Yesterday, President Obama used the venue of American University’s new Center of International Service in our nation’s capital to present a 55 minute partisan speech directed at wavering Democrat Senators and Representatives in Congress. He suggested that the nuclear pact with Iran was better than the alternative, war. He chose the campus located in northwest Washington, because it was there on June 10, 1963, that President Kennedy gave a Commencement address announcing an important Cold War initiative; a joint effort with Chairman Khrushchev of the Soviet Union and Britain’s Harold Macmillan seeking a comprehensive nuclear weapons test ban treaty and unilaterally ending atmospheric testing.
This was the first substantive developments among these antagonists following the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world teetered on the brink of a possible nuclear exchange. In his speech, Kennedy asked the graduates to re-examine their attitudes towards peace, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War, famously remarking, “If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can make the world safe for diversity.” Kennedy unlike Obama gave a masterful and succinct presentation in less than 27 minutes to get his points across. Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu took 24 minutes to outline his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, inclusive of his response to questions from a large U.S. and Canadian audience via webcast.
Watch President Kennedy’s 1963 American University Commencement address:
The Wall Street Journal noted the hortatory and accusatory rhetoric of the President Obama’s remarks:
Congressional rejection of this deal leaves any U.S. administration that is absolutely committed to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon with one option: another war in the Middle East. So let’s not mince words. The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war.
Following the President’s speech, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman, Bob Corker (R-TN) told reporters:
The president is trying to turn this into a partisan issue, but there is bipartisan concern.
He went out of his way lambasting the opposing Republican majorities in Congress as the party of war mongers. He tied them to the legacy of the Bush II Wars in Iraq suggesting the outcome was the morphing of Al Qaeda in Iraq into the Islamic State or ISIL. He said the cost was thousands killed, tens of thousands injured at a price of a trillion dollars. To divided American Jews, he told them that he had improved the Jewish nation’s Qualitative Military Edge with commitment of billions in conventional military aid. He implied that support would enable Israel to overcome the Islamic Regime’s existential threats of “Death to America, Death to Israel, Death to Jews,” notwithstanding Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s holocaust denial and Antisemitism. Obama criticized Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s opposition to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) for Iran’s nuclear program. He suggested that Netanyahu’s alternative of simply “squeezing” Iran’s theocratic leadership was not a better solution, and might lead to war. Netanyahu argues that the current Iran nuclear deal actually provides multiple pathways for Iran to achieve nuclear breakout leading to possible war.
In a post speech dialogue with Washington pundits, the President deepened his partisan criticism of Republican opponents to the Iran nuclear deal. Gerald Seib, who writes a dailyCapitol Column for The Wall Street Journal reported the President saying:
There is a particular mindset that was on display in the run-up to the Iraq war that continues to this day. Some of the folks that were involved in that decision either don’t remember what they said or are entirely unapologetic about the results. This mindset views the Middle East as a place where force and intimidation will deliver on the security interests that we have, and that it is not possible for us to at least test the possibility of diplomacy. Those views are prominent now in the Republican Party.
Both Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) found that criticism “galling,” as Mr. Obama “presided over the collapse of our hard-won gains in Iraq.”
Watch the Washington Post video of President Obama’s 2015 American University speech:
While Obama’s speech was being delivered at American University there was a hearing before the Senate Banking Committee, chaired by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) focused on sanctions relief under the terms of the Iran nuclear deal. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman appeared saying “that I didn’t see the final documents. I saw the provisional documents, as did my experts.” Thus, suggesting that the IAEA side deals were not going to unearth prior military developments at Parchin and other known locations.
An appearance by Director General of the UN IAEA, Ukiya Amano in a separate Capitol Hill briefing Wednesday lent the distinct impression that the UN nuclear watchdog agency was not going to disclose the so-called side agreements with Iran, nor would it have the suggested “robust” verification regime that the President has touted. That gave rise to skepticism by Senate opponents, that no base line would be established for prior military developments at Parchin, an alleged center for nuclear warhead development. The Wall Street Journal reported Mr. Amano saying that IAEA inspectors had been denied access to key scientists and military officials for interviews. Following his closed door briefing to a bi-partisan group of Senators, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Corker commented, “I would say most members left with greater concerns about the inspection regime than we came in with.” Senator John Barroso (R-WY) concluded, “My impression listening to him was the promises the President made were not verifiable.” Democrat supporters of the Iran deal like Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) followed the White House line that “it didn’t matter as we already knew what Iran had developed.”
At yesterday’s Senate Banking, Housing and Community Affairs hearing, a panel of experts spoke about the lifting of sanctions and if there was a better deal. The panel included former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Crimes, Juan C. Zarate, Mark Dubowitz executive director of the Washington, DC based Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and former State Department official Nicholas Burns of Harvard’s Kennedy School. Dubowitz in his testimony suggested that the deal should be amended, eliminating the sunset provisions and the so-called snap back sanctions. As precedent for possible amendment of the JCPOA, he noted more than “250 bi-lateral and multi-lateral agreements and treaties from the Cold War Era.”
