President Barack Obama launched an all-out drive Wednesday for congressional approval of the Iran nuclear deal, casting it as a choice between a diplomatic solution that will prevent the Islamic Republic from developing nuclear weapons and “some form of war.”
In one of the most aggressive speeches of his presidency, Obama showed he’s determined to preserve a signature foreign policy achievement against attacks by Republican lawmakers, right-wing critics, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
At one point, he accused Republican opponents of being in league with Iranian hardliners, who also are bent on sabotaging the accord, and of distorting its provisions.
In an effort to harness lingering anger over the eight-year U.S. occupation of Iraq, he noted that critics of the deal include many of the same people who used false information about Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs to promote the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
“It was a mindset characterized by a preference for military action over diplomacy, a mindset that put a premium on unilateral U.S. action over the painstaking work of building international consensus, a mindset that exaggerated threats beyond what the intelligence supported,” he said.
If we’ve learned anything from the last decade, it’s that wars in general and wars in the Middle East in particular are anything but simple.
“Let’s not mince words. The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war,” Obama said, a reference to his oft-made pledge to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon by all means, including force.
The symbolism of war versus peace even carried through to the speech’s venue – American University, several miles north of the White House, where 52 years ago President John F. Kennedy promoted a peaceful approach to dealing with the nuclear-armed Soviet Union in the face of hardline opposition.
This is the strongest nonproliferation ever negotiated
President Barack Obama
The tenor of the president’s remarked enraged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who was especially angered over Obama’s comparison of members of Congress to Iranians chanting “death to America.”
“Let me repeat my call for the president to shelve these talking points no one believes and resist these insults no one deserves so we can all aim higher —and rise to the moment together,” McConnell said. “The president needs to retract his bizarre and preposterous comments, and both supporters and defenders of the president’s deal with Iran should reject this offensive rhetoric.”
Obama’s remarks came as the administration mounts a full court press to sell the deal to Congress – or at least to win over enough lawmakers to sustain his promised veto of a resolution of disapproval that could block the United States from lifting sanctions and scuttle the deal. Sustaining his veto will require 34 votes in the Senate or 145 votes in the House.
He called the dispute over the deal “the most consequential foreign policy debate” since the Iraq invasion and argued that Democrats who opposed the agreement would be siding with the architects of the Iraq war.
He dismissed opponents’ arguments that surgical strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities would be “quick and painless.”
“But if we’ve learned anything from the last decade, it’s that wars in general and wars in the Middle East in particular are anything but simple,” he said. “How can we, in good conscience, justify war before we’ve tested a diplomatic agreement that achieves our objectives?”
Obama took on all his critics. He largely dismissed Republicans as being motivated by “knee-jerk” partisan politics, saying that “before the ink was even dry on this deal, before Congress even read it, a majority of Republicans declared their virulent opposition.” And he jabbed at “lobbyists and pundits” for transforming themselves into “armchair nuclear scientists.”
He noted that Iranian hardliners chanting “Death to America” have been among the plan’s staunchest critics, and he suggested that “they’re making common cause with the Republican caucus.”
If Congress abandons the deal, he said, Iran could end up with sanctions relief without accepting any of the constraints or inspections it accepted under the accord.
“In that sense, the critics are right,” Obama said. “Walk away from this agreement, and you will get a better deal – for Iran.”
Under the accord, reached last month after two years of negotiations between the Islamic Republic and the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, Iran would accept strict limits on uranium enrichment, the process the produces fuel for power plants and bombs, scrap a heavy-water reactor that could produce bomb-grade plutonium and be subjected to the most stringent international inspection system ever imposed by the U.N. International Atomic Engery Agency.
In return, Iran would win relief from international nuclear-related sanctions that have devastated its economy.
Obama, who spoke a day after Netanyahu unleashed his latest attack on the deal, went after the Israeli leader as well, saying a nuclear armed Iran is more dangerous to Israel and the world than an Iran that benefits from sanctions relief.
“I recognize that Prime Minister Netanyahu disagrees, disagrees strongly,” Obama said. “I do not doubt his sincerity, but I believe he is wrong.”
Obama said that he’s not heard a better alternative to the deal, and he sought to counter his critics’ arguments point by point, asserting that if Iran tries to build a bomb in 15 years, the deal ensures that the United States will have the tools to detect it and a stronger basis under international law to respond.
He acknowledged that Iran would received $56 billion frozen under the sanctions, but he disputed assertions that all of the cash would go to Iranian-backed terrorist organizations like Hezbollah.
“The truth is that Iran has always found a way to fund these efforts, and whatever benefit Iran may claim from sanctions relief pales in comparison to the danger it could pose with a nuclear weapon,” he said.
He urged Americans to call their lawmakers and urged them to support the deal.
Obama appeared to have an uphill slog in persuading the Republican-controlled Congress not pass a resolution of disapproval, which was introduced in the House on Tuesday.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., declared Wednesday that most panel members were left “with even greater concerns” about inspections of Iran’s nuclear sites after an unusual closed-door briefing by IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano.
You should put me in the very, very skeptical column.
Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn.
He and others expressed frustration with Amano’s refusal to share confidential side agreements between the agency and Iran that lay out the process by which Tehran is to end years of stone-walling and answer allegations that it researched a nuclear warhead until at least late 2003.
“It was not a reassuring meeting,” said Corker, who contended that the Obama administration is obliged to obtain the documents for lawmakers under a law that mandated a 60-day congressional review of the deal.
Amano, who flew to Washington from his headquarters in Vienna, Austria, specifically to answer the committee’s questions, defended his refusal to share the side agreements, saying that this was standard practice with all such arrangements between the agency and its individual members, including the United States.
“All of the comprehensive safeguards agreements contain a clause that stipulates that the director general has the obligation to protect confidential information (about a member’s nuclear facilities),” the veteran Japanese diplomat said. “So protecting the confidential information means protecting the safeguard regime. That’s why I cannot share the information.”
His explanations failed to satisfy Corker, other Republicans and Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., a leading Democratic critic of the deal, who expressed irritation that Iran rejected a U.S. demand that it make available for IAEA interviews scientists believed to have been involved in the alleged warhead research.
Amano, however, showed little concern over Iran’s response, saying that his experts would have access to “people who know the issues” during the process to resolve the research allegation, which Iran has denied.
“There will be occasions to have access, to have discussions, exchanges of views with experts,” he said.