President Barack Obama assailed critics of his Iran nuclear deal Wednesday as “selling a fantasy” to the American people, warning Congress that blocking the accord would damage the nation’s credibility and increase the likelihood of more war in the Middle East.
Besides challenging opponents at home, Obama cast Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as an isolated international opponent of the historic accord, saying, “I do not doubt his sincerity, but I believe he is wrong.”
Presenting himself as having done more than any other president to strengthen Israel’s security, he said the United States would continue to help Israel keep its military edge.
“As president of the United States it would be an abrogation of my constitutional duty to act against my best judgment simply because it causes temporary friction with a dear friend and ally,” he said.
The agreement would require Iran to dismantle most of its nuclear program for at least a decade in exchange for billions of dollars in relief from international sanctions. But Netanyahu and some critics in the U.S. argue that it would not stop Iran from building a bomb.
The president’s blunt remarks, in an hour-long address at American University, were part of an intense lobbying campaign by the White House ahead of Congress’ vote next month to either approve or disapprove the international agreement. Opponents of the agreement have streamed to Capitol Hill, too, to make their case, and they have spent tens of millions of dollars on advertisements.
The stakes are high, Obama said, contending that it isn’t just Iran’s ability to build a bomb that is on the line but also “America’s credibility as the anchor of the international system.”
“The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy and some form of war,” Obama said. “Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months from now, but soon.”
Obama’s diplomatic overtures to Iran, a centerpiece of his foreign policy agenda, have put him at odds with Republicans and some Democrats, as well as with Netanyahu, who has campaigned vigorously against the deal.
Netanyahu and U.S. critics of the Iran deal say Obama is presenting a false choice between accepting the deal at hand and going to war to stop Iran from building a bomb.
Opponents of the agreement say it does not go far enough to ensure that Iran will never be able to develop a nuclear weapon and argue that lifting sanctions on Iran will only empower it to do so.
Some of Obama’s fiercest critics in Congress quickly dismissed the president’s argument.
“Instead of dismantling Iran’s nuclear program, this agreement would lock it in place,” Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, senior Republicans on the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.
Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said lawmakers left a meeting with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s chief meant to allay concerns about the deal more worried than when they went in.
“It was not a reassuring meeting,” Corker said after the meeting with IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano. The IAEA would undertake much of the monitoring and verification work.
Obama told Jewish leaders in a private meeting Tuesday that he understood their concerns about being cast as warmongers. But he made his case even more aggressively Wednesday by linking critics of the deal to those who pushed for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a conflict now widely considered a mistake.
“I have repeatedly challenged anyone opposed to this deal to put forward a better, plausible alternative,” he said. “I have yet to hear one. What I’ve heard instead are the same types of arguments that we heard in the run-up to the Iraq war.”
Drawing on more distant history, Obama said the Iran deal was in line with America’s long tradition of “strong, principled diplomacy” with adversaries, including the former Soviet Union. He spoke at the same university where John F. Kennedy called for Cold War diplomacy and nuclear disarmament, and he referred to Presidents Kennedy and Ronald Reagan a number of times.
The Iran accord was finalized last month after more than a year of tense negotiations between Iran, the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia. The president argues that if Congress blocks the accord, the European Union and the United Nations will lift their sanctions anyway, collapsing the best leverage the international community has to stop Iran from building a bomb.
Opponents say the deal leaves too much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure in place and allows Tehran to rebuild its program too quickly. Critics also contend Iran will use an influx of funds now frozen under the sanctions to boost terrorist activity around the Middle East.
Obama said he has no illusions about Iran’s support for terrorism and takes seriously its incendiary rhetoric about the U.S. But he also said the Iranian hardliners chanting “Death to America” in the streets of Tehran don’t represent all of Iran.
“In fact, it’s those hardliners who are most comfortable with the status quo,” he said. “It’s those hardliners chanting “Death to America” who have been most opposed to the deal. They’re making common cause with the Republican caucus.”
The White House is preparing for the likelihood that lawmakers will vote against the deal next month and is focusing its lobbying efforts on getting enough Democrats to sustain a presidential veto. Only one chamber of Congress is needed to sustain a veto and keep the deal in place.
Obama needs 146 Democrats in the House or 34 in the Senate to sustain a veto. As of Wednesday afternoon, 16 House Democrats and 11 senators had publicly declared their support for the deal.
The White House has said it is confident it can sustain a veto at least in the House.