President Obama took the offensive Wednesday to sell the landmark nuclear deal with Iran, delivering a stinging rebuttal to critiques by Israeli leaders and Republicans in Congress and warning bluntly that rejecting the agreement inevitably would lead to war.
Obama mixed a fervent appeal for public support with a blistering attack on his critics, mocking what he called “armchair nuclear scientists” and accusing others of “knee-jerk partisanship” that threatens to undermine U.S. security.
If congressional lawmakers vote to kill the deal, he warned, “they will not merely pave Iran’s pathway to a bomb, [they] would accelerate” its ability to build a nuclear weapon, language likely to raise hackles on Capitol Hill.
Obama also took on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who used a satellite hookup Tuesday night to urge Jewish Americans to unite against the deal. The president said that Netanyahu “is wrong” on the facts and that Israel is the only nation to publicly oppose the accord.
Most potently, perhaps, Obama repeatedly argued that many of the most vocal U.S. opponents were responsible for sending America to war in Iraq in 2003. He warned that heeding them again would lead to another historic mistake that would endanger U.S. credibility and global security.
“The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war — maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months from now, but soon,” Obama said. Without a deal, any future president determined to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon would have “one option — another war in the Middle East.”
Speaking for nearly an hour at American University, Obama sought to win over wavering Democrats in Congress before he heads to Martha’s Vineyard on a two-week family holiday and as senators join their House colleagues on an extended August recess.
But polls show many Americans remain uncertain about the deal, so Obama also aimed his remarks more broadly. The White House is nervous that opponents will use August, and tens of millions of dollars in advertising, to sway public opinion before Congress returns next month.
With 10 Republicans expected to uniformly denounce the nuclear deal at the first formal debate of the 2016 presidential race Thursday night in Cleveland, Obama praised what he called “the strongest nonproliferation agreement ever negotiated” even as he acknowledged that it did not resolve other U.S. concerns with Iran, including Tehran’s support for terrorist groups.
“I’ve had to make a lot of tough calls as president, but whether or not this deal is good for American security is not one of those calls,” he said. “It’s not even close.”
A nuclear-armed Iran, he said, “is far more dangerous to Israel, to America, and to the world than an Iran that benefits from sanctions relief.”
Obama repeatedly invoked gauzy images of Presidents Kennedy and Reagan as bipartisan models for negotiating with a sworn adversary, citing their nuclear arms control deals with the Soviet Union. Kennedy announced the first nuclear test-ban treaty negotiations with Moscow at the same university 52 years ago.
But the normally circumspect Obama sharpened his speech to a knife’s edge at several points, once even comparing his GOP critics in Congress to the zealots in Iran.
“It’s those hard-liners chanting ‘Death to America’ who have been most opposed to the deal,” he said. “They’re making common cause with the Republican caucus.”
GOP leaders quickly accused Obama of distorting the facts and using inflammatory language.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called on Obama to “retract his bizarre and preposterous comments.”
“Instead of offering facts and proving this deal will make America safer, the president is relying on partisan attacks, false claims and fear,” said Cory Fritz, press secretary to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
The deal, which was negotiated with Iran by the U.S. and five other world powers, would strictly limit Iran’s nuclear activities for at least a decade in exchange for an easing of energy and trade sanctions and the release of more than $55 billion in Iranian funds frozen in overseas accounts.
To ensure compliance, the pact calls for Iran to give United Nations inspectors unfettered access to known nuclear sites, as well as negotiated access to suspect sites.
Critics say those provisions are inadequate, but Obama stood fast. “If Iran cheats, we can catch them and we will,” he said, adding that the U.S. would “snap back” sanctions if necessary.
Under legislation passed in May, Congress has until Sept. 17 to vote on a resolution of approval or disapproval, or not vote at all. The White House hopes to avoid a negative vote, but at a minimum, Obama wants to lock in enough Democrats to sustain a veto.
“He’s in a fight,” said Alexandra Stanton, vice chair at J Street, a liberal pro-Israel advocacy group, who met with Obama this week. “And he is outlining once again, to incredible detail, why he believes there is only one set of facts here.”
In his speech, Obama outlined what he called the most common critiques and then swiftly knocked them back as invalid or false.
“Those who say we can just walk away from this deal and maintain sanctions are selling a fantasy,” he said. International sanctions would collapse, and the Iranians would face few of the constraints imposed by the accord, letting them move far closer to a bomb.
“So in that sense the critics are right,” he said. “Walk away from this agreement and you will get a better deal — for Iran,” he said, sparking applause.
The hard-hitting speech is certain to strain Obama’s relations with some U.S. Jewish groups, an important Democratic constituency.
Many are on record as opposed to the deal, a position Obama portrayed as pro-war and neoconservative — treacherous ground for any president, especially one seeking backing from Democrats and Jewish lawmakers.
In a meeting with about 20 leaders of Jewish American groups at the White House on Tuesday, Obama said he would be diplomatic in his address. As he put the speech together, however, White House advisors say he articulated a different priority: to be perfectly clear about what he believes is at stake.
Netanyahu addressed the same group from the Jewish Federations of North America in a satellite hookup Tuesday, urging the leaders to block the deal and angrily denying an intent to start a war.
“They claim that we want war,” he said. “This isn’t just wrong. It’s outrageous.”