TIME Congress

Top Democratic Iran Hawk Gives Obama Breathing Room on Talks

US-POLITICS-CONGRESS-HOMELAND SECURITY-JOHNSON
US Senator Robert Menendez speaks at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Nov. 13, 2013 in Washington, DC. Mandel NGan—AFP/Getty Images

A top Democrat and Iran hawk has pledged to not support for a few months an Iran sanctions bill, granting the Administration breathing room as the new Republican Congress looks to pass legislation curbing Iran’s nuclear program.

“Many of my Democratic colleagues and I have sent a letter to the president telling him that we will not support passage of the Kirk-Menendez bill on the Senate floor until after March 24 and only if there is no political framework agreement,” said Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, citing his Republican co-sponsor, Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, in a Senate panel hearing. The letter, obtained by Politico, is signed by Democratic supporters of the Kirk sanctions bill, which the letter calls “reasonable and pragmatic.”

The move will end whatever dreams Republicans had of reaching a veto-proof majority for the bill in the near-term and allow the Administration to negotiate as it wants—with less congressional input.

Menendez added that he is “deeply skeptical” that Iran is committed to make the “concessions” necessary to prove to the world that it’s nuclear program is “exclusively peaceful,” but remains “hopeful” that negotiations will work. He said that the Administration has been talking for 18 months yet it still places the odds of a deal below 50-50. Last year the Administration extended talks through June 2015 with the goal of having the major elements of the deal completed by March 24 and its entirety by June 30. A Kirk-Menendez bill wouldn’t go into effect until after the June deadline.

Tony Blinken, the Department of State Deputy Secretary, welcomed the move by Menendez and echoed President Obama, who said in his State of the Union that he would veto new sanction legislation passed by Congress, as it would “all but guarantee that diplomacy fails.”

“I think it recognizes that our negotiators could use the time and space effectively,” he said. “I think the commitment to do that is something that we would see very favorably and would answer a big part of the problem that we had with the idea of legislation—even trigger legislation—being passed now before the end of March.”

The Iran issue is one of many that the Administration and new Republican Congress will fight over this year. The Senate Banking Committee has pledged to have votes on the Kirk-Menendez legislation this week and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker has drafted another proposal that would grant Congress an up-or-down vote on whatever deal the White House reaches with Tehran.

TIME Argentina

Argentine President Seeks Overhaul of Intelligence Services

APTOPIX Argentina Prosecutor Killed
A television screen in a restaurant shows a nationally televised address by Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez in Buenos Aires on Jan. 26, 2015 Ivan Fernandez—AP

Argentina's intelligence agency has been dissolved

(BUENOS AIRES) — President Cristina Fernandez called on Congress to dissolve Argentina’s intelligence services in the wake of the mysterious death of a prosecutor, strongly denying his accusations that she had sought to shield former Iranian officials suspected in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center.

In a nationally televised address late Monday, her first since the death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman hours before he was to give potentially explosive testimony on the alleged cover up, Fernandez said her proposal to create a new spy agency would be presented to lawmakers by the end of the week.

She did not say who might have killed Nisman, but in recent letters posted on social media she had suggested that rogue intelligence agents may have orchestrated the death in a plot against her government. In the speech, she provided no new details of the alleged plot and Fernandez herself oversees the intelligence agencies in question.

She said reforming the clandestine services was a “national debt” the South American country has had since the return of democracy in 1983. Argentina had several years of a brutal dictatorship, and Fernandez suggested that the problems of today had their roots in the years of that military government.

While government officials had previously labeled Nisman’s allegations as absurd, Monday’s speech was the first time Fernandez had taken them on directly.

“It’s unreasonable to think our government could even be suspected of such a maneuver,” said Fernandez, who spoke while sitting in a wheelchair because of a fractured ankle.

Nisman, 51, was found dead Jan. 18 in the bathroom in his apartment, a bullet in his right temple. A .22 caliber gun was found next to him. His death came days after he gave a judge a report alleging Fernandez secretly reached a deal to prevent prosecution of former Iranian officials accused of involvement in the 1994 bombing of Argentina’s largest Jewish center. The attack killed 85 people and injured more than 200. She allegedly reached the deal in exchange for economic and trade benefits with Iran.

Iran has denied the accusation.

Nisman’s death has produced anti-government protests and a myriad of conspiracy theories, ranging from suicide to the involvement of Iranian intelligence agents.

