Obama on Iran Deal: "I'm Not Concerned What Others Say"

Obama on Iran Deal: "I'm Not Concerned What Others Say"
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President Obama on Wednesday said he wants his audiences to believe he is steeped in the smallest details of Iran’s nuclear program, and he is confident the recent international agreement with that nation makes the world safer.

If detractors doubted the depth of Obama’s certitude, the logic behind his calculus, or his commitment to defend the agreement for the next two months and beyond, he gave audiences an hour-long East Room performance to try to set them straight. So eager was the president to answer questions about Iran and knock down criticisms about the agreement announced Tuesday that he whipped out notes to be sure to query himself about the agreement, in case journalists had not raised key points. 

“Nobody has disputed that as a consequence of this agreement, Iran has to drastically reduce its stockpiles of uranium, is cut off from plutonium, the Fordow facility that is underground is converted, that we have an unprecedented inspections regime, that we have snap-back [sanctions] provisions if they cheat,” the president said. “The facts are the facts, and I'm not concerned about what others say about it.” 

Of course, the Capitol Hill briefings by Vice President Biden and others from the administration, the flurry of phone calls to world leaders, the 46-minute interview Tuesday with the New York Times, and an hour-long White House news conference all undercut the president’s feigned unconcern. 

Obama is unlikely to convert congressional Republicans, or Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or presidential candidates who vow to revoke U.S. support for the international pact, should they occupy the Oval Office in 2017. And he won’t hold all Democrats if Congress votes on a resolution in September after reviewing the Iran pact.

“My hope -- I won't prejudge this -- my hope is -- is that everyone in Congress also evaluates this agreement based on the facts, not on politics, not on posturing, not on the fact this is a deal I bring to Congress, as opposed a Republican president, not based on lobbying but based on what's in the national interest of the United States of America,” the president continued.

Congress has power to hand Obama a political defeat, if it rejects the agreement, or to weaken international confidence in the agreement, but the president will have the votes to back up any veto he might exercise, according to lawmakers’ statements this week.

If Congress seeks a new U.S. sanctions regime to constrain Iran’s nuclear program, Obama argued that years of international sanctions failed to halt Tehran’s nuclear momentum. And regardless of what Congress votes to do with U.S. sanctions, he pointed out the United Nations Security Council and the international community are poised to gradually unlock billions of dollars in Iran’s frozen assets and open the door to Tehran’s oil sales in exchange for a decade or more of independently verified nuclear retrenchment and constraints. 

The president did not disparage all the critics, or dismiss their misgivings about putting a temporary lid on one threat in Iran (nuclear) while Tehran waits for billions of dollars to flow as it threatens Israel, bolsters terror organizations and tortures captive Americans. 

But Obama said he ranked Iran’s long menu of threats, and was convinced it was better to make strides against the deadliest threat – nuclear war – and then keep working on the rest.

“Can they potentially try to get more assistance there? Yes,” he said when asked about sanctions relief potentially helping Iran to back terror groups. 

“Should we put more resources into blocking them from getting that assistance to Hezbollah? Yes,” Obama said, as he asked and answered his own questions.

“Is the incremental additional money that they [use] … to try to destabilize the region or send to their proxies -- is that more important than preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon? No.”

After dissecting the details of the agreement, explaining its merits and weighing the world of the possible, the president boiled his defense down to five words: “What is your preferred alternative?” 

He had a response for that question, too. “There really are only two alternatives here. Either the issue of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is resolved diplomatically through a negotiation, or it's resolved through force, through war,” he said 

Diplomacy with Iran has long been his baby, Obama’s bet. Unlike other controversial administration achievements -- the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a law Congress wrote and Obama managed with half-hearted devotion, or fast-track trade negotiating authority, a simple concept tied to a complex 12-nation trade agreement largely shielded from public view – the stakes of the Iran deal are global, devoid of immediate gratification, and place the lives of millions of people into an elaborate paper shelter built to crumble away in intervals. 

Trust the international negotiators who crafted an agreement over two arduous years. Trust the United Nations, which will dispatch inspectors to Iran and enforce the agreement over decades. Or trust the world’s leading nuclear scientists, including Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who understands Iran’s pathways toward a bomb and crafted mechanisms to block them, Obama said, addressing his critics. 

“We've got a historic chance to pursue a safer and more secure world, an opportunity that may not come again in our lifetimes,” he added. “And as president and as commander in chief, I am determined to seize that opportunity.”


Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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