Barack Obama argued that the debate over the landmark nuclear agreement with Iran is a choice between diplomacy and war on Wednesday, urging critics in Israel and Washington to come clean that their only viable option to the globally agreed accord would be military action.
“There really are only two alternatives here: either Iran getting a nuclear weapon is resolved diplomatically through negotiation,” Obama said. “Or it is resolved through force, through war. Those are the options.”
Under the deal, cemented between Iran and a coalition of world powers, international sanctions that have crippled Tehran’s economy will be gradually lifted once it shrinks and mothballs its nuclear infrastructure, accepting extensive surveillance at enrichment sites.
However, the agreement must first survive a longshot attempt by hawks in Washington to sabotage the accord with legislation passed by the Republican-controlled Congress.
Speaking to reporters at the White House for close to an hour, Obama stressed that critics, including the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, had failed to provide an honest alternative to a deal he said was supported by virtually the entire global community.
In a message directed at wavering Democrats, who the White House needs to keep on board to ensure the deal survives an assault in Congress, Obama warned of another war in the Middle East. “Without a deal, we risk even more war in the Middle East, and other countries in the Middle East would feel compelled to develop their own nuclear weapons,” he said, adding that such a chain of events would risk a nuclear arms race “in the most dangerous region in the world”.
He added: “Future generations would judge us harshly if we let this moment slip away.”
The president at one stage said he was enjoying the debate over the nuclear deal, and repeatedly urged reporters to come up with arguments against it, insisting he was determined to tackle all of the criticisms head on.
Critics of the deal, meanwhile, backed Netanyahu, insisted Tehran cannot be trusted, and have long argued the international community should not accept even a token nuclear program on Iranian soil, even if it is verifiably peaceful and subject to rigorous controls.
Obama did not deny that the agreement did not go as far as those critics would want, and was candid about the limits of what he said the US, working in concert with international allies, could achieve. Washington, he said, did not have the clout to “eliminate every vestige” of nuclear activity in Iran. “What we do have leverage to do is prevent them from getting a nuclear bomb, and that’s what we’ve done,” he said.
In the 24 hours since the agreement was unveiled in Vienna, attention has switched to the widely anticipated Republican fury, particularly among candidates seeking the party’s nomination for president, who have uniformly and forcefully rejected the deal. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, one of the frontrunners in the race, called the accord “dangerous, deeply flawed and short sighted”.
However, an agreement forged in April between the White House and Congress, setting out procedures for the legislature’s oversight of the agreement, limits the options available to congressional critics of the deal. Even though Republicans control both chambers, it will be hard for them to do much more than formally register the legislature’s disapproval.
The White House has four more days to officially present the agreement to the Senate and House of Representatives, after which there will be a 60-day review period which will involve extensive congressional hearings. With Congress in recess during much of August, those are likely to take place in September, although committee chairmen are believed to be planning some hearings in the coming weeks.
Once that 60-day period is exhausted, Republican leaders will have 12 days to vote on a resolution disapproving of the deal. Obama has vowed to veto any such legislation, a promise he repeated on Wednesday.
Overriding that presidential veto will require a second vote to be passed with a two-thirds majority in both chambers. That is a very high, and probably insurmountable hurdle, requiring at least 42 Democrats in the House and around a dozen Democratic senators to vote down the deal.
The international alliance needed to implement the sanctions would quickly fall apart, the president said, if lawmakers found a way to kill the agreement. “If they saw us walking away, or more specifically the US Congress effectively vetoing the judgment of 99% of the world community that this is a deal that resolves the Iranian nuclear weapons program in an equitable way, the sanctions system unravels.”
Critics say the accord would allow Iran to upgrade nuclear technology after 10 years, accelerating the time it would take Tehran to develop a nuclear bomb. Under another compromise in the deal, a ban on selling ballistic missiles to Iran will expire after a maximum eight years, while an embargo on the trade of conventional arms would be lifted even sooner.
Obama insisted that the delay to the lifting of those arms embargoes was itself an important concession achieved by US negotiators, and said other steps would be taken, separately, to ensure that Iran did not destabilise other countries in the region.
While a vote of disapproval – based on anything less than a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate – would not kill the deal, it would undermine it politically, raising difficult questions about the longevity of Washington’s commitment to an accord intended to last at least 15 years.
Such a result would also embolden Republican contenders for the White House, such as Florida senator Marco Rubio and Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who are making bold pledges about their reimposing sanctions to unwind the deal if they are elected.
Whether Obama’s successor can, or would, reverse an agreement that is rooted in the phased removal of international sanctions – not just those imposed by Washington – is subject to some dispute. Most experts believe that if the nuclear agreement is deemed to be working, it would be extremely unlikely for a Republican victor like Rubio or Walker to reverse course.
By they time Obama’s successor takes office in 2017, international sanctions on Tehran would have been largely dismantled. The next president would therefore have to try to mobilise another international coalition, persuading countries that will be trading with Iran – not just Russia and China, but the likes of India, South Korea and Japan – to reconstruct another wall of sanctions that took years to construct.
Any new president hoping to unwind the deal would therefore only have the limited leverage of sanctions imposed directly from Washington, a largely symbolic gesture but one that would also have the effect of annulling an international accord keeping Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Obama argued there was “no scenario” in which a future president would be in a stronger position as a result of the agreement. He said he has “not yet heard logic” that refutes the argument that the deal strengthens the US’s hand, even in the event that Iran fails to meet its side of the agreement.
“It is incumbent upon the critics of this deal to explain how a US president is in a worse position 12, 13, 15 years from now,” he said.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who wields the ultimate power in Iran – on nuclear issues as all else – gave a clear sign on Wednesday that he supported the nuclear agreement. In a letter to the country’s president, Hassan Rouhani, he thanked Iranian nuclear negotiators “for their continuous and tireless efforts”, according to his official website.
“The talks concluded and this is an important step. The text that has been produced should be carefully reviewed and its legal procedures followed [referring to the Iranian parliament review],” read the letter.
“If passed [by parliament], we should watch for any possible violations of the obligations by the other side and make sure that doesn’t happen. As you know well, some of the six governments on the other side are not to be trusted.”
On Tuesday night, Khamenei also played host to senior government officials, where he thanked them for their work on the nuclear agreement.