WASHINGTON – Republican lawmakers are crying foul over US President Barack Obama’s tactics in defending the nuclear agreement reached with Iran last month, saying that congressional Democrats share many of their concerns.
Rhetoric over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as it is formally known, has sharpened in recent days ahead of a month-long congressional recess. In a speech targeting critics of the deal at American University in Washington on Wednesday, Obama questioned the motives of critics and compared the Republican caucus to hard-liners in Tehran who chant “Death to America.”
“When we carefully examine the arguments against this deal, none of them stand up to scrutiny,” the president said. “That may be why the rhetoric on the other side is so strident. I suppose some of it can be ascribed to knee-jerk partisanship that has become all too familiar; rhetoric that renders every decision that’s made "a disaster, a surrender."
“Unfortunately,” he continued, “we’re living through a time in American politics where every foreign policy decision is viewed through a partisan prism, evaluated by headline-grabbing sound bites.”
Republicans are virtually united in opposition to the agreement. Several – including presidential candidates Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee – have accused the president of facilitating terrorism through sanctions relief on Iran, and comparing the deal to a set of decisions that preceded the Holocaust.
But the president’s fight for votes is over Democrats – a plurality of whom are undecided, and who have expressed a host of concerns based on their examination of the accord thus far, over the first 18 days of a 60-day review period.
Several congressional leaders pushed back against the deteriorating tone of the debate on Wednesday and Thursday, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), both of whom called for a “dignified” debate on the Senate floor before the vote in September.
The president is “treating this like a political campaign, demonizing your political opponent,” McConnell said on Thursday. “This is not your typical political debate. This is an enormous national security debate.
“The rest of us will be dealing with the consequences of it” once Obama leaves the White House in a year and a half, McConnell added.
“Tone down the rhetoric and let’s talk about the facts.”
McConnell has moved procedurally toward a vote in September on a resolution of disapproval of the agreement. For such a vote to pass with any force of law, both the Senate and House of Representatives will have to reject the agreement, and then, following the president’s promised veto, reject the agreement again, this time by a two-thirds margin in each legislative body.
“I just want to say how disappointed I was in the president’s comments yesterday,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) said on Thursday. “What the president did yesterday by saying that Senator [Ben] Cardin [D-Maryland], our ranking member, who has questions about the Iran deal; Senator [Robert] Menendez [D-New Jersey], who has questions about the Iran deal – by the way, both of which voted against the Iraq War, if I remember correctly.
“We are being compared to the hard-liners in Iran because we have concerns,” Corker continued. “I think everyone has concerns. And people are going to have to make a decision. This is going to be one of the toughest decisions. But he’s trying to shut down debate by saying those that have questions – legitimate questions – are somehow unpatriotic.”
Obama hosted Cardin at the White House on Wednesday night, urging the senator – a key player on foreign affairs and a senior Jewish lawmaker – to vote to approve the agreement. Cardin said he would take his time reviewing the deal and called their meeting “cordial.”
“It’s not what the president says, it’s not what the prime minister of Israel says, it’s not what one interest group or another interest group says,” he told reporters on Thursday.
Cardin said his decision would be based on independent analysis of the agreement and “talking to the people of Maryland.”
One think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is also pushing back against the tenor of the debate. Its executive director, Robert Satloff, has taken to Twitter in recent days to discourage “ridicule” and “name calling.” And its top analysts published a follow-on analysis of the deal this week, after the White House touted a previous study paper by the institute, released on June 24, as an objective standard for reviewing the agreement.
“The JCPOA has several major achievements, especially the long-term restrictions on key aspects of Iran’s declared nuclear program that – if fully implemented, monitored and verified – are likely to prevent Iranian nuclear breakout for up to 15 years,” the new paper asserts. “At the same time, we assess that critical aspects of the JCPOA may fall short of the standards outlined.”
