WASHINGTON – War is the inevitable consequence of Congress rejecting the Iran nuclear accord, US President Barack Obama stated on Wednesday, in an address billed by the White House as a signature speech defending his chief foreign policy achievement.
The address, delivered at American University in honor of a 1963 speech delivered there by John F. Kennedy outlining his pursuit of diplomacy with the Soviet Union, was a fervent defense of the accord against critics he described as partisan and discredited.
Obama tied opponents of the agreement to the architects and supporters of the Iraq War in 2003.
“It was a mindset characterized by a preference for military action over diplomacy,” he said. And “more than a decade later, we still live with the consequences of the decision to invade Iraq.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu supported that war, he pointed out on Tuesday evening in a small
, private meeting with leaders from the American Jewish community.
Several of those figures raised the concern that comparisons of the two situations reinforce an old canard: That Jews were partly responsible for the invasion of Baghdad, and lobbied for it in Washington.
In that meeting, Obama said he would be mindful of the sensitivity of the linkage.
And indeed, in his speech, he vacillated between casting his critics as posturing politicians and those with sincere concerns over the behavior of the Islamic Republic.
“No one can blame Israelis for having a deep skepticism about any dealings with a government like Iran’s,” he said, “which includes leaders who deny the Holocaust, embrace and ideology of anti-Semitism, facilitate the flow of rockets that are rained on Israel’s borders.”
Yet “it would be the abdication of my constitutional duty to act against my best judgment simply because it causes temporary friction with a dear friend and ally,” the president continued. “I do not believe it would be the right thing to do for the United States or the right thing to do for Israel.”
Israel is the sole state that stands publicly opposed to the deal, he asserted. And indeed, several Gulf nations and Saudi Arabia have voiced cautious endorsement of the pact in recent days, despite well-documented, private misgivings, accounted for by members of the press, Congress and the Obama administration itself.
“Because this is such a strong deal,” Obama said, “every nation in the world that has commented publicly – with the exception of the Israeli government – has expressed support.”
Several of the largest pro-Israel groups are working fervently against the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the Iran deal is formally known. Those groups include the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, as well as the American Jewish Committee, which announced its “overwhelming” opposition in a statement on Wednesday.
“There are too many risks, concerns, and ambiguities for us to lend our support,” said David Harris, AJC’s executive director. “By abandoning the earlier negotiating posture of dismantling sanctions in exchange for Iranian dismantlement of its nuclear infrastructure, and instead replacing it with what is essentially a temporary freeze on its program, the P5+1 has indeed validated Iran’s future status as a nuclear threshold state, a point that President Obama himself acknowledged in a media interview.”
The president, however, said that the deal is not just the best option out of a series of bad ones – but rather, the best deal ever negotiated on the issue of nuclear weapons.
“This is the strongest non-proliferation agreement ever negotiated,” he charged.
And abandoning it, he said, leaves the US with no “fantasy” alternative of a “better deal” yet to be negotiated.
“Congressional rejection of this deal leaves one option,” he said. “Let’s not mince words – the choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war.”
Members of Congress are facing that choice, preparing for a consequential vote in September on whether or not they approve or disapprove of the agreement. The Republican caucus is united in its opposition to the deal, thus making the fight over Democrats – a plurality of whom remain undeclared on the matter.
In the speech, Obama asked the American people to call their members of Congress and register their support for the agreement. For Congress to kill the deal, two thirds of both the Senate and House of Representatives would have to disapprove of the measure over the course of two distinct votes.
“It is particularly galling to hear the president try to defend his nuclear agreement with Iran by claiming that its critics also supported the war in Iraq,” senators Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and John McCain (R-Arizona) said in a joint statement after the speech. Both lawmakers oppose the agreement.
“Having presided over the collapse of our hard-won gains in Iraq,” they continued, “the rise of the most threatening terrorist army in the world, the most devastating civil war and humanitarian catastrophe in generations in Syria, the spread of conflict and radicalism across the Middle East and much of Africa, a failed reset with Russia, and escalating cyber attacks and other acts of aggression for which our adversaries pay no price, the president should not throw stones from his glass house.”
Addressing the deal’s sunset clauses, which will allow Iran to grow its nuclear infrastructure in size and efficiency in its out years, the president said they were necessary because, “that’s how arms control agreements work.”The ban on Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons, work on nuclear weaponization technology,
, and several inspections standards are permanent, he added.
The alternative is a reality with no constraints on Iran’s nuclear work, as well as the fraying of international sanctions on its government – “a better deal... for Iran,” he quipped.
The crowd included the ambassadors of Britain, Russia, China, France, Germany and the EU to Washington, as well as several members of the US delegation that negotiated the deal with Iran.
“A nuclear-armed Iran is far more dangerous to Israel,” he continued, “than an Iran that benefits from sanctions relief.” He claimed Netanyahu disagrees with this assessment, and said that – while he respects the prime minister and the fears of the Israeli public – he believes the government is fundamentally wrong on the matter.
“If we’re serious about confronting Iran’s destabilizing activities, it is hard to imagine a worse approach than blocking this deal,” Obama said.
Israel is not questioning Obama’s sincerity, but rather disagreeing with his position, a senior Israeli official said in response to Obama’s address at American University.
According to the official, the accord does not prevent war, but rather brings it closer, because it gives Iran international legitimacy to build infrastructure to manufacture an arsenal of nuclear bombs, and because it funds its terror machine with hundreds of billions of dollars.
The deal keeps in Iran’s hands nuclear infrastructure not needed for civilian nuclear needs, but essential for a nuclear military program. The claim that it is not possible for Iran to hide a military nuclear program does not stand the test of reality, since Iran has done so in the past, the official added.
The official said that Obama was correct in saying that Iran with a nuclear weapon is much more dangerous than an Iran that enjoys sanctions relief. The problem with this deal, he said, is that it will give Iran both the ability to develop nuclear weapons and to get sanctions relief.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog responded to Obama’s speech by writing on Twitter that the public dispute between the president and Netanyahu “brings smiles to the faces of our enemies and haters who enjoy seeing us bicker before the eyes of the entire world.”
Herzog said it is right of Netanyahu to oppose the deal, but that he should argue with Obama privately in the White House’s Oval Office.Herb Keinon and Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.