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Opinion Barack Obama: Embittered and unfair over Iran

President Obama pauses while speaking at American University's School of International Service in Washington last Wednesday. (Pete Marovich/Bloomberg)

President Obama says those who oppose the Iran nuclear deal are either ideological or illogical. I support the deal, yet I think this assessment is incorrect and unfair. It diminishes the president's case for congressional approval.

That case is strong but not overwhelming; it is not, to use a loaded phrase, a slam dunk. Reasonable minds can — and do — differ on whether to back it.

Obama once understood, even celebrated, this gray zone of difficult policy choices. He was a man who took pains to recognize and validate the legitimate concerns of those on the opposite side of nearly any complex debate.

The new Obama, hardened and embittered — the one on display in his American University speech last week and in the follow-up spate of interviews — has close to zero tolerance for those who reach contrary conclusions.

Certainly, there is a significant element of reflexive opposition on the part of the deal’s Republican critics. The gulf between the inflamed political reaction to the deal in the United States and the near-absence of debate among European allies is telling. If Obama is so weak-kneed to support a flawed deal, how to explain the backing of Britain’s Conservative government and Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union?

Certainly, too, there is a group — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, first among them — for whom no imaginable deal with Iran would be deemed acceptable. They define the necessary parameters of an agreement so broadly — Iran must not only relinquish its nuclear program but also renounce its destabilizing activities in the region — that there is no chance of Iranian agreement.

At the same time, they insist that Iran cannot be trusted to live up to any agreement it enters into. For this crowd, it is heads, no deal; tails, no deal.

So Obama's exasperation is understandable, but it does not bolster his argument. This Obama will brook no disagreement, accommodate no uncertainty as to the correct result. "So this deal is not just the best choice among alternatives — this is the strongest nonproliferation agreement ever negotiated," he said at American University.

This Obama does not grant the legitimacy of his opponents' concerns; he questions their bona fides in expressing them. "Many of the same people who argued for the war in Iraq are now making the case against the Iran nuclear deal," he observed.

And he misleadingly overstates the case when he contends that the deal “permanently prohibits Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” Yes, in the dictionary sense of “formally forbid by law, rule, or other authority.” But not in the actual sense of stopping Iran from obtaining a weapon if it is determined to do so once the agreement expires.

The best argument for the deal is, simultaneously, the most infuriatingly circular: Support this agreement because at this point no other alternative is or can foreseeably be available.

Indeed, if Congress were to muster the votes needed to override a presidential veto, the result would not be to send the P5-plus-1 back to the negotiating table to hammer out a stronger better deal, it would be to witness the existing international sanctions regime crumble, the United States become isolated and weakened as a credible negotiator, and the Iranians freed from agreed-upon limitations and therefore far closer to developing a nuclear weapon.

This argument is compelling, but it leaves no space for those who have legitimate concerns about the deal — who worry about the billions of dollars freed up for terrorists; who suspect that the negotiators gave in too soon on the timeline for Iran resuming nuclear proliferation; who are concerned that the inspection regimen remains too porous or doubt the real-world efficacy of snapback sanctions. You don't have to be an ideologue, or an idiot, to have serious qualms.

In the end, the strongest noncircular argument for the deal is the simplest. Absent a deal, Iran’s breakout time to a nuclear weapon would be just a few months. A military strike would likely set back development three years or so. The deal lasts for 10 years (restrictions on centrifuges) to 15 years (restrictions on enriched uranium).

That’s a lot of time bought — despite the risk of cheating, and despite the steep price. The more the president makes that case, the less he insults his critics — yes, even the ones who insult him as a feckless, naive negotiator — the better.

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Read more on this issue:

John F. Kerry and Ernest Moniz: The case for the nuclear deal with Iran

Michael Gerson: How the nuclear deal will fund Iran’s imperialism

David Ignatius: Obama’s cry of despair on the Iran deal

The Post’s View: President Obama walks a tightrope on the Iran nuclear framework