President Barack Obama on March 18, 2015 (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
The White House is gearing up to unleash an unprecedented campaign to sell a nuclear deal with Iran, should President Obama secure it, in a bid to win over divided Americans, skeptical lawmakers and wary Middle Eastern allies.
The blueprint for defending the legacy-defining agreement was described to Yahoo News by current and former officials from the administration and Congress.
Obama and his top national security and foreign policy aides will defend the deal forcefully to the public and in private talks with wavering senators and representatives. They will emphasize the deal’s intrusive monitoring and verification of Iranian nuclear facilities, an approach national security adviser Susan Rice recently summarized in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) as “distrust and verify.” They will defend the easing of crippling economic sanctions in return for steps Iran is taking to assure the world that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful.
Illustration sent by the National Security Council to reporters (@2015 Horsey. Los Angeles Times, all rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency)
Lawmakers will get “as many classified briefings as it takes” from the administration on the more complex aspects of an agreement. Senior diplomats will fan out in an effort to reassure close allies like Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main rival for regional influence, and Israel, even though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen as an implacable foe of any agreement.
Obama’s approach will, at times, feel more like a sledgehammer than a scalpel — as demonstrated last Wednesday when the National Security Council forwarded the cartoon above to reporters who cover the White House. The drawing landed in reporters’ inboxes under the heading “Select Iran Coverage”; the special clips packages started landing in early March to promote media coverage and expert commentaries that advance the administration’s goals.
Already the campaign is revving up. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough delivered some of these arguments this week in a speech to J Street, a left-of-center group that supports the talks. The organization’s ideological rival, the AIPAC, opposes the negotiations.
If a deal is done, McDonough said, “Everyone from the president on down will aggressively seek congressional and public support for any deal.”
“The bottom line is this — compared to the alternatives, diplomacy offers the best and most effective way to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and this is our best shot at diplomacy,” McDonough said. “We cannot remove diplomacy from America’s toolbox — that’s not how we’ve come to lead the world.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a joint meeting of Congress in March (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)
It’s an argument that the president and his aides have been making since before the negotiations began. During his 2012 re-election campaign, Obama implied that opponents of engaging Iran diplomatically “ think that it’s time to launch a war.” Earlier this month, White House press secretary Josh Earnest declared that “ the rush to war, or at least the rush to the military option that many Republicans are advocating, is not at all in the best interests of the United States.”
The message to Democrats will be more subtle. “Having the deal in hand will help,” a senior official said. “You should expect us to ask them, ‘What would you do differently here?’”
The administration also expects that sympathetic outside experts will explain and vouch for an accord , or at least promote a “hold-your-fire approach” that could forestall action in Congress that might scuttle an agreement. Obama aides hope to enlist prominent Republican foreign policy figures for that purpose.
Officials described the plan to Yahoo News on condition of anonymity because an agreement has not yet been reached.
Current and former Obama aides say that they hope to have an easier time selling a nuclear deal than they had pitching Obamacare and a comprehensive overhaul of immigration policy.
“Do Republicans favor giving undocumented immigrants a potential pathway to citizenship? No. Do Republicans favor setting up marketplaces to enable Americans to purchase affordable health insurance? No,” a senior Obama adviser told Yahoo News. “Everyone agrees that we need to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. We share a goal. That should help.”
The stakes could scarcely be higher. Whether they succeed or fail, negotiations aimed at ensuring that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons will define the balance of power in the Middle East, America’s global influence, Israel’s security and efforts to restrict membership in the world’s “nuclear club.” Obama has repeatedly acknowledged in public that, if Tehran decides to try to build a bomb, the deal will only slow that process enough to give the world community time to respond.
Polls show that Americans favor negotiations, but at the same time, they are skeptical about whether a deal can succeed. A recent CNN poll in mid-March found 68 percent saying they favored the negotiations and 49 percent saying the open letter from 47 Senate Republicans to Iran’s leaders, looking to scuttle the talks, went too far. But an NBC poll from earlier in the month found 71 percent saying a deal will not make a real difference in whether Iran decides to build nuclear weapons.