Appearing rested and calm, Fernandez began with a spirited defense of all her government had done to try to solve the 1994 case.

She lamented that more than 20 years later nobody had been convicted or even detained. She noted that her predecessor, husband and former President Nestor Kirchner, had appointed Nisman to the case after years of paralysis.

She said a 2013 memorandum of understanding with Iran, which many in the country have bitterly criticized, was aimed at obtaining cooperation with the Middle Eastern powerhouse to finally seek justice for the bombing.

Fernandez, 61, said the new “Federal Intelligence Agency” would have a director and deputy, and only a few in government would have access to the agency heads, apparently a critique of a system where many in Congress have contact with intelligence officials.

In her two letters the last week, Fernandez suggested Nisman’s death was a plot against her government possibly orchestrated by intelligence services, which had fed false information to Nisman.

In her first letter, published Jan. 19, she suggested that Nisman committed suicide. Three days later, however, she did an about-face, suggesting that he had been killed.

Argentina’s political opposition criticized Fernandez’s latest comments.

Before there are any reforms to the intelligence services, the government “should explain the 11 years it has managed” them, Margarita Stolbizer, an opposition member of Congress, told Todo Noticias.

“The speech was filled with imprecise (statements) and lies,” Stolbizer said. “She did not give answers to the doubts about this government nor about the content of Nisman’s denouncement.”

Employing the fiery rhetoric she is known for, at the end her televised speech, Fernandez told listeners that she had a message for her countrymen.

“I will not be extorted, I am not afraid” of being cited by judges or denounced by investigators, she said. “They will not make me move even a centimeter from what I have always thought.”

TIME White House

White House Chief of Staff Reaffirms ‘Deep and Abiding’ U.S.-Israel Ties

Meet the Press - Season 68
Denis McDonough White House Chief of Staff appears on "Meet the Press" in Washington D.C. on Jan. 25, 2015. William B. Plowman—NBC/Getty Images

Amid reports of a rift with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough repudiated reports of a widening rift between the Obama administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday’s morning talk shows.

An unnamed administration official was quoted by Israeli newspaper Haaretz as saying Netanyahu “spat in our face publicly” when he agreed to accept an invitation to speak to the United States Congress in March without President Obama having been consulted first.

But McDonough said on NBC’s Meet the Press that the alliance between the U.S. and Israel remained strong. “Our relationship with Israel is many-faceted, deep and abiding,” he said. “It’s focused on a shared series of threats, but also, on a shared series of values that one particular instance is not going to inform overwhelmingly.”

The White House Chief of Staff said he could not “guarantee” that an administration official hadn’t made the remarks about Netanyahu, but said he had no idea who might have said them. “It’s not me. It’s not the President,” McDonough told interviewer Chuck Todd.

House Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu to deliver an address to a joint session of Congress when he visits the U.S. in March, without informing the White House first. The trip coincides with negotiations between the U.S. and others with Iran on their nuclear capabilities, which are strongly opposed by Israel and by some in Congress.

The White House said President Obama would not be meeting with Netanyahu during his visit, out of concerns that it might influence the Israeli elections due to take place two weeks after his trip.

The decision has been portrayed as a snub by the Israeli media, though McDonough said on Meet the Press that the principle would be the same for any other ally. “We think as a general matter we in the U.S. stay out of internal politics of our closest allies,” he said.

In a separate interview on ABC’s This Week Sunday, McDonough urged Congress not to pass new sanctions on Iran while the nuclear negotiations are ongoing.

“We’ve asked Congress for forbearance, for some time to allow us to run these negotiations so that it is we who are, united with our allies, maintaining Iran isolated, rather than going with some kind of premature action up there on the Hill that would risk really splintering the international community, making it we, not the Iranians, who are isolated,” he said.

TIME Saudi Arabia

King Abdullah’s Death Shows Saudi Arabia’s Declining Clout

King Abdullah, left, with then-Crown Prince Salman, right, in 2010.
King Abdullah, left, with then-Crown Prince Salman, right, in 2010. AP

The death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has momentarily grabbed the world’s attention, but the real story is that his kingdom matters less than it used to

Ten years ago, the death of a Saudi king would have sent shock waves through Washington. Today, as the Kingdom recovers from the death of King Abdullah yesterday, Saudis don’t carry the same clout. In part, that’s because the U.S. is much less dependent on Middle Eastern oil than it was a few years ago, as U.S. companies have reinvented the way oil and natural gas is produced. Hydraulic fracturing has opened access to liquid energy deposits locked inside once-impenetrable rock formations, and breakthroughs in horizontal drilling methods have made the technology more profitable.

