Nation & World

Obama launches fierce defense of Iran nuclear deal

President Obama waves as he leaves the stage after speaking about the nuclear deal with Iran, Wednesday, at American University in Washington.
President Obama waves as he leaves the stage after speaking about the nuclear deal with Iran, Wednesday, at American University in Washington. Associated Press

President Obama launched an all-out drive Wednesday for congressional approval of the Iran nuclear deal, casting it as a choice between a diplomatic solution that will prevent the Islamic Republic from developing nuclear weapons and “some form of war.”

In one of the most aggressive speeches of his presidency, Obama showed he’s determined to preserve a signature foreign-policy achievement against attacks by Republican lawmakers, right-wing critics and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

At one point, he accused Republican opponents of being in league with Iranian hardliners, who also are bent on sabotaging the accord, and of distorting its provisions.

In an effort to harness lingering anger over the eight-year U.S. occupation of Iraq, he noted that critics of the deal include many of the same people who used false information about Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs to promote the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

“It was a mindset characterized by a preference for military action over diplomacy, a mindset that put a premium on unilateral U.S. action over the painstaking work of building international consensus, a mindset that exaggerated threats beyond what the intelligence supported,” he said.

“Let’s not mince words. The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war,” Obama said, a reference to his oft-made pledge to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon by all means, including force.

The symbolism of war versus peace even carried through to the speech’s venue – American University, several miles north of the White House, where 52 years ago President John F. Kennedy promoted a peaceful approach to dealing with the nuclear-armed Soviet Union in the face of hardline opposition.

Obama’s remarks came as the administration mounts a full-court press to sell the deal to Congress – or at least to win over enough lawmakers to sustain his promised veto of a resolution of disapproval that could block the United States from lifting sanctions and scuttle the deal. Sustaining his veto will require 34 votes in the Senate or 145 votes in the House.

He called the dispute over the deal “the most consequential foreign policy debate” since the Iraq invasion and argued that Democrats who opposed the agreement would be siding with the architects of the Iraq war.

He dismissed opponents’ arguments that surgical strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities would be “quick and painless.”

“But if we’ve learned anything from the last decade, it’s that wars in general and wars in the Middle East in particular are anything but simple,” he said. “How can we, in good conscience, justify war before we’ve tested a diplomatic agreement that achieves our objectives?”

Obama took on all his critics. He largely dismissed Republicans as being motivated by “knee-jerk” partisan politics, saying that “before the ink was even dry on this deal, before Congress even read it, a majority of Republicans declared their virulent opposition.” And he jabbed at “lobbyists and pundits” for transforming themselves into “armchair nuclear scientists.”

He noted that Iranian hardliners chanting “Death to America” have been among the plan’s staunchest critics, and he suggested that “they’re making common cause with the Republican caucus.”

If Congress abandons the deal, he said, Iran could end up with sanctions relief without accepting any of the constraints or inspections it accepted under the accord.

“In that sense, the critics are right,” Obama said. “Walk away from this agreement, and you will get a better deal – for Iran.”