Watch this C-span video excerpt of FDD’s Dubowitz’s testimony:
Last night, the PBS News Hour host Gwen Ifill had a segment with Burns and Ray Takeyh a former Obama adviser on Iran during his first term now a Senior Fellow with the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR), Is Obama’s Iran deal rhetoric working? Burns, who is an adviser to Secretary Kerry, said:
I think, as Americans, we ought to have the self-confidence to try diplomacy first, rather than war. I will say this, Gwen, in answer to your specific question. I think the President ought to have a big tent policy here. To say that if the deal is turned down, if Congress defeats the President and overrides his veto in December, then that leads to war, I think, is a little stark.
Jack Kennedy’s speech was lofty, idealistic. I think, if I quote it right, he said we shouldn’t wave the finger of accusation or issue indictments.
I think the President was unyielding. He was passionate, but his tone was at times truculent. And he didn’t make a successful pitch to his critics. This is a technologically flawed agreement, and the President should have attempted to broaden the parameters of the conversation about this agreement. I think, in that sense, the president missed his mark, and I think it was unwise.
Takeyh, who is also an adviser to FFD’s Iran Project, buttressed Dubowitz’s Senate testimony saying:
The history of arms controls suggest, when there’s Congressional objections, as was the case in SALT-I and SALT-II, and the President mentioned those, there is an attempt to go back and renegotiate aspects of this. And I think that’s what the President should have done when he met the criticism, as opposed to just dismiss it.
There are aspects of this agreement that are very problematic, such as the sunset clause, where, after essentially 10 years, Iran gets to embark on an industrial-sized nuclear program. And when you have an industrial-sized nuclear program, there is no inspection modality that can detect a sneak-out to a weapon option.
The President essentially, even now, after the rejection of the deal, should there be one, has a chance to go back, renegotiate some aspect of the deal, and therefore strengthen it. And as he strengthens that deal, I think he can broaden the bipartisan support for it.
I would be very concerned if I was a supporter of this deal that this deal is based on such a narrow margin of public support on the Hill. I think the longevity of this deal is seriously questioned by its absence of bipartisan support.
When questioned by Burns about reopening negotiations, Takeyh drew attention to other issues in the Iran nuclear pact that could be rectified through amendment:
I think it will be very difficult, but not impossible, because some of these provisions are so glaringly flawed that I think other countries would welcome negotiations.
I mentioned the sunset clause. Iran’s development of IR-8 centrifuges, which essentially produce uranium 17 times faster, and that gives Iran enrichment capacity that is quite substantial — the verification on this deal is extraordinarily imperfect.
The president keeps talking about that this is the most intrusive verification system, and the only other verification system that was more intrusive resulted from the Iraq War and the armistice. That’s just not true.
South Africa, under Nelson Mandela, agreed to anytime/anywhere inspection, which, in practice, you had access to military facilities within one day. So we can go back and renegotiate four, five, six aspects of this agreement. The history of arms controls is replete with such exercises.
And I think if you do that, this agreement would be strengthened. It will be based on a bipartisan anchor; it would ensure its longevity. It would ensure that proliferation cascade in the Middle East will not take place, and it will ensure that Iran will not sneak out to a bomb.
Watch the PBS News Hour segment with Burns and Takeyh:
Takeyh’s colleague and long term President of the CFR, Dr. Richard N. Haass in testimony on August 4th before the Senate Armed Services Committee suggested:
That any vote by Congress to approve the pact should be linked to legislation or a White House statement that makes clear what the United States would do if there were Iranian non-compliance, what would be intolerable in the way of Iran’s long-term nuclear growth, and what the US was prepared to do to counter Iranian threats to US interests and friends in the region.
With each Senate and House Hearing on the Iran nuclear pact, more is revealed about why this is a bad deal. However, as witnessed by the Congressional testimony of experts like Dubowitz of the FDD, Takeyh and Haass of the CFR, it appears that Obama and Kerry didn’t follow the experience garnered from Cold War era arms control negotiations. Congress should be the veritable “bad cop” to fend off and reign in the concession demands of the Islamic regime’s negotiators in Lausanne and Vienna. We understand that several Republican Senators and House Members are drafting resolutions for rejection of the Iran nuclear pact. Perhaps they might include recommendations for amendment of the JCPOA endeavoring to make it a better deal. However, the President has chosen a partisan path that does not welcome bi-partisan deliberation. Perhaps the option is for the resolutions to reject the pact and schedule a vote as a treaty, assuming the President may have the votes to override a veto. As we have discussed there is also possible litigation that might achieve the same end.
It is going to be a long hot summer recess for Members of Congress in their states and districts holding town hall hearings to gauge the pulse of constituents on the President’s nuclear deal with Iran.
EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the New English Review.