By the end of this decade, the United States is expected to produce almost half the crude oil it consumes. More than 80% of its oil will come from North or South America. By 2020, the United States could become the world’s largest oil producer, and by 2035 the country could be almost entirely self-sufficient in energy. Relations with the Saudis are no longer a crucial feature of U.S. foreign policy, and the surge in global supply, which has helped force oil prices lower in recent months, ensures that others are less concerned with the Saudis as well.

In addition, outsiders are not worried that King Abdullah’s death will make the Kingdom unstable. Newly-crowned King Salman is plenty popular, and other key players—Crown Prince Muqrin, National Guard head Prince Miteab, and Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef—have pragmatic working relations with the new king and with one another. The succession process will appear uneventful from the outside, but Salman will spend the next several months consolidating his authority and building a stable balance of power among factions within the family and across the government.

Another reason the Saudis matter less: They’re now bogged down in the region. Saudi worries that Iran can make mischief even under harsh sanctions only raises fears should a deal be made with the West later this year over its nuclear program, which would ease those sanctions, Tehran would only become a more troublesome rival. But even if there is no deal and sanctions are tightened, Iran will probably become more aggressive to demonstrate its defiance, creating new headaches along Saudi borders.

How will the Saudis manage its local security worries? Along the border with violence-plagued Iraq, the Saudis are actually building a 600-mile wall complete with five layers of fencing, watch towers, night-vision cameras and radar. Terrorist violence in neighboring Yemen and the fall of its government this week add to the Saudi’s sense that their country is under siege. They’re building a wall along Yemen’ s border as well. Fights with ISIS and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will demand attention and money.

King Salman is 79, and he’s been central to Saudi policymaking for 50 years. One day soon, we’ll see generational change in the Saudi leadership. When that happens, we might see a fresh approach to the Kingdom’s two biggest problems: Its inability to build a dynamic, modern economy to harness the energies of Saudi Arabia’s millions of young people and its growing marginalization as an international political and economic force.

That day has not yet come.

Foreign-affairs columnist Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy. His next book, Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World, will be published in May

TIME Yemen

U.S. Downsizes Yemen Embassy Staff as Crisis Builds

Houthi fighters ride a truck near the presidential palace in Sanaa, Jan. 22. 2015.
Houthi fighters ride a truck near the presidential palace in Sanaa, Jan. 22. 2015. Khaled Abdullah—Reuters

U.S. officials say that the embassy won’t be closing

The U.S. has decided to reduce its embassy staff in Yemen following the collapse of the nation’s government at the hands of rebel Houthi fighters.

“The safety and security of U.S. personnel is our top priority in Yemen,” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement. “We are evaluating the security situation on the ground on an ongoing basis. We call on all parties to abide by their public commitments to ensure the security of the diplomatic community, including our personnel.”

The move comes four months after U.S. President Barack Obama lauded Yemen as a model for “successful” counterterrorism partnerships.

The reduction of embassy staff, mainly in response to the security situation, comes at a time when Washington is trying to secure partnerships in the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria while trying to limit Iran’s influence in the region, according to Reuters.

The situation is alarming neighboring Saudi Arabia, which sees Tehran’s military and financial support for the Shi‘ite Houthis as a sign of their growing regional clout.

Former Yemeni President Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who resigned Thursday along with a slew of government officials, was seen as a key ally in the war against jihadist groups like al-Qaeda. However, the Houthis, who now control the capital, are said to loathe al-Qaeda as much as they do the U.S., reports Reuters.

Hadi’s resignation will “absolutely” limit drone strikes and counterterrorism operations in the immediate future, a former U.S. official told the news agency.

TIME White House

Obama Won’t Meet With Netanyahu During Washington Visit

US-ISRAEL-OBAMA-NETANYAHU
US President Barack Obama(R) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on March 3, 2014. Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images

White House blames upcoming elections in Israel

President Obama will not meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu next month when he is in Washington to address a joint session of Congress, the White House said Thursday.

“As a matter of long-standing practice and principle, we do not see heads of state or candidates in close proximity to their elections, so as to avoid the appearance of influencing a democratic election in a foreign country,” National Security Council Spokesperson Bernadette Meehan said in a statement. “Accordingly, the President will not be meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu because of the proximity to the Israeli election, which is just two weeks after his planned address to the U.S. Congress.”

