The president’s blunt remarks, in an hour-long address at American University, were part of an intense lobbying campaign by the White House ahead of Congress’ vote next month to either approve or disapprove the landmark deal to curb Iran’s nuclear-weapons threat.
WASHINGTON — President Obama delivered a blistering defense of the landmark deal to curb Iran’s nuclear-weapons threat Wednesday, issuing a stinging rebuttal to critiques by Israeli leaders and Republicans in Congress, and warned that rejecting the deal would lead to war.
Making a strong sales pitch for public support, Obama described the diplomatic deal as “the strongest nonproliferation agreement ever negotiated” and said that if Congress votes to kill it next month, “they will not only pave Iran’s way to a bomb, they will accelerate” its ability to do so.
Most potently, Obama repeatedly argued that many of those who oppose the deal with Iran were responsible for sending the U.S. to war in Iraq in 2003. He warned that heeding their calls again would lead to another historic mistake that would undermine U.S. credibility and international peace.
“The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war — maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months from now, but soon,” Obama said at American University.
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Airstrikes would set Iran’s program back a few years, he said, but would guarantee that Iran would kick out United Nations nuclear inspectors and restart nuclear work covertly.
Though some opponents “accept the choice of war,” he said, “If we’ve learned anything from the last decade, it’s that wars in general and wars in the Middle East in particular are anything but simple.”
Obama sought to win over wavering Democrats in Congress before he heads off for a two-week holiday to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., and as senators join their House colleagues on an extended August recess.
Polls show that many Americans remain uncertain about the deal, so Obama also aimed his remarks more broadly. The administration is nervous that opponents will use August and tens of millions of dollars in advertising in an attempt to sway public opinion before the vote.
The deal, which was negotiated with Iran by the U.S. and five other world powers, would strictly limit Iran’s nuclear activities for at least a decade in exchange for easing of energy and trade sanctions and release of more than $50 billion in Iranian funds frozen in overseas accounts.
To ensure compliance, the pact calls for Iran to give U.N. inspectors unfettered access to known nuclear sites and access to suspect sites where scientists might be doing research for nuclear weapons.
Critics say the provisions for access are inadequate, but Obama stood fast. “If Iran cheats, we can catch them and we will,” he said.
Under legislation passed in May, Congress can choose to vote by mid-September on a resolution of approval or disapproval, or not vote at all. The administration hopes to avoid a negative vote, but at a minimum, Obama wants to lock up enough Democrats to sustain a veto.
Reaching for bipartisan touchstones, Obama repeatedly invoked President Kennedy and President Reagan as models for negotiating with an adversary, citing their arms deals with the Soviet Union. Kennedy announced the first nuclear-test-ban treaty negotiations with Moscow at the same university five decades ago.
The normally circumspect Obama sharpened his speech to a knife’s edge at several points, mocking what he called “armchair nuclear scientists” on TV and accusing some critics of “knee-jerk partisanship.”
He called out Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by name, charging that “he is wrong” in his opposition to the deal. Iranian hard-liners are comfortable with the status quo, Obama charged, and would benefit most if the deal is killed.
“It’s those hard-liners chanting ‘Death to America’ who have been most opposed to the deal,” he said. “They’re making common cause with the Republican caucus.”
GOP leaders quickly accused Obama of distorting the facts and using inflammatory language.
“As Congress and the American people review this deal, President Obama’s rhetoric is raising far more questions than answers,” said Cory Fritz, press secretary to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “Instead of offering facts and proving this deal will make America safer, the president is relying on partisan attacks, false claims and fear.”
At American University, Obama said claims that rejecting the deal would force Iran to back down are “fantasy,” he said, and would lead to a collapse of international sanctions while Iran moves closer to building a bomb.
“Walk away from this deal and you will get a better deal — for Iran,” he said.