Obama defends Iran nuclear deal against a furious lobbying effort

President Barack Obama defended the Iran nuclear deal Wednesday against a furious lobbying effort by political opponents and Israel, and said abandoning the agreement would open up the prospect of war.

Invoking the Cold War peacemaking initiatives of former Presidents John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, Obama said that if the U.S. Congress blocked the deal it would accelerate Tehran’s path to a bomb and severely damage America’s credibility.

Obama said that “alternatives to military actions will have been exhausted once we reject a hard-won diplomatic solution that the world almost unanimously supports.”

He added: “Let’s not mince words. The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months from now, but soon.”

Obama’s speech was part of a new push to promote the July 14 U.S.-led deal between Iran and six world powers that was put together over 18 months of negotiations. The White House has urged lawmakers to vote solely on the deal’s ability to prevent Iran from building a bomb, not on its other destabilizing activities or anti-American sentiments.

Obama said that while Iranian hard-liners may chant “Death to America” in the streets of Tehran, that’s not the belief of all Iranians.

“In fact, it’s those hard-liners who are most comfortable with the status quo,” he said. “It’s those hard-liners chanting ‘Death to America’ who have been most opposed to the deal. They’re making common cause with the Republican caucus.”

Opponents of the agreement in the United States, led mainly by Republicans, say it does not go far enough to ensure that Iran will never be able to develop a nuclear weapon and argue that lifting sanctions on Iran will only empower it to do so.

Some of Democrat Obama’s fiercest critics in Congress quickly dismissed the president’s argument.

“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, Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and fellow committee member Lindsay Graham said in a statement.

“Instead of dismantling Iran’s nuclear program, this agreement would lock it in place.”

U.S. Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said lawmakers left a meeting with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s chief meant to allay concerns about the deal more worried than when they went in.

“It was not a reassuring meeting,” Corker told reporters after the meeting in Congress with IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano Wednesday. The IAEA would undertake much of the monitoring and verification work.

Obama spoke at American University in Washington, where Kennedy made the case in 1963 for a nuclear weapons test ban treaty with Soviet Union.

He quoted Reagan as saying: “Peace is not the absence of conflict” but the ability to cope with conflict by peaceful means and drew on Kennedy’s words that conflict was not inevitable, accommodation was possible.

“The agreement now reached between the international community and the Islamic Republic of Iran builds on this tradition of strong, principled diplomacy,” he said.

The agreement prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon without resorting to war, he said.

“If Congress kills this deal we will lose more than just constraints on Iran’s nuclear program or the sanctions we have painstakingly built up. We will have lost something more precious, America’s credibility, as a leader of diplomacy, America’s credibility as the anchor of the international system.”

Obama urged the audience to contact members of Congress and urge them to support the deal.

Obama called the agreement, involving the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany and Iran following unprecedented international sanctions, “the strongest non-proliferation agreement ever negotiated.”

He acknowledged his administration’s disagreement with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the Iran deal, which he considers in the best interest of both countries.

Presenting himself as having done more than any other president to strengthen Israel’s security, he said the United States would continue to help Israel keep its military edge.

“As president of the United States it would be an abrogation of my constitutional duty to act against my best judgment simply because it causes temporary friction with a dear friend and ally,” he said.

A law Obama signed in May gives the Republican-led Congress until Sept. 17 to approve or disapprove of the nuclear deal. A disapproval resolution could cripple the agreement by eliminating Obama’s ability to temporarily waive most U.S. sanctions. Obama has promised to veto such a resolution by Congress.