President Barack Obama defends his legacy-shaping Iran nuclear deal. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)
President Barack Obama announced Tuesday that negotiators from the United States and five other major world powers had sealed a history-making deal to ease crippling economic sanctions on Iran in return for safeguards to ensure that country does not develop nuclear weapons.
“This deal is not built on trust, it is built on verification” Obama said from the State Floor of the White House, with Vice President Joe Biden at his side. “Every pathway to a nuclear weapon is cut off, and the inspection and transparency regime necessary to verify that objective will be put in place.”
The president immediately turned to the difficult work of beating back domestic critics in Congress and fierce opponents of the agreement overseas — notably staunch U.S. ally Israel and Gulf nations that have traditionally battled Iran for influence in the Middle East.
“As the American people and Congress review the deal, it will be important to consider the alternative,” Obama said. Absent an agreement, he said, Iran would face “no lasting constraints” on its nuclear program, potentially triggering an atomic arms race in the world’s most volatile region while raising the possibility of American military action.
“Our national security interest now depends upon preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, which means that without a diplomatic resolution, either I or a future U.S. president would face a decision about whether or not to allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon or whether to use our military to stop it,” the president declared. “Put simply, no deal means a greater chance of more war in the Middle East.”
If successful, the agreement would arguably rank atop Obama’s list of foreign policy achievements. It would have many more far-reaching effects than the killing of Osama bin Laden and represents a more dramatic reshaping of American handling of world affairs than the looming resumption of diplomatic ties with Cuba after nearly six decades of estrangement. The ongoing military campaign against the so-called Islamic State has poured cold water on his claims to have ended the war in Iraq.
But first, the deal needs to survive the next two months.
Starting from the time it receives all of the documents agreed to at negotiations in Vienna, Congress will have 60 days to review the agreement and then will decide whether to vote on approving or disapproving of the deal. Under a law passed earlier this year, disapproval would restrict Obama from easing economic sanctions on Iran. But lawmakers would need a two-thirds majority in both chambers to override Obama’s certain veto, and White House aides say privately that enough Democrats will side with the president to prevent that from happening.
“I welcome a robust debate in Congress on this issue,” Obama said. But “now is not the time for politics or posturing.”
Some opponents of the agreement say that they view the next two months as their last best shot to derail an accord that, they charge, does not do enough to handcuff Iran’s nuclear aspirations and rewards Tehran with cash that may bankroll the country’s destabilizing activities across the Middle East. While several contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 have promised to roll back the agreement if they take office, Secretary of State John Kerry dismissed that possibility in March.
The United States, Britain, China, Germany, France and Russia worked out the agreement over months of talks capped by an 18-day sprint in which negotiators ripped through three self-imposed deadlines. The deal aims to use a series of mechanisms, including on-site inspections and monitoring, to prevent Iran from developing enough refined uranium or plutonium to build a nuclear weapon for at least 10 years.
Critics were sure to seize on the prospects that Iran could potentially stall requests from the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, to inspect suspect sites. And even some Democrats have balked at prospects of easing the international embargo on Iranian purchases of missile technology and conventional arms, even over several years as the agreement provides.
Even before it was formally unveiled, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned it as “a historic mistake.”
The agreement also faces opposition from hardliners in Iran, notably inside the country’s military.
Obama said the accord offered a “new path” for the United States, which describes Iran as the world’s top sponsor of terrorism, and Iran, where demonstrations sometimes feature chants of “Death to America” and portrayals of Washington as “the Great Satan.”