In his Oval Office remarks, Obama reminded Congress that he intends to call the shots. "We have a system of government in which foreign policy runs through the executive branch and the president, not through other channels," he said.
The president said he did not watch the speech because he was conferring with other world leaders on the crisis in Ukraine. But he said he read it. His verdict was dismissive: "As far as I can tell, there was nothing new."
He then challenged Netanyahu's key contentions that the deal he is negotiating will threaten Israel's existence and guarantee Iran will acquire nuclear weapons. He also called into question Netanyahu's track record for predictions about Iran.
"On the core issue—which is how do we prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon which would make it far more dangerous and would give it scope for even greater action in the region—the prime minister didn't offer any viable alternatives," said the president.
Obama, who said denying nuclear capability to Iran was "one of my primary goals in foreign policy," noted that the United States and other countries came up with "an extraordinarily effective sanctions regime that pressured Iran to come to the table to negotiate in a serious fashion." Already, he claimed, this has led to progress.
And that—he added pointedly—came despite Netanyahu's predictions of doom.
"Keep in mind that when we shaped that interim deal," he said, "Prime Minister Netanyahu made almost the precise same speech about how dangerous that deal was going to be. And yet, over a year later, even Israeli intelligence officers and in some cases members of the Israeli government have to acknowledge that, in fact, it has kept Iran from further pursuing its nuclear program."
Even before the president spoke to reporters, his aides were pressing the argument that Netanyahu failed to offer a viable alternative to the president's approach. To them, there are three options— force Iran to negotiate a deal, continue sanctions, or go for a military solution. Netanyahu, in his speech, argued for continued sanctions until Iran caves. But the administration believes that is an unlikely outcome. If the deal collapses, said the president, "Iran will immediately begin once again pursuing its nuclear program, accelerate its nuclear program, without us having any insight into what they're doing. And without constraint."
Saying that Netanyahu is arguing for the ratcheting up of sanctions, he added: "We have evidence from the past decade that sanctions are not sufficient to prevent Iran from pursuing its nuclear ambitions."
He called it critical that Iran see some chance of future relief from sanctions. Without that, he said Iran will press ahead with its nuclear program.
While he would not predict success in the talks with Iran, Obama said it is the only chance to block the country from getting nuclear weapons. "Nothing else comes close. Sanctions won't do it. Even military action would not be as successful as the deal that we have put forward."