Iran nuclear deal possible, bond with Israel 'unbreakable' - Obama

US President Barack Obama defended nuclear negotiations with Iran and maintained that a favorable settlement was still possible, all before a controversial address to Congress by Israel's leader that has strained relations between the US and Tel Aviv.

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Iran is still "more likely than not” to reject a deal, but the odds of success are better today than three or five months ago, Obama told Reuters in an interview on Monday. There are “still some big gaps that have to be filled,” the president added.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Washington for a controversial visit, speaking to Israeli lobby American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on Monday before a scheduled address to Congress on Tuesday. Netanyahu was invited by Republican lawmakers who bypassed the White House and State Department, ruffling more than a few political feathers in the US capital. Fifty congressional Democrats have announced they would boycott the PM’s speech.

In the Reuters interview, Obama downplayed the tensions with the government in Tel Aviv, describing the bond between the US and Israel as “unbreakable.” He did, however, describe Netanyahu’s visit as a “mistake” because it created an appearance of the US taking sides in Israeli politics during the electoral campaign.

The US and Israel share the goal of “making sure Iran does not have a nuclear weapon,” but there is a “substantial disagreement in terms of how to achieve that,” Obama said.

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While the Israeli leader has insisted Iran would have “absolutely no enrichment capabilities whatsoever” under an ideal agreement, Washington’s negotiators have proposed a program under which Iran would keep the limited enrichment program at current levels, or even roll it back, for “double-digit years” Obama said. He added that the long-term goal of the talks was for Iran to “ultimately re-enter into the community of nations.

Numerous obstacles to the deal still remain. The Iranians may reject the rigorous inspections and low levels of uranium enrichment the US is insisting on. “But if they do agree to it, it would be far more effective in controlling their nuclear program than any military action we could take, any military action Israel could take and far more effective than sanctions will be,” Obama said.

Both the White House and the State Department have urged Netanyahu to mind his words Tuesday. Speaking in Geneva on Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry said that discussing the details of the talks in public “would make it more difficult” to achieve a deal. On Monday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest indicated that Netanyahu revealing classified US information would “betray” America’s trust.

There’s no good reason for us not to let the negotiations play themselves out,” Obama urged, saying that if agreed upon, this deal “is most likely to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.”

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