President Obama on Wednesday abandoned any pretense of persuading Republicans in Congress to support the nuclear deal the U.S. and five other world powers negotiated with Iran. In a nearly hour-long speech delivered at American University, the president scorned most of the deal’s critics, particularly those that insist that the U.S. should hold out for a “better” deal. He accused them of “selling a fantasy.”
Obama also restated his controversial claim that those calling for the scuttling of the agreement are effectively calling for war in the Middle East – something that prompted the Israeli Embassy in Washington to Tweet out its objection even as Obama was speaking.
Under the deal, Iran promises to never seek a nuclear weapon and agrees to substantial limits on its use of nuclear enrichment facilities for up to 15 years as well as an open-ended inspections regime in exchange for relief from crippling international sanctions. Critics of the deal, primarily Republican members of the U.S. Congress and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have called the deal a mistake that will guarantee that Iran eventually obtains a bomb.
Not long after the speech, the office of House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) sent an email to the media with a video clip from Netanyahu’s speech to Congress earlier this year. “We don't have to bet the security of the world on the hope that Iran will change for the better,” he said.
Netanyahu has been calling for Congress to block the agreement, which it can only do by passing a motion of disapproval and then overriding the president’s inevitable veto in both House of Congress. The override would require a dozen Democrats to oppose the deal in the Senate and more than three dozen Democrats to do so in the House.
When the details of the deal were first released, the administration made it sound as though trying to persuade Republicans on the merits of the case was their goal. But in his remarks Wednesday, Obama abandoned that path when he compared the GOP representatives to Iranian radicals.
The president said that much of the opposition to his administration’s deal was motivated by “knee-jerk partisanship” and pointed out the similarities between the position taken by Congressional Republicans and Iranian radicals who oppose any concessions with regard to their country’s nuclear program.
“It's those hardliners chanting "Death to America" who have been most opposed to the deal,” Obama said. “They're making common cause with the Republican Caucus.”
He was also dismissive of claims that the U.S. could unilaterally walk away from the deal and preserve the status quo, when five other major world powers, China, Russia, Germany, Great Britain and France were all in support of the deal.
“If, as has also been suggested, we tried to maintain unilateral sanctions…we would be standing alone,” he said. “We cannot dictate the foreign, economic and energy policies of every major power in the world.”
U.S. allies, he said, are not going to be willing to continue sanctions, which also hurt them, because the U.S. Congress doesn’t like the deal. One way or other, he said, much of the sanctions pressure on Iran is going to be removed.
“What's more likely to happen should Congress reject this deal is that Iran would end up with some form of sanctions relief without having to accept any of the constraints or inspections required by this deal,” he said. “So in that sense, the critics are right. Walk away from this agreement, and you will get a better deal -- for Iran.”
The aggressive posture adopted by the White House appears to a sign that the administration is confident in the outcome. While Obama may still lose some big name Democrats, including Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the administration has a Democratic firewall on Capitol Hill to either block a resolution of disapproval this fall or sustain a presidential veto if the resolution clears the Senate and House.
Senate Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) strongly embraced the deal last week as a “diplomatic masterpiece,” while Sens. Barbara Boxer of California, Tim Kaine of Virginia and Bill Nelson of Florida publicly declared their support. Kaine, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was a skeptic in the early going, so bringing him on board was an important victory for the administration.
Sen. Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, has yet to declare, but he is expected to support the nuclear agreement and bring other Democrats along with him. Obama has suffered a few high profile defections in the House, with New York Reps. Steve Israel and Nita Lowey and Rep. Ted Deutsch of Florida coming out against them. The three are prominent Jewish members of Congress and – like Schumer – have voiced sympathy for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strong opposition to the agreement.
However, 151 House Democrats signed a letter in May urging Obama to reach a negotiated settlement with Iran on its nuclear program, and not one of those members has come out against the final agreement so far, according to media reports.
In reality, the president never stood a chance of wooing Republicans to his side. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain of Arizona and freshman Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, and scores of other Republicans blasted the agreement even before the final details were finally revealed last month in Vienna.
Many complained that the final agreement was stacked in Iran’s favor, lifting onerous economic sanctions against Tehran that has cost that country tens of billions of dollars in return for an agreement to scale back – but not completely shutter – its nuclear program. Critics argue that once Iran is flush with cash again, it can use those resources to foment more terrorist activity throughout the Middle East, while having to wait only a decade or so to resume its drive toward developing a nuclear weapon.
“President Obama’s deal with Iran empowers one of our chief antagonists and the world’s most radical Islamist regime with a pathway to the bomb, missiles to deliver it, money to pay for it, and the means to acquire a new military arsenal. Instead of dismantling Iran’s nuclear program, this agreement would lock it in place,” McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a presidential candidate, said in a joint statement today.