WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama has been getting pushback from opponents of the Iran nuclear deal for arguing that opposition to it is tantamount to support for war. Not true, they say. The opponents just want "a better deal."
"The alternative to this deal was never war; it was greater pressure on Iran and insistence on a better agreement," Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a joint statement.
"I hope he'll avoid tired, obviously untrue talking points about this being some choice between a bad deal and war," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Wednesday morning.
After McConnell's hopes were dashed by Obama's speech later in the day at American University, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who had recently noted of Iran that the U.S. could "set them back to day zero," played peacemonger.
"Today, President Obama once again presented a false choice between military action and his deeply flawed agreement with Iran," Cotton said, a few months after admitting that his aim had been to blow up the deal. "It will give Iran billions of dollars to finance a terrorist war on Israel and America that it has been waging for over 30 years. And it raises the prospect that in 10 to 15 years, Iran will be able to wage war with a nuclear weapon. Americans deserve a better deal that will deprive Iran of nuclear-weapons capability."
In a briefing with a handful of reporters in the White House on Wednesday, Obama said that he’s not trying to be provocative, but that there simply is no way to coax Russia, China, France, Great Britain, Germany and Iran to return to negotiations to ramp up sanctions -- certainly not if the U.S. Congress rejects the deal on the table. The only option left after diplomacy, then, is military action.
The Huffington Post previously made a similar assertion in its editorial approach to the debate over whether to increase sanctions on Iran during negotiations in 2013 and 2014. HuffPost reported that backers of such a move were doing nothing less than advocating for war, the only alternative to a negotiated agreement. The Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and the American Jewish Committee all protested the assertion.
The sanctions effort died, the negotiations went forward and now, Obama is making a similar argument about opponents of the deal -- one rooted in simple logic.
Similarly, The Huffington Post’s coverage of the debate over the deal now before Congress continues to refer to opponents in shorthand as "pro-war," which accurately reflects the consequence of rejecting the available diplomatic path. (While Obama has on at least two occasions urged people not to read The Huffington Post, we agree with him on this one.)
At the briefing Wednesday, which included reporters from The New York Times, The Washington Post, HuffPost and The New Yorker, Obama was asked about his argument and laid out his logic in some detail:
Obama: That's a fair question, because I think that there are those who think this is an unfair characterization or this is a straw man. I would point out, though, that some of those same people -- just a while back -- were arguing that we should just go ahead and take a strike and it'd be okay. And now, suddenly, because maybe that's not the most popular position to garner votes from Democrats in Congress, they're insisting 'No, no, no, no -- that's not necessary. We can just apply more sanctions.' So, there's little bit of this, that's not on the level. But as I said in the speech, I do not say that a military option is inevitable just to be provocative, just to win the argument. Those are the dictates of cold, hard logic.
If in fact we do not implement this negotiated agreement and if, as I think I can show, that doubling down on unilateral sanctions will not produce the results that the critics are looking at, and if, as I'm quite certain, it is not possible for us to force our P5+1 or other countries like India or South Korea or even Japan to abide by our views of what -- or at least Congress's views on what is required to give Iran relief -- then they would sort of run out of options at that point. No one has described to me what remaining leverage that we have. Now, at minimum what we've done is we've put Iran in the driver's seat. And Iran could make various decisions here. None of which are good for us and all of which are good for them. They could decide to pull out of the comprehensive deal or the interim deal, put the entire blame on the United States and proceed with their R&D, their research the installation of more advanced centrifuges, claiming the entire time that these are all still peaceful, that they would have been willing to delay on the installation of some of those centrifuges but since the U.S. Congress refuses to be reasonable they're going to go ahead -- in which case the scenario that everybody talks about happening 15 years from now happens six, nine, 12 months from now.
Alternatively, they could say, 'We're going to go ahead and abide by the deal, despite what the U.S. Congress says and put our partners -- Russia, China, as well as the Europeans -- on notice that they're ready to do business. And maybe it's possible that for a certain period of time we can hang on to the Europeans -- not certain, but maybe. Maybe we can twist some arms to have some of our European allies hang on. It's hard to conceive of Russia and China not taking full advantage of that, not only because of commercial purposes, but because of the enormous propaganda value that it provides them at a time when the entire story that they're telling around the world is that U.S. hegemony is over -- that we need an entirely new set of global institutions to be more reflective of the balance of power. And in that scenario, then, Iran is going to get some of that sanction relief anyway. And our credibility in terms of now being able to exercise any influence on how the Security Council thinks about this thing has been completely eroded. I mean I have to talk to lawyers just to [find out] what standing we would even have, since Congress would've rejected this deal for us to be a part of it, in which case we're not in the room, potentially. Again, I haven't even talked to the lawyers about this in terms of how the snapback provisions or the commission dealing with the disputes, or what have you, are managed because Congress has just said we can't be a party to this.
So, in almost every scenario, our ability to monitor what's happening in Iran, our ability to ensure that they are not breaking out, our ability to inspect their facilities, our ability to force them to abide by the deal, is gone out the window. And, as I said in the speech, everybody around this table knows that within six months or nine months -- I don't know how long it'll take -- of Iran having pulled out of this deal or cheated on this deal or interpreted the deal in a way that was deemed contrary to the spirit -- not the letter of the deal, that some of the same voices that were opposed to the deal would insist that the only way to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons is to take strikes and they will be framed as limited military strikes and it will be suggested that Iran will not respond, but we will have entered into a war.
That doesn't mean that Iran suddenly attacks us directly. It does mean that I've got a whole bunch of U.S. troops on the ground trying to help Baghdad fight ISIL and they're now looking over their shoulders at a host of Shia militia. It does mean that Hezbollah potentially makes use of some of those rockets into Israel and that precipitates us having to take action. It does mean that the Strait of Hormuz suddenly becomes a live theater, in which one member of the IRGC or Quds force or Mr. Suleimani directs a suicide speedboat crashing into one of our naval ships -- in which case I think it's fair to say the commander in chief of the United States will be called upon to respond.
So I just want to be very clear for those who suggest that my presentation isn't fair. I would simply ask them to explain the weakness in my logic. I don't think they'll find any. [If the deal is rejected,] the president of the United States -- it may not be me, it may be the next president -- will be confronted with decisions that are far less effective than decisions that are made under the umbrella of this negotiated agreement. And that's why I'm confident that at least a sufficient portion of Congress will support.
The New Yorker's Robin Wright: But do you have a head count?
Obama: Come on, we're having a big geopolitical conversation. [Laughter.] You work for The New Yorker, you don't work for Roll Call.