What happens when, at various points in the future, several provisions of the agreement expire, is of primary concern to several lawmakers and experts. Obama says Iran has made permanent commitments not to develop nuclear weapons technology; but critics say the accord legitimizes its work toward an industrial-sized uranium enrichment program, such that the Islamic Republic will become a nuclear threshold state.
In such a scenario, Tehran would have all the material required for a nuclear weapons program – thousands of advanced and operating centrifuges, a growing stockpile of uranium and a delivery system in the form of ballistic missiles, after an embargo on them ends – without recourse.
But the president says that, under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which Iran has been a member since 1970, Tehran cannot ever legitimately weaponize that program.
And Iran restated its commitment to that end in the JCPOA, the administration says.
Obama is arguing that critics of the JCPOA are the same people who supported the Iraq War – in his speech on Wednesday, in a conference call with supporters of his 2008 presidential campaign and in a private meeting with Jewish- American leaders at the White House on Tuesday night.
In that meeting, he noted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu supported the war and disapproved of the JPOA, an interim nuclear deal that structured the comprehensive negotiations, before supporting it.
Several Jewish groups have expressed concerns over the comparison.
And the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is aggressively fighting the deal on Capitol Hill, rejected the assertion in a statement to The Jerusalem Post
“AIPAC took no position whatsoever on the Iraq War nor did we lobby on this issue,” said Marshall Wittmann, spokesman for the organization.
At American University, Obama said that some critics are motivated, in part, by a “sincere affinity for our friend and ally, Israel,” and the concerns of its political leadership.
He said he shares that affinity, but fundamentally disagrees with the validity of the concerns.
Obama said that Israel is the only state in the entire world publicly opposed to the deal.
US Secretary of State John Kerry told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg on Wednesday that if Congress were to shoot down the Iran nuclear agreement, it would be “the ultimate screwing” of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Kerry rejected Israel’s criticism of the nuclear agreement, saying it “is as pro-Israel” as it gets.
Reneging on the nuclear agreement, which has the support of the major world powers, would constitute a setback for Washington and justify anti-American animus in Iran, he said.
“The ayatollah constantly believed that we are untrustworthy, that you can’t negotiate with us, that we will screw them,” Kerry said. “[Having Congress vote down the nuclear pact] will be the ultimate screwing.
“The United States Congress will prove the ayatollah’s suspicion, and there’s no way he’s ever coming back. He will not come back to negotiate. Out of dignity, out of a suspicion that you can’t trust America. America is not going to negotiate in good faith. It didn’t negotiate in good faith now, would be his point.”
Kerry commented on the vociferous opposition to the deal expressed by Israel, which the secretary referred to as “visceral” and “emotional.” He was adamant that the agreement was good for Israel’s geopolitical standing.
“I’ve gone through this backwards and forwards a hundred times and I’m telling you, this deal is as pro-Israel, as pro-Israel’s security, as it gets,” he said. “And I believe that just saying no to this is, in fact, reckless.”
Kerry said that he was “sensitive” to Israeli concerns over Iran’s long-term aims, but he rejected arguments made by Jerusalem that the Islamic Republic was planning its annihilation.
“I haven’t seen anything that says to me [that Iran will implement its vow of wiping Israel off the map],” he said. “They’ve got 80,000 rockets in Hezbollah pointed at Israel, and any number of choices could have been made. They didn’t make the bomb when they had enough material for 10 to 12. They’ve signed on to an agreement where they say they’ll never try and make one and we have a mechanism in place where we can prove that. So I don’t want to get locked into that debate. I think it’s a waste of time here.
“I operate on the presumption that Iran is a fundamental danger, that they are engaged in negative activities throughout the region, that they’re destabilizing places and that they consider Israel a fundamental enemy at this moment in time,” Kerry said. “Everything we have done here [with the nuclear agreement] is not to overlook anything or to diminish any of that; it is to build a bulwark, build an antidote.”
The secretary said that the nuclear deal is even more imperative if Israel’s fears that Iran is plotting its destruction are true, since the agreement, according to him, effectively neutralizes Tehran’s nuclear program.
Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.