Obama, other administration officials reject criticism over interim Iran deal


President Obama speaks at the Betty Ann Ong Chinese Recreation Center in San Francisco on Monday. (Jeff Chiu/AP)
November 25, 2013

President Obama on Monday derided what he called “tough talk and bluster” against the new nuclear deal with Iran, saying that such comments might be “the easy thing to do politically, but it’s not the right thing for our security.”

“We cannot close the door on diplomacy, and we cannot rule out peaceful solutions to the world’s problems,” Obama said in San Francisco, where he delivered a policy speech on immigration.

His remarks came as the administration began to push back on a flood of criticism over this weekend’s interim agreement, which freezes much of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for a modest easing of economic sanctions, and girded for a tough fight in Congress and with U.S. allies opposed to the deal.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who had joined in the talks with Iran in Geneva and returned to Washington on Monday, prepared to begin calling lawmakers over the Thanksgiving break. If necessary, a senior State Department official said, Kerry will be on Capitol Hill “on Day One” when Congress returns Dec. 9.

Obama hailed the agreement as the outcome of “clear-eyed and principled diplomacy” and said that “if Iran seizes this opportunity and chooses to join the global community, then we can begin to chip away at the mistrust that’s existed for many, many years.”

The congressional recess provides the administration a little breathing room to organize its strategy to defend the Iran deal, designed to last for six months while a more comprehensive accord is negotiated. The Senate had agreed to postpone consideration of harsher sanctions against Iran until the Geneva negotiations were completed; many senators are now calling to resume weighing such measures.

As soon as the Senate returns, Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said Monday, “we will take a look at this to see if we need stronger sanctions.”

Reid said responsibility for reviewing the matter would fall to the Banking and Foreign Relations committees. “They will study this, they will hold hearings if necessary, and if we need work on this, if we need stronger sanctions, I am sure we will do that,” he said on NPR’s “The Diane Rehm Show.”

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a leading pro-Israel lobby, said it would focus its opposition to the deal on the Senate. Congress, AIPAC said in a statement, “must also legislate additional sanctions, so that Iran will face immediate consequences should it renege on its commitments or refuse to negotiate an acceptable final agreement.”

AIPAC’s principal concern, shared by Israel and congressional opponents, is that the agreement allows Iran to continue low-level uranium enrichment that the group says could easily be ramped up to produce weapons-grade material. Israel has also expressed concern that the interim deal could become a permanent agreement.

Talk of additional sanctions — which the initial agreement explicitly says are to be avoided — has infuriated administration officials, who say opponents have rejected the deal out of hand without reading or fully understanding it.

Instead, the administration and its negotiating partners in Geneva, including Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, think that further sanctions “could actually be counterproductive and drive the Iranians away” from a final accord, said the State Department official, who was not authorized to discuss the agreement on the record and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

As they seek to sell the interim deal to their respective publics, Iran and the United States have emphasized different aspects. In Tehran, leaders have hailed the unfreezing of some Iranian assets and new export permissions. In Washington, officials have described the unfrozen assets as exceedingly “modest” and said the deal sets back what the West has charged is Iran’s march toward production of a nuclear weapon. The agreement also allows for “unprecedented” inspections of Iran’s nuclear program.

“The deal is not based on trust. The inspections . . . will give us the opportunity to verify that Iran is keeping its commitments over the course of this next six months and that would give us confidence that Iran can follow through on what it has agreed to,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said in an interview with Al Jazeera America’s “Inside Story.”

U.S. officials read the positive domestic reaction in Iran as a sign that its government supports the agreement and the further process of negotiations.

Kerry spoke Monday to the leaders of the United Arab Emirates, who have expressed reservations about any accord with Iran but have said publicly that they believe the United States will heed their concerns.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE’s neighbor, has been far more critical of negotiations with Iran, but on Monday it appeared to take a step back from confrontation with the United States.

After a cabinet meeting, the Saudi government said that it “viewed the agreement as a primary step towards a comprehensive solution to the Iranian nuclear program” and expressed hope that “such a step will be followed by more important steps” that will leave the region free of nuclear weapons.

Israel, which maintains an undeclared nuclear arsenal, did not lessen its criticism but seemed to refocus its attention on the long-term deal still to be negotiated.

In a statement Monday to the Knesset, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he “would be happy if I could join those voices around the world that are praising the Geneva agreement. It is true that the international pressure which we applied was partly successful and has led to a better result than what was originally planned, but this is still a bad deal.”

Netanyahu also said that he would send an Israeli team led by Yossi Cohen, his national security adviser, to Washington to discuss “the permanent agreement with Iran.”

Anne Gearan, Ed O’Keefe and Holly Yeager contributed to this report.

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