Faced with persistent – and potentially decisive – skepticism from congressional Democrats on the Iran nuclear deal, President Obama this week offered new and far-reaching assurances on the tough course the US will continue to follow to ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon.
Those assurances, in the form of a letter addressed Wednesday to one undecided House Democrat, appeared to recognize that at least some of the doubts that opponents and skeptics have aired since world powers reached the deal with Iran July 14 are legitimate and deserve answers.
The tone of the letter was a far cry from that of a speech Mr. Obama gave earlier this month in which he dismissed opponents of the deal as warmongers and reduced an upcoming congressional vote on the deal to a vote for or against war.
“Should Iran seek to dash toward a nuclear weapon, all of the options available to the United States – including the military option – will remain available through the life of the deal and beyond,” Obama said this week in the letter sent to Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, one of numerous Democrats who have been expressing doubts about the deal.
Obama said the point of his letter was to “follow up on the many conversations I have had with you and other Members of Congress regarding the [Iran nuclear deal] and address some of the important issues you have raised.”
The change in tone from the White House appears to have made a difference – perhaps even sparing the deal from a veto override vote by Congress next month. Such a vote would be a stinging setback for Obama’s foreign policy vision and could leave the US on the sidelines as the rest of the world implements the deal.
On Friday, Representative Nadler announced his support for the nuclear accord, citing Obama’s letter as a key factor in moving him to the pro-deal column.
“A number of us [congressional Democrats] raised ... concerns with the Administration, and directly with the President, in the hope that certain assurances could be made, and I am gratified that the President’s response satisfies a number of these concerns,” Nadler said in one statement. In a separate statement he announced his support for the deal, calling it “preferable to the available alternatives.”
Other congressional Democrats who this week announced their support for the deal have done so suggesting that Obama’s earlier my-way-or-war characterization of the debate had been the wrong tack for the White House to take toward deal skeptics.
In announcing her support for the deal Thursday, Senate moderate Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri described her decision as a “close call.” In a statement she said that while she did indeed “respect and understand those who oppose the deal,” she had “become convinced that it is more dangerous to Israel, America and our allies to walk away in the face of unified world-wide support.”
In describing the deal as “flawed but better than the alternative,” she also took a swipe at Obama for his initial dismissal of the deal’s opponents. “It’s wrong for anybody, including the president, to accuse those who don’t support this deal of bad faith or warmongering,” she said Thursday, according to The New York Times.
Senator McCaskill’s support for the deal, along with that of another Senate moderate Democrat, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, appears to revive White House hopes that a congressional “vote of disapproval” that is set to take place sometime before Sept. 17 might fall short of the 60 Senate votes that would force Obama to issue a promised veto.
So far, two Senate Democrats have announced opposition to the Iran deal – Charles Schumer of New York and Robert Menendez of New Jersey – meaning that deal opponents need at least four more of the 46 senators in the Democratic caucus to force a presidential veto.
The path for deal opponents in the House to eventually override a presidential veto appears even more onerous.
The White House had once hoped that it could woo a Republican senator or two to support the deal and allow it to claim bipartisan support. But those hopes were dashed when Sen. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona announced his opposition.
In the weeks since Obama’s “this deal or war” speech, debate over the Iran accord has turned increasingly political, even as many nuclear nonproliferation experts and nuclear physicists have come out in support of the deal.
This week, a group of 77 nuclear experts and former officials involved in implementing other nuclear agreements issued a statement of support for the Iran deal, calling it “a strong, long-term, and verifiable agreement that will be a net-plus for international nuclear nonproliferation efforts.”
Responding to what opponents have lamented as weaknesses in the deal, the experts praised the agreement for making it "very likely that any future effort by Iran to pursue nuclear weapons, even a clandestine program, would be detected promptly, providing the opportunity to intervene decisively to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon."
Missouri’s McCaskill may have made a point of upbraiding the president for dismissing the Iran deal’s opponents as warmongers. But she has also reserved some ire for members of Congress – presumably on the other side of the aisle – whom she said had chosen knee-jerk opposition to the deal over carefully weighing its pros and cons.
Commenting earlier this month on the rush by Republicans to blast the deal and vow to press for its defeat, she said, “It appeared to me that most of them made up their mind in about five minutes.”