Iran Deal a Win for Obama, at Least for Now
Not a movie title, but the day on which Iran gains a coveted financial prize and President Obama gains the satisfaction of verifying that a global nuclear enemy has been shackled for what he believes will be at least a decade.
The deal with Iran will swap gradual sanctions relief for tightly wrapped restrictions on its declared and covert nuclear capabilities, dependent on near-permanent independent inspections and supervision. The significant achievement, covering Iran’s nuclear behavior but not its terror or human rights barbarities, placed Obama and Secretary John Kerry into the history books on Tuesday. It also put them in the crosshairs on Capitol Hill and in Israel.
The next round of diplomacy will task the president with persuading the U.S. legislative body, which was shut out of the talks with Tehran while the United States and partner nations maneuvered through months of grinding discussions with the Iranians about centrifuges and yellowcake inside stately European hotels.
Congress by September could use its power to reject the Iran agreement, a prospect concerning enough to Obama that he included a warning midway through his early morning remarks at the White House.
“I will veto any legislation that prevents the successful implementation of this deal,” he said with Vice President Biden beside him. “Precisely because the stakes are so high, this is not the time for politics or posturing.”
Obama painted conservatives’ immediate rebukes as politics, but the concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, history of cheating, support for terrorists, detention of at least three Americans and another who is unaccounted for, and hatred of Israel cross party lines. The president is not arguing that Iran won’t plot and scheme as a deadly enemy of the United States. He is trying to sell the American people and Congress on the merits of averting a nuclear cataclysm and containing Iran’s hoped-for arsenal for at least a decade.
The television images in Washington and Vienna of Obama, Biden and Kerry – three Democrats who each sought the presidency with worries about Tehran’s nuclear momentum in full view – contrasted with critics who asserted that tighter sanctions or even military action against Iran remained better options than unlocking billions of dollars inside a country that threatens its neighbors and the United States. Some accused Obama and global partners of unintentionally setting off an arms race elsewhere in the Middle East.
Netanyahu called the pact a bad deal and a “historic mistake.” He repeated his familiar vow that Israel would defend itself. “Israel is not bound by this deal with Iran, and Israel is not bound by this deal with Iran because Iran continues to seek our destruction.”
A senior White House official, anticipating Obama’s call Tuesday afternoon to the Israeli prime minister, conceded their divide. The president will send Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to Israel next week to discuss the Iran agreement. In a written statement, Obama’s aides said the president assured Netanyahu “that today's agreement on the nuclear issue will not diminish our concerns regarding Iran's support for terrorism and threats toward Israel.”
The president’s pitch to world leaders, including to Saudi Arabia and other allies in the Middle East, is that tight restrictions accepted by Iran to dismantle, contain and disclose nuclear activities under long-term United Nations inspections makes it all but impossible for Tehran to get close enough to acquire the materials for a nuclear bomb, let alone construct a functional weapon in the foreseeable future.
“There is no permission slip for Iran,” the senior official continued.
When Iran meets verifiable targets set out in the agreement, it will qualify for billions of dollars in phased relief from international sanctions, which were conceived by the United Nations to bring Iran’s leaders to the negotiating table, administration officials said. During the sanctions years, Iran’s nuclear program slowed but then raced ahead. Experts believe the international negotiations, conducted under restrictions to freeze Iran’s program, served as a check on Tehran’s activities in verifiable ways that sanctions never achieved.
Because the leading Western nations are parties to Tuesday’s announced pact with Iran, any effort by Congress to reject the terms is unlikely to result in a return to the kind of global sanctions regime critics say they favor, according to the administration.
Obama called House and Senate leaders Monday night to alert them that a pact had been reached in Vienna, after the president spoke with Kerry late in the day. The president also telephoned former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who met with House and Senate Democrats on Tuesday as part of her presidential bid. Offering her general support before getting a detailed briefing from the administration, Clinton described her concerns about enforcement and Iran’s support for terror organizations.
Discussions with lawmakers are expected to continue for weeks, and Congress by law has 60 days to review the agreement. The president’s aides said he welcomes the debate.
Amid a heated presidential contest in the United States and while world leaders dissect a complex agreement with detailed annexes, the Iran debate could move swiftly next week when a draft resolution is expected to be presented at the United Nations Security Council to replace sanctions in place against Iran for decades.
An U.N. arms embargo against Iran would remain in place for five years and a missile embargo would continue for eight years, under the terms of the Vienna pact.
“It exceeds what we thought we could get at the beginning of this process,” the senior official added during a conference call with reporters. “If there was a decision taken by Congress to kill this deal, there is not a scenario that anybody can see whereby the rest of the world would sign up for additional sanctions … a vote to kill the deal would potentially be a vote to kill the sanctions regime.”
Obama has repeatedly rejected claims that he approached the Iran talks with the eagerness of a president hungry for a foreign policy legacy rosier than the rise of the Islamic State, China’s assertive posture in the South China Sea, and the aggression of nationalist Russia.
The president’s response is that any bad deal with Iran would become evident soon enough to tarnish his claim on history. The United States does not trust Iran, he argues. But it believes Iran’s leadership is eager to escape economic punishment, and will pay a nuclear price.
“If Iran violates the deal, all of these sanctions will snap back into place,” Obama said. “So there’s a very clear incentive for Iran to follow through, and there are very real consequences for a violation. That's the deal.”