MORE These Are the Elections to Watch Around the World in 2015

On Wednesday, Speaker of the House John Boehner announced that Netanyahu had accepted an invitation to address Congress on Feb. 11, but neither the Republican leader nor the Israelis informed the White House, in a move Press Secretary Josh Earnest called a breach from protocol. The personal relationship between the U.S. and Israeli leader has deteriorated in recent years, even as both leaders argue that the professional relationship has never been stronger.

“The typical protocol would suggest that the leader of a country would contact the leader of another country when he’s traveling there,” he said. “That certainly is how President Obama’s trips are planned when we travel overseas. So this particular event seems to be a departure from that protocol.”

His address comes as congressional Republicans are pressuring Obama over the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran. During his State of the Union Address this week, Obama threatened to veto any additional sanctions legislation passed by the GOP-controlled Congress while talks are ongoing.

“The President has been clear about his opposition to Congress passing new legislation on Iran that could undermine our negotiations and divide the international community,” Meehan said. “The President has had many conversations with the Prime Minister on this matter, and I am sure they will continue to be in contact on this and other important matters.”

In a statement announcing the address, Boehner called Netanyahu “a great friend of our country.” “In this time of challenge, I am asking the Prime Minister to address Congress on the grave threats radical Islam and Iran pose to our security and way of life,” he said. “Americans and Israelis have always stood together in shared cause and common ideals, and now we must rise to the moment again.”

Read next: Yemen’s President Resigns as Capital Remains in Hands of Rebels

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TIME Iran

Ayatollah Urges Western Youth to Examine Islam

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks at a public gathering at his residence in Tehran, Jan. 7, 2015.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks at a public gathering at his residence in Tehran, Jan. 7, 2015. AP

Khamenei encouraged Western youth to find out about Islam for themselves and not allow their image of it to be clouded by prejudice

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei has appealed to youth in North America and Europe to seek out their own understanding of Islam and ignore prejudice in the media.

In the letter published on his Twitter account Wednesday night, Khamenei said he was addressing Western youth because “the future of your nations and countries will be in your hands.”

Writing about Islam and its image as presented to the Western world, Khamenei said: “Many attempts have been made over the past two decades…to place this great religion in the seat of a horrifying enemy.”

“The histories of the United States and Europe are ashamed of slavery, embarrassed by the colonial period and chagrined at the oppression of people of color and non-Christians….You know well that humiliation and spreading hatred and illusionary fear of the “other” have been the common base of all these oppressive profiteers. Now, I would like you to ask yourself why the old policy of spreading “phobia” and hatred has targeted Islam and Muslims with an unprecedented intensity.”

In the 900-word letter, Khamenei set out certain requests for those reading the letter. “Study and research the incentives behind this widespread tarnishing of the image of Islam”, he said, encouring them to try to gain a first hand knowledge of Islam, rather than accepting his own or any other reading of the religion. “Receive knowledge of Islam from its primary and original sources”, he said, recommending they look at the Qur’an rather than the media alone.

He concluded the letter with an appeal to young people in the West not to allow offensive depictions against Islam to create a gulf between them and reality, saying: “Hopefully, due to your sense of responsibility toward the truth, future generations would write the history of this current interaction between Islam and the West with a clearer conscience and lesser resentment.”

TIME Yemen

Houthis’ Rise in Yemen Risks Empowering al-Qaeda

Houthi Shiite Yemeni wearing army uniforms stand atop an armored vehicle, which was seized from the army during recent clashes, outside the house of Yemen's President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in Sanaa, Yemen, Jan. 22, 2015.
Houthi Shiite Yemeni wearing army uniforms stand atop an armored vehicle, which was seized from the army during recent clashes, outside the house of Yemen's President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in Sanaa, Yemen, Jan. 22, 2015. Hani Mohammed—AP

It’s clear who is pulling the strings now in Sana‘a

Yemeni President Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi said Wednesday that he was ready to agree to a deal with Shi‘ite rebels that would bring violence in Sana’a, the capital, to a temporary halt. But the turmoil has left Hadi clinging to power by a thread and threatened one of the U.S.’s most important alliances in the fights against al-Qaeda.

