Obama defends Iran nuclear agreement, pans 'tough talk' of deal's critics

US president: America can't commit itself to endless cycle of violence; senators weigh sanctions legislation that would respect 6-month deadline.

US President Barack Obama at the White House 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
US President Barack Obama at the White House 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
WASHINGTON – The Obama administration continued on Monday to defend the breakthrough deal cut over the weekend between world powers and Iran – effectively freezing its expansive nuclear program for a period of six months – as a positive development in the national interests of the United States.
On a tour of the West Coast, US President Barack Obama directly addressed critics of the deal as "blusterous" players all too comfortable living under a perpetual threat of confrontation.
"We cannot commit ourselves to an endless cycle of violence, and tough talk and bluster may be the easy thing to do politically, but it's not the right thing for our security," Obama said in San Francisco. "we cannot rule out peaceful solutions to the world's problems."
In London, US Secretary of State John Kerry gave UK Foreign Minister William Hague a pat on the back for a job well done in Geneva, where the interim deal was cut with the Islamic Republic in the early hours of Sunday morning.
Pushback from lawmakers on Capitol Hill has been cautious and measured.
While the deal has been recognized by members of both parties as a potentially positive step forward, critics in the US Senate – still considering a harsh new sanctions bill against Iran that its government says would nullify the agreement – have all cited contempt for the deal from regional governments as a source of concern.
“It does appear that, if implemented, this agreement could modestly slow Iran’s nuclear ambitions during the next six months,” John McCain (R-Arizona), a leader on foreign policy matters in the Senate, said in a statement.
But “I am concerned this agreement could be a dangerous step that degrades our pressure on the Iranian regime without demonstrable actions on Iran’s part to end its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability.”
“For this reason,” McCain continued, “I will continue working with my colleagues in Congress to keep the pressure on the Iranian regime, including by action on additional sanctions.”
Procedurally, it will be difficult if not impossible for new sanctions to pass through the Senate beyond committee rooms without the support of Democratic leadership in the upper chamber. Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a member of the Senate Banking Committee, has already said new legislation would respect the six-month time frame built into the Geneva deal.
“I expect that the forthcoming sanctions legislation to be considered by the Senate will provide for a six-month window to reach a final agreement before imposing new sanctions on Iran,” said Menendez, “but will, at the same time, be immediately available should the talks falter or Iran fail to implement or breach the interim agreement.”
Announcing the deal from the State Dining Room of the White House on Saturday night local time, US President Barack Obama pressed Congress to hold off on further action until the next round of talks, aimed at forging a final-status agreement, has been completed.
“Now is not the time to move forward on new sanctions,” Obama said, “because doing so would derail this promising first step, alienate us from our allies and risk unraveling the coalition that enabled our sanctions to be enforced in the first place.”
The administration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has not said whether such a bill – respecting the six-month deadline but passed by Congress intending to loom over talks – would be acceptable.
The deal hammered out in Geneva imposes a political construct on the Obama administration that did not exist before: a fixed deadline concerning the Iranian nuclear program.
Timelines have been elusive in the Iranian nuclear saga, which has lasted for more than a decade, since then-president George W. Bush listed Iran as part of an “axis of evil” for attempting to build weapons of mass destruction.
The president now publicly acknowledges that his administration and the international community have six months to test whether a lasting, comprehensive and peaceful diplomatic solution is attainable with Iran.
Failure after mid-May – which also happens to be the self-imposed deadline on US-brokered negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians – would put significant pressure on the White House.
“I think Israel would’ve preferred not to do this first step,” Tony Blinken, deputy national security adviser to the president, told CNN on Monday morning. “If we could’ve negotiated a comprehensive deal right away in a matter of days, we would’ve done that.”
Israel has been unusually vocal in its opposition to the deal, with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu calling the agreement a “historic mistake” on Sunday.
“Some of our Arab friends, for example, are concerned that if we get a deal with Iran on its nuclear program, a comprehensive deal, then we’ll be satisfied and we’ll forget about all of the other things Iran does that they don’t like and that we don’t like,” Blinken said. “And the fact is we won’t. We’ll continue to confront what Iran is doing around the world that is a problem for us and a problem for some of our partners.
But that’s their concern; we’ve reassured them that’s not the case.”
Initially silent, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia finally came out with a statement on the deal on Monday.
The deal could produce positive outcomes for the region, the kingdom said, should all parties stick to its tenets.
“If there was goodwill,” Saudi Arabia’s cabinet said in a released statement, “this agreement could represent a preliminary step towards a comprehensive solution to the Iranian nuclear program.”
Reuters contributed to this report