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Diplomacy or War: Obama and Iran Deal Critics Take the Gloves Off

In a major foreign policy address on Wednesday, the president said the choice is between the deal or war.

by Avi Asher-Schapiro
Aug 5 2015, 11:03pm

Imagen vía EPA

The gloves are coming off in the heated debate over the Iran nuclear accord, as opponents and boosters of the deal are accusing each other of deception, fear mongering, and selling out Israel.

In a major foreign policy address on at American University on Wednesday, Obama said the pending nuclear agreement with Iran — which would swap sanctions relief for a significant reduction in Iran's nuclear program — was the most important foreign policy decision since the Iraq War, framing the debate as a choice between "diplomacy... and some form of war." He then accused those who oppose the deal in Congress of "making common cause" with Iranian hardliners, who also oppose any detente between the US and Iran.

The speech was part of an effort to sway a skeptical — and heavily divided — public, and to shore up support in Congress before it votes on the deal in mid-September. On Monday, Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois announced he'd assembled 218 Republicans to support legislation condemning the deal, a majority of the House.

Related: Americans Are Divided — And Slightly Confused — By the Iran Nuclear Deal

"We will do everything in our power to stop an accord that so utterly fails to shut down Iran's nuclear program," Roskam said.

Still, the Obama administration plans to veto any congressional action against the deal — to override the veto would require a significant chunk of Democrats to defect and vote against the president.

Though the majority of Democrats have lined up behind Obama, New York Congressmen Steve Israel, a leading democrat, recently announce he would oppose the agreement.

"I tried very hard to get to yes. But at the end of the day, despite some positive elements in the deal, the totality compelled me to oppose it," Israel told Newsday on Tuesday.

Two other prominent democrats, New York Congresswoman Nita Lowey, ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, and Florida Congressman Ted Deutch, have also indicated they oppose the deal.

Secretary of State John Kerry, the chief negotiator of the accord, fired back at critics Wednesday in an interview with the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg. He said that opponents of the deal failed to grasp that it would "screw" Iran's leader Ayatollah Khamenei — and empower moderates in Iran. Abandoning the agreement, he argued, would show the world that "America is not going to negotiate in good faith." Kerry also implied that walking away from the accord would increase the likelihood of armed conflict in the future.

Related: Ever the Firebrand, Ahmadinejad Seems to Want to Mount a Comeback in Iran

Trita Parsi, a supporter of the deal and president of the National Iranian American Council, said the administration was striking the right tone.

"The hard reality is this: if we don't have a deal, the pressure for war is going to increase," he told VICE News. "Those who say the oppose the nuclear agreement now are likely to push for war in the future."

One of the deal's most prominent opponent, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, convened a conference call with American Jewish organizations on Monday to make the opposite case.

"[An agreement with Iran] will spark a nuclear arms race in the region," he warned. He also invoked the Holocaust, saying, "It wasn't long ago, certainly not that long ago, that the Jewish people were either incapable or unwilling to speak out in the face of mortal threats, and this had devastating consequences."

Obama, meanwhile, is arguing that the Iran deal would be a boon to Israel. On Tuesday, he called 22 Jewish leader to the White House to reassure them that Israeli security would not be compromised. Someone who attended the meeting told CNN it was the "most passionate I've ever seen him."

In Wednesday's speech, Obama mentioned Israel 25 times, saying "[I have done] done more than any other president to strengthen Israel's security." The White House also organized a special briefing for Israeli journalists on Monday.

Skeptics of the deal argue that sanctions relief would eventually allow Iran to increase its funding to organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, which routinely engage in armed conflicts with the Jewish state. "As a result of this deal, there will be more terrorism, there will be more attacks, and more people will die," Netanyahu said in in the call Monday.

Obama also rejected this logic. "A nuclear armed Iran is far more dangerous to Israel, to America, and to the world than an Iran that benefits from sanctions relief," he said Wednesday.

Tensions between the Israeli prime minister and Obama are running high — the president reportedly told the assembled Jewish leaders on Tuesday that Netanyahu is now refusing to meet with him to discuss the deal.

At American University on Wednesday, Obama also directly criticized Netanyahu.

"I don't doubt Netanyahu's sincerity, but I think he is wrong," the president said, noting that "with the exception of Israel, every country supports the agreement."

Still, Israel's opposition on the deal has become amajor rallying point for critics. An alliance of Jewish opposition groups plans to spend $20-$40 million on TV spots in up to 40 different states to sway public opinion against the deal. Just days after the agreement was announced, The American Israel Public Affairs Committee launched a group called Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, and declared "a sizable and significant national campaign" to expose "the flaws in the Iran deal." The group lists prominent politicians on its board, including former Democratic Senators Joe Lieberman and Evan Bayh.