The militants, a group of Shi‘ite Muslims called the Houthis, first swept into the city in September, when they overran military forces and demanded to share power with Hadi’s government. A breakdown in negotiations this week prompted some of the worst violence in the city in years, which left at least nine people dead and culminated in the Houthis’ seizure of the presidential palace on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, in a statement reported on by Reuters, Hadi indicated that the contentious draft constitution was open to amendments, a key rebel demand, but that he would remain in his post. Still, it’s clear who is pulling the strings now in Sana‘a.

MORE Yemen’s President Resigns as Capital Remains in Hands of Rebels

The Houthis are members of a northern minority Shi‘ite sect known as the Zaidi, and they have waged a decade-long on-and-off insurgency against the government calling for greater rights for their people. But since the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011 amid the wave of popular protests that swept the region, the Houthi movement has gained wider traction as self-proclaimed reformers, capitalizing on dissatisfaction with the poor economic and security situations under Hadi’s U.S.-backed government.

The movement’s surge has posed a particularly thorny problem for the U.S. as it fights al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen-based terrorist group that is among al-Qaeda’s most powerful affiliates. AQAP claimed responsibility for the Jan. 7 terrorist attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and has been linked to three failed attempts to take down U.S.-bound airplanes.

For years, the U.S. has struck at AQAP in Yemen with drones and Special Ops, but it has also invested in the Yemeni government to help repel AQAP on the ground, pouring nearly $1 billion of economic, military and humanitarian aid into the country since 2011. That strategy has been hailed as a success by President Barack Obama and was used as a blueprint for the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). But as the government has focused on the Houthi rebellion, AQAP has regained a foothold in southern Yemen. U.S. officials now fear that a prolonged power vacuum in Sana‘a could give AQAP free rein to grow—and to pose new threats to the West.

“Yemen was supposed to be a role model for this smarter approach of building local capacity and getting our allies to do more,” Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in a blog post. “It’s a sobering reality that it’s not working.”

MORE America’s Counterterrorism Policy Is Failing

The Houthis, though, are no friends of the Sunni al-Qaeda militants. The group, which is believed to be backed by the Shi‘ite leadership of Iran, has clashed with al-Qaeda in Yemen and criticized Hadi’s failure to quash Sunni extremism. The problem for the U.S.’s counterterrorism operations is that it also has no interest in an alliance with the U.S.; it has been equally critical of Hadi’s dependence on U.S. support, and it’s motto reads in part, “Death to Israel, Death to America.”

Meanwhile, its growing influence in Sana‘a threatens to marginalize Sunnis in the deeply fractured country and boost support for al-Qaeda. “The Houthis victory also ironically benefits AQAP by polarizing Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, between Shia and Sunni, with AQAP emerging as the protector of Sunni rights,” Riedel writes.

Washington now faces a dilemma in Yemen. If a weakened Hadi stays in power, the U.S. must assess how it can leverage its influence against that of his new partners. On Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a regular press briefing that the “legitimate Yemeni government is led by President Hadi.”

But if Hadi is removed, the U.S. will either have to compete with Iran for the support of a Houthi-dominated government, or make do without a key counterterrorism ally in the region.

Read next: Japan Says It Can’t Reach ISIS to Resolve Hostage Standoff

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TIME Congress

Boehner Invites Israeli Prime Minister to Address Congress on Iran

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio walks to the House chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 14, 2015, as lawmakers gather for a vote to fund the Homeland Security Department but will curb President Barack Obama's executive actions on immigration.
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio walks to the House chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 14, 2015, as lawmakers gather for a vote to fund the Homeland Security Department but will curb President Barack Obama's executive actions on immigration. J. Scott Applewhite—AP

The Republican leader released a letter extending the invitation to Benjamin Netanyahu for Feb. 11

(WASHINGTON) — Rebuffing President Barack Obama on Iran, House Speaker John Boehner said Wednesday he had invited Israel’s prime minister to address a joint meeting of Congress next month about the threats from Tehran and radical Islam.

The Republican leader released a letter extending the invitation to Benjamin Netanyahu for Feb. 11. Boehner also told a private meeting of GOP lawmakers that Congress would move ahead on new penalties against Iran despite Obama’s warning that any legislation would scuttle diplomatic negotiations over the country’s nuclear program.

“You may have seen that on Friday, the president warned us not to move ahead with sanctions on Iran, a state sponsor of terror,” Boehner told colleagues, according to his office. “His exact message to us was: ‘Hold your fire.’ He expects us to stand idly by and do nothing while he cuts a bad deal with Iran.

