Barack Obama has launched an aggressive defence of the landmark Iranian nuclear deal, rejecting the idea that it leaves Tehran on the brink of a bomb and arguing the only alternative to the diplomatic accord is war.
The US president vigorously challenged his critics during a lengthy White House news conference after Iran, America and five other world powers finalised a historic, years-long agreement to curb Tehran’s nuclear programme in exchange for billions in sanctions relief.
Opposition to the deal has been fierce, both in Washington and Israel and Sunni Arab rivals of Shiite Iran also express concerns.
“Either the issue of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is resolved diplomatically through a negotiation or it’s resolved through force, through war,” Mr Obama said. “Those are the options.”
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, perhaps the fiercest critic of Mr Obama’s overtures to Iran, showed no sign he could be persuaded to even tolerate the agreement.
Mr Netanyahu sees Iran’s suspected pursuit of a nuclear weapon as a threat to Israel’s existence and in remarks to Israel’s parliament, he said he was not bound by the terms of the deal and could still take military action against Iran.
In the US Congress, resistance comes not only from Republicans, but also Mr Obama’s own Democratic Party. Vice President Joe Biden spent yesterday on Capitol Hill meeting privately with House of Representatives Democrats, and plans to return today to make a similar pitch to Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The president said he welcomed a “robust” debate with Congress, but showed little patience for what he cast as politically-motivated opposition. Politicians cannot block the nuclear deal but can try to undermine it by insisting US sanctions stay in place.
In Tehran, Iranians took to the streets to celebrate the accord and even Iran’s hardliners offered only mild criticism – a far cry from the outspoken opposition that the White House had feared.
The nuclear accord has become a centrepiece of Mr Obama’s foreign policy, a high-stakes gamble that diplomatic engagement with a long-time American foe could resolve one of the world’s most pressing security challenges.
The importance of the deal to Mr Obama was evident, both in his detailed knowledge of its technical provisions and his insistence that no critique go unanswered.
An hour into the East Room news conference, he asked if reporters had other questions about Iran – a highly unusual inquiry from a president who is rarely so freewheeling in his exchanges with the press.
He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket, saying he had “made notes” about the main criticisms of the deal and wanted to ensure each had been addressed.
The accord requires Iran to dismantle key elements of its nuclear programme, lower its uranium enrichment levels, and give up thousands of centrifuges. International inspectors will have access to Iran’s declared nuclear facilities, but must request visits to Iran’s military sites, access that isn’t guaranteed.
If Iran abides by the parameters, it will receive billions of dollars in relief from crippling international sanctions that have badly damaged the country’s economy.
The deal does nothing to address Iran’s broader support for terrorism in the Middle East or its detention of several American citizens, though some US officials hold out hope it could eventually lead Tehran to reassess its role in the world.
Mr Obama however, outlined a narrower ambition, saying the deal should be judged solely on whether it stops Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. As to whether the agreement might change Iran’s other behaviour, he said: “We’re not betting on it.”
The president also sharply rebuffed a suggestion that he was content to let American detainees languish in Iran while he celebrated a deal. “That’s nonsense,” he said, adding that Iran would have taken advantage of any US effort to link the nuclear accord to the release of American citizens.
Showing a command of technical nuclear issues, Mr Obama spent much of the news conference trying to knock down criticisms of the deal point by point.
To those who argued sanctions relief will leave Iran flush with cash to fund terrorism, he said Tehran was already backing Hezbollah and other groups on the cheap. He noted that the Iranian government was under pressure from citizens to use any influx of international funds to improve the country’s struggling economy.
Mr Obama insisted sanctions on Iran could be “snapped back” in place if Iran cheated on the deal, even if Russia and China object.
He defended the 24-day window Iran would have before international inspectors gain access to suspicious sites, saying nuclear material “leaves a trace” and suggesting the US had other means of monitoring facilities.