Secretary of State John Kerry (left) at Iran nuclear program negotiations in Lausanne, Switzerland (Photo: Brian Snyder/Pool/AP)
Building public support for the agreement will be important, but several officials said the most important audience may be Congress.
Obama has successfully warned ever since the negotiations really got going, in late 2013, that legislation threatening new sanctions could derail his diplomatic efforts. Last summer, the White House used that argument to successfully beat back sanctions legislation that had Democratic support. It didn’t hurt that the White House could count on then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to keep problematic bills bottled up.
Two Obama aides said they were not sure what course Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will chart if a deal is reached.
But all-out lobbying by the administration, including phone calls and other outreach from Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, McDonough and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power yielded a key breakthrough this week: The postponement of action on legislation that Obama has warned could undermine the talks.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., put off action by the committee on a bill he introduced that would assert that any final accord must get an up-or-down vote in Congress. Rather than taking the measure up this week, the committee will do so on April 14 — well past the end-of-March deadline for reaching a political deal with Iran.
Corker has made rallying a veto-proof majority for his bill a priority, and he needs a handful of elusive Democratic votes to do so. The administration has been courting Democrats who might be inclined to join Corker, and urging some who are already on the record supporting the legislation to help them put off action until after the July deadline for a technical deal with Iran that would flesh out the political deal sought by the end of March.
“We’re not in the position of having to win over lawmakers to approve a deal,” a senior Obama aide argued. “We are in the position of having to convince lawmakers to keep their powder dry. Those are very different things.”
But a top aide to a senior House of Representatives Democrat warned the White House that “if there’s a vote on something” — especially something like Corker’s bill, “that’s not going to be possible.”
“There are Democrats who would be amenable to saying, ‘This is reasonable, it’s a nuclear deal, it will have far-ranging impact, Congress should have a say,’” according to the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak candidly.
Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
But, the aide argued, the GOP overplayed its hand in recent weeks, inviting Netanyahu to make the case against Obama’s diplomacy, penning an open letter to Iranian leaders telling them the president’s agreement would not outlast his time in office and trying to fast-track Corker’s legislation over Democratic objections.
“People were frustrated about Bibi’s address, but it didn’t seem to change the debate the way the letter did,” the aide said. “It’s just given more people pause in terms of ‘hang on a second, Israel isn’t something to be politicized, and that’s what these people are trying to do.’”
House GOP leaders have yet to rally behind any legislation mirroring Corker’s proposal.
That has taken some of the heat off the White House, which says that lawmakers will get to weigh in eventually, when it comes time to lift sanctions legislation entirely.
The administration also hopes to leverage support for a potential deal from the five other world powers now negotiating with Iran — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — to win over skeptics. (The parties are known as the P5+1 because they group the five veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany.)
Kerry recently delivered a version of the argument in testimony to Corker’s committee, saying that even a Republican president would find it difficult to undo a deal “if all of those countries have said, ‘This is good and it’s working.’”
Administration officials emphasize that they aren’t taking an agreement for granted, and they underline that even if one is sealed, Iran could decide to try to cheat. The most popular phrase in the West Wing these days may be “if a deal is reached.” But current and former Obama aides underscored that the president has been selling this pivotal piece of his second-term foreign policy agenda for about 16 months, rarely deviating from his core message.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images)
Current and former Obama advisers directed Yahoo News to the president’s Dec. 7, 2013, appearance at the Saban Forum, an annual discussion of Middle East issues backed by the prestigious Brookings Institution. “He said most of what he’ll say there,” said one adviser to the president.
That includes a description of what happens if the talks fail.
“With respect to what happens if this breaks down, I won’t go into details,” Obama told the forum’s audience. “I will say that if we cannot get the kind of comprehensive end state that satisfies us and the world community and the P5-plus-1, then the pressure that we’ve been applying on them and the options that I’ve made clear I can avail myself of, including a military option, is one that we would consider and prepare for. And we’ve always said that. So that does not change.”