To Sell Iran Nuclear Deal, Obama Invokes Iraq War Fiasco
Warning Congress not to derail his agreement, the president compares critics of the Iran nuclear accord to those who backed the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
President Barack Obama on Wednesday made his strongest and most detailed argument to date for his landmark nuclear deal with Iran by likening opponents of the agreement to supporters of the Iraq War — and warning that congressional rejection of the accord could pave the way to a new, bloody, and unpredictable Mideast conflict.
Speaking to a crowd of students, professors, and diplomats at American University, Obama said the nuclear deal now being reviewed by Congress represented the “most consequential foreign-policy debate” since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, and warned lawmakers not to fall for similar arguments that could lead to another disastrous war.
“Between now and the congressional vote in September, you are going to hear a lot of arguments against this deal, backed by tens of millions of dollars in advertising,” Obama said. “And if the rhetoric in these ads and the accompanying commentary sounds familiar, it should, for many of the same people who argued for the war in Iraq are now making the case against the Iran nuclear deal.”
The president’s spirited defense of the agreement included a direct appeal for ordinary Americans to lobby their congressional representatives to support the deal, reflecting an anxiety in the White House about how lawmakers will vote. The administration expects the Republican majority in Congress to reject the deal but is counting on Obama’s fellow Democrats to prevent Republicans from obtaining a veto-proof majority. The administration won three new allies Tuesday, with Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) coming out in support of the deal.
At the same time, though, three prominent Jewish Democrats in the House came out in opposition this week, as Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), and Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) announced they would oppose the deal. Both sides in the debate are focusing heavily on influential Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has remained undecided but whose opinion could determine if Democrats peel away in larger numbers.
A CBS News poll released Tuesday showed Americans were divided over the issue. Nearly half said they did not know enough about the deal to have an opinion, but among those who had made up their minds, 33 percent disapproved while 20 percent backed the deal. The Iran deal is virtually certain to dominate Thursday night’s high-profile GOP debate featuring 10 of the 17 declared Republican presidential candidates, who have been vying to find the most colorful and evocative ways of deriding the deal.
The president’s speech came a day after he met with pro-Israel groups who mostly oppose the accord, including 20 leaders of prominent Jewish organizations, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the National Jewish Democratic Council, and J Street.
According to an individual with knowledge of the meeting, the session lasted for two hours and included the president, Vice President Joe Biden, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, though Obama did almost all the talking.
“The president was meticulous; he went through the agreement in much detail and through the arguments that the opponents make, and he debunked them one by one,” said the individual. “Obviously, he didn’t convert the opponents in the room, but he forced the opponents to rethink the manner of their opposition.”
In his American University speech, Obama noted that both John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were willing to negotiate arms control agreements with the Soviet Union, despite Moscow’s literal ability to destroy the West with its vast array of nuclear weapons.
The president also reiterated what he has made the centerpiece of his ongoing defense of the deal: that the nuclear agreement offered a choice between diplomacy and “some form” of war.
“Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months from now, but soon,” he said, adding that military action would only set Iran back by a few years.
But the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), slammed Obama’s warning of war as a “straw man.”
“For him to say that to me is disheartening,” Corker told reporters after a closed-door briefing with the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
“Our military officials that have sat with this administration all the way through this have said: Never ever has there been any discussion about the fact that if this deal falls apart it would be military action,” Corker added.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who served in Iraq as a U.S. Army officer, was blunter: “No one understands the horrors of war more than a soldier who has fought one. That’s why I’m opposed to the president’s deal.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has long favored negotiations to curtail Iran’s nuclear program, praised the president’s speech, saying he had made a “compelling” case for the deal.
“Pursuing diplomacy before resorting to war must be the hallmark of American global leadership,” she said.
Obama derided Republicans who he said had declared their opposition to the agreement before even reading it.
And he delivered a jab that infuriated Republican lawmakers, drawing a parallel between hard-liners in Iran and opponents of the deal on Capitol Hill.
“It’s those hard-liners chanting ‘Death to America’ who have been most opposed to the deal. They’re making common cause with the Republican Caucus,” Obama said.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) shot back with a tweet: “In desperation, the President sinks to a new low.”
While Obama accused Republicans of engaging in knee-jerk partisanship, he said it was understandable that Israel and its supporters were skeptical of the deal, which he acknowledged would allow Tehran to increase its financial support for its proxies throughout the Middle East.
As a result of the lifting of sanctions, at least some additional money “will flow to activities that we object to,” though it did not mean Iran would be transformed into the dominant power in the region, Obama said.
Still, Obama said it would be a violation of his “constitutional duty to act against my best judgment simply because it causes temporary friction with a dear friend and ally.”
In his remarks Wednesday, Obama said he has never shied away from ordering military action during his presidency, but that this was a case where diplomacy offered an alternative to war.
Those who claimed military action against Iran would be quick and painless ignored the lessons of the last decade, he said.
“The only certainty in war is human suffering, uncertain costs, [and] unintended consequences,” he said.
Harkening back to his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama recalled how he had argued against the Iraq invasion and the hawkish “mindset” that favored unilateral military action over diplomacy.
Obama’s use of the Iraq War as a political cudgel against opponents of the deal carries clear risks for the president. Obama has consistently taken public credit for bringing the long and deeply unpopular Iraq War to what he has called a responsible end, but the Iraqi Army disintegrated last year in the face of the Islamic State, and the militants have conquered vast swaths of the country. Many critics — including prominent Democrats and an array of current and retired senior military commanders — say that Obama’s rush to withdraw American forces helped pave the way for the rise of the Islamic State.
In recent months, Obama has been forced to send roughly 3,000 U.S. troops to train Iraqi forces and tribal fighters to take on the militant group. The Pentagon has also spent almost one full year bombing Islamic State targets in both Iraq and Syria.
Responding to opponents of the deal who say the United States should maintain sanctions on Iran and push for even stricter penalties, Obama said that argument was “a fantasy” and insisted that Tehran would be caught if it tried to carry out clandestine bomb work.
“The bottom line is, if Iran cheats, we can catch them, and we will,” he said.
Privately, many U.S. intelligence and defense officials are far less confident in their ability to ensure full Iranian compliance with the deal, particularly given Iran’s demonstrated skill at hiding nuclear work — and in some cases entire sprawling facilities — from foreign eyes. Iran reportedly has been trying to clean up a suspected nuclear site at Parchin in recent days before the arrival of international inspectors, according to satellite imagery.
Obama, for his part, said the nuclear agreement placed unprecedented restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activity without removing any options for future U.S. presidents to act. And as a result, he said he had no doubts about the deal.
“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, it’s not even close.”
Photo credit: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg/Pool/Getty Images
Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce