The State Department accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of taking congressional testimony by Secretary of State John Kerry out of context in Netanyahu's address to a joint meeting of Congress Tuesday.
In a statement released early Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki quoted in full an article written on the website FactCheck.org that claimed certain remarks made by Netanyahu about Iran's nuclear program "misrepresented what Kerry had said" in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Feb. 25.
In his address, Netanyahu said Kerry had disclosed that Iran could "legitimately possess" 190,000 centrifuges for the enrichment of uranium by the time a deal designed to restrict Iran's nuclear capability for a decade would expire. The Israeli leader, who referred to Kerry as "my long-time friend" in his speech, said that amount of centrifuges could put Iran "weeks away from having enough enriched uranium for an entire arsenal of nuclear weapons and this with full international legitimacy."
However, the FactCheck.org article circulated by Psaki noted that Kerry had only said that a peaceful nuclear power program could use that same number of centrifuges.
"[I]f you have a civilian power plant that’s producing power legitimately and not a threat to proliferation, you could have as many as 190,000 or more centrifuges," Kerry told committee members.
Later in his speech, Netanyahu described the proposed agreement as one that "doesn't block Iran's path to the bomb; it paves Iran's path to the bomb.
"So why would anyone make this deal?" the prime minister asked. "Because they hope that Iran will change for the better in the coming years, or they believe that the alternative to this deal is worse? Well, I disagree."
The State Department statement was the latest salvo in an ongoing war of words that marked the run-up to Netanyahu's address and climaxed with harsh criticism for the Israeli leader from congressional Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who branded the speech an "insult to the intelligence of the United States."
President Obama himself told reporters Tuesday afternoon that he didn't watch Netanyahu's address but read the transcript and it contained "nothing new." Obama claimed the prime minister did not offer any "viable alternatives" to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
As Netanyahu spoke Tuesday, Kerry was holding a three-hour negotiating session with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in the Swiss resort of Montreux in hopes of completing an international framework agreement to curb Tehran's nuclear program. However, in that same Feb. 25 hearing, Kerry said Netanyahu "may have a judgment that just may not be correct here" in initially opposing an interim agreement reached this past November.
Negotiators from the so-called P5+1 countries, a group which includes the U.S., Britain, Russia, China, Germany, and France, are scrambling to meet a March 31 deadline to finalize the framework of a permanent deal, with a July deadline for a final agreement.
During his speech, Netanyahu urged negotiators to keep pressuring with economic sanctions because Tehran needs the deal most.
"Now, if Iran threatens to walk away from the table — and this often happens in a Persian bazaar — call their bluff," Netanyahu said. "They'll be back, because they need the deal a lot more than you do."
In a sign that Netanyahu's speech was resonating outside the chamber of the House of Representatives, Zarif decried comments that President Barack Obama made on Monday — as part of an administration-wide effort to push back on the Israeli's criticism — in which he said that Iran would have to suspend its nuclear activities for at least a decade as part of any final agreement.
Zarif, in a statement quoted by Iran's official news agency IRNA, said Obama's remarks were "unacceptable and threatening," aimed at attracting U.S. public opinion while reacting to Netanyahu "and other extremist opponents of the talks."
For his part, Kerry told reporters Tuesday that both sides were "working away, productively."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.