal is reached, in an apparent attempt to play down Prime Minister Netanyahu’s warnings in his Congress address.

Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to try and reassure US Gulf allies that an Iran deal would not mean Washington would turn a blind eye to the Islamic Republic’s regional ambitions, reports AFP.

“Regardless of what happens in the nuclear file, we will continue to confront aggressively Iranian expansion in the region and Iranian aggressiveness in the region,” the official said.

IRAN DISMISSES ISRAEL’S

OBJECTIONS TO NUCLEAR DEAL

AFP adds from Paris: An Iranian vice-president on Tuesday dismissed Israel’s objections to nuclear talks, saying Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not have much influence.

“I don’t think (Netanyahu’s voice) carries much weight,” Massoumeh Ebtekar, who is vice-president for environmental affairs, told AFP during a visit to Paris.

“They are making their efforts to derail the deal but I think the more logical lobbies on both sides are looking forward to a solution. “The current threats in the region — the radicalism, extremism, terrorism — these all call for a resolution of the issue and a stronger role for Iran.”

Ebtekar said the main sticking point in the negotiations with world powers was the speed at which sweeping sanctions would be removed. “It is and it has been from the beginning,” she said.

“These sanctions have been illegal, they are unjust. They are also adversely affecting not only our environment because they are impeding our access to new technologies to curb pollution, but also the global environment.”