“Two words: ‘Hell no!’ … We’re going to do no such thing,” the speaker said.

The U.S. and other Western countries believe that Iran is intent on trying to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran claims its nuclear program is peaceful and exists only to produce energy for civilian use.

The high-stakes invitation came just hours after Obama, in his State of the Union address, told Congress that he would veto any sanctions legislation and he urged Congress to delay further penalties against Iran.

“New sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails — alienating America from its allies, and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again,” Obama said Tuesday night. “It doesn’t make sense. That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress. The American people expect us to only go to war as a last resort, and I intend to stay true to that wisdom.”

Obama last week warned that rash action by Congress would increase the risk of a military showdown with Iran, and that “Congress will have to own that as well.” In an unusual step, British Prime Minister David Cameron had called members of Congress to urge them to hold off on sanctions.

The White House had no immediate comment on the Boehner invitation. Typically, requests for foreign leaders to address Congress are made in lengthy consultations with the White House and the State Department.

Boehner said in a statement that Netanyahu “is a great friend of our country, and this invitation carries with it our unwavering commitment to the security and well-being of his people. In this time of challenge, I am asking the prime minister to address Congress on the grave threats radical Islam and Iran pose to our security and way of life. Americans and Israelis have always stood together in shared cause and common ideals, and now we must rise to the moment again.”

Boehner is enlisting Netanyahu as a powerful messenger who could argue for a tougher stance toward Iran and an individual who carries considerable sway with Congress. The prime minister repeatedly has warned that a nuclear deal could undercut Israel’s security.

The invitation comes at a crucial time for Netanyahu, who is in the middle of a re-election campaign.

He has addressed a joint meeting of Congress on two previous occasions, in July 1996 and May 2011.

TIME conflict

Freed Iranian Hostages Weren’t Sure Whether to Criticize Carter or Thank Him

Free After 444 Days
United States hostages departing an airplane on their return from Iran after being held for 444 days, in January of 1981 Express / Getty Images

Jan. 20, 1981: Iran releases 52 Americans who have been held hostage for 444 days

When the Iran Hostage Crisis ended on this day, Jan. 20, in 1981, 52 Americans were freed after being subjected to “acts of barbarism,” as President Carter phrased it, for 444 days.

The crisis had started with American support for the Iranian Shah in the 1970s; when Iranian revolutionaries declared him anti-Islamic and forced him from office in 1979, they quickly moved on to their next target: the American embassy in Tehran, where a group of students took more than 60 people hostage. Iran’s new leader released those among the group who were female, black or non-U.S. citizens, saying that they had already suffered “the oppression of American society.”

Called spies by the Iranians, they were physically and mentally tormented to an extent the American public was unaware of at the time. It was later reported that, in addition to regular beatings, they were subjected to mock firing squads and games of Russian roulette. Many of the hostages later said they never expected to survive the ordeal; TIME reported that one of Iran’s Foreign Ministers thought the hostages could be held “more or less forever.”

Though he was wrong, the situation did end up costing President Carter the 1980 election, many believe, since it was hard to appeal to the public when, for more than a year, the evening news regularly broadcast images of angry Iranian mobs shouting “Death to America” and “Death to Carter.”

But as for the hostages themselves, they had mixed feelings for Carter, whose policies could be blamed for getting them into the crisis, but who worked with single-minded devotion to get them out. During his last few days in office, he worked nearly around the clock on the final negotiations that secured their release, occupying the Oval Office until 15 minutes before Ronald Reagan arrived for his inauguration.

The hostages were released minutes after Reagan was sworn in. Carter flew to Germany to meet with them. The encounter was bittersweet. According to the New York Times’ account, the hostages sat in a circle, passing around copies of American newspapers Carter had brought with him, all bearing headlines about their release. Some were critical of the former president. One asked why a botched rescue mission Carter had authorized the previous spring hadn’t been tried sooner; another asked whether it should have been attempted at all.

But they applauded when he said that the Iranians had not succeeded in their attempts to extort money from the U.S., using the hostages as leverage.

When Carter left, L. Bruce Laingen, the ranking diplomatic officer among the former hostages, escorted him to his limousine. According to the Times, “Mr. Laingen embraced the former President once, held him at arms length and then embraced him a second time before letting him go.”

Read a 1981 account of what the hostages went through, here in the TIME Vault: The Long Ordeal of the Hostages

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