Iran nuclear deal: Is war the only alternative, as Obama warns?

In a blunt speech Wednesday, President Obama warned that war in the Middle East would be more likely without the Iran nuclear agreement. Critics say the deal would make it easier for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.

Susan Walsh/AP
President Barack Obama speaks about the nuclear deal reached with Iran during an event at American University in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015.

In his bluntest statement yet on the proposed Iran nuclear deal, President Obama said the only alternative is war.

"Let's not mince words. The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war," he said during a foreign policy address at American University in Washington Wednesday. "Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months from now, but soon."

Obama’s warning has two audiences: members of Congress, expected to vote on the agreement in mid-September after lawmakers’ summer recess, and the American public, which is clearly divided on an international deal whose purpose is to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons in return for the lifting of billions of dollars in economic sanctions.

A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll this week couldn’t be more evenly split: 35 percent of those surveyed support the deal, 33 percent are against it, and 32 percent say they don’t know enough to have an opinion.

“It’s clear this deal is making members of both parties uneasy, and with good reason,” Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky said Wednesday in remarks ahead of Obama’s speech. “America's role in the world, its commitment to global allies, and the kind of future we’ll leave our children are all tied up in this issue.”

While most Republicans have spoken out against the agreement, which was negotiated by the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany, many Democrats, too, are wary of anything that critics say leaves Iran room to acquire nuclear weapons in the future. That outcome is seen as particularly threatening to Israel, which strongly opposes the measure.

While three Senate Democrats voiced their support of the deal on Tuesday, many are still undecided, including minority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, reports The Hill newspaper.

"Like many senators, I'm continuing to consider this matter,” Senator Reid said. "It's altogether appropriate for senators to consider this deliberately and with the understanding that this is really important." 

As the Monitor’s Francine Kiefer reported recently, the Democratic leadership has decided not to “whip” members into unity, but to leave the decision up to each individual senator as a matter of conscience.

In order to block the agreement, the House and Senate would have to pass resolutions to that effect, and it would take a two-thirds majority in each house to override Obama’s veto. In other words, Obama would need 34 Senate Democrats to sustain a presidential veto and keep the Iran nuclear deal alive.

On Tuesday, Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia, Barbara Boxer of California, and Bill Nelson of Florida joined fellow Democrats Richard Durbin of Illinois, Dianne Feinstein of California, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, Tom Udall of New Mexico, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts in saying they would vote to approve the agreement.

“Coming together, the decisions show that objections raised by Republicans in recent weeks over inspections, sanctions relief and secret ‘side agreements’ have not been enough to keep Democrats on the fence going into the summer recess,” The Washington Post reports.

In his American University speech Wednesday, Obama likened today’s situation regarding Iran – in particular the promise he sees in the nuclear agreement hammered out over two years of tough multilateral negotiations – to the lessening of nuclear arsenals and tensions between the US and the former Soviet Union.

“Under Democratic and Republican presidents, new agreements were forged: A nonproliferation treaty that prohibited nations from acquiring nuclear weapons, while allowing them to access peaceful nuclear energy, the SALT and START treaties, which bound the United States and the Soviet Union to cooperation on arms control,” he said. “Not every conflict was averted, but the world avoided nuclear catastrophe, and we created the time and the space to win the cold war without firing a shot at the Soviets.”

“The agreement now reached between the international community and the Islamic Republic of Iran builds on this tradition of strong, principled policy diplomacy,” Obama said. “After two years of negotiations, we have achieved a detailed arrangement that permanently prohibits Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. It cuts off all of Iran's pathways to a bomb. It contains the most comprehensive inspection and verification regime ever negotiated to monitor a nuclear program.”

Opponents of the Iran nuclear deal were quick to react to Obama’s speech, which did not mince words in its criticism of congressional critics – accusing them of “magnifying threats” and “playing on people’s fears.”

“As Congress and the American people review this deal, President Obama’s rhetoric is raising far more questions than answers,” Cory Fritz, spokesman for Republican House Speaker John Boehner, said in a statement. “Instead of offering facts and proving this deal will make America safer, the president is relying on partisan attacks, false claims, and fear.”

"President Obama’s deal with Iran empowers one of our chief antagonists and the world’s most radical Islamist regime with a pathway to the bomb, missiles to deliver it, money to pay for it, and the means to acquire a new military arsenal,” Sen. John McCain (R), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and fellow committee member Sen. Lindsey Graham, (R) of South Carolina, said in a statement. “Instead of dismantling Iran’s nuclear program, this agreement would lock it in place.”

But on one thing Obama and his congressional critics probably agree: This is likely to be seen, as Obama said, as the “most consequential foreign-policy debate that our country has had since the invasion of Iraq.”

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