San Francisco: US President Barack Obama took on critics of a newly-brokered nuclear deal with Iran on Monday by saying their tough talk was good for politics but not for US security.
Top Republicans – as well as US ally Israel – have criticised Obama for agreeing to the deal, which the United States and its partners say may ultimately prevent Tehran from obtaining a nuclear bomb.
Under the interim deal, Iran will accept restrictions on its nuclear program in exchange for limited relief from economic sanctions that have gradually crippled its economy and slashed its oil exports.
Sunday’s agreement, hammered out in marathon talks between six major powers and Iran in Geneva, aims to buy time to negotiate a comprehensive deal that the Obama administration hopes will lay to rest international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.
It was widely praised in Iran and the region.
Israel, however, has argued that a partial deal is a bad deal and that easing sanctions, even temporarily, decreases the leverage that the United States and others have over Iran.
Obama, who has long been criticised for his desire to engage with US foes, took heat as a presidential candidate in 2008 for saying he would talk to Iran, which has not had diplomatic relations with Washington for more than three decades.
On Monday, however, he alluded to those foreign policy goals during remarks that were otherwise focused on immigration reform. He noted that he had ended the war in Iraq and would end the war in Afghanistan next year, two things he also pledged to do as a candidate.
“When I first ran for President I said it was time for a new era of American leadership in the world, one that turned the page on a decade of war and began a new era of our engagement with the world,” he said during a visit to San Francisco.
“As President and as commander in chief, I’ve done what I said.”
Though the agreement forged in Geneva over the weekend is a first step, the White House sees it as a form of vindication for policies that Obama espoused long before he won the White House.
If Tehran follows through on its part of the pact, Obama said, it would chip away at years of mistrust between the two countries.
To his critics, Obama was especially direct.
“Huge challenges remain, but we cannot close the door on diplomacy, and we cannot rule out peaceful solutions to the world’s problems. We cannot commit ourselves to an endless cycle of conflict,” he said.
“Tough talk and bluster may be the easy thing to do politically, but it’s not the right thing for our security.”
Scepticism in Congress
The accord was met with deep scepticism from some members of Congress, including Democrats, who tend to be more hawkish about Iran than Obama’s administration.
A number of lawmakers, especially Republicans, insisted they would try to enact stiffer new sanctions despite the deal.
Pro-Israel lobbyists had been pushing American lawmakers hard to keep to a tough line on Tehran. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee issued a memo to supporters on Monday raising doubts about many terms of the interim agreement, including that it allows Iran to continue uranium enrichment.
But the pro-Israel advocacy group did not call for new sanctions to be imposed right away. AIPAC said it supported legislation that would allow sanctions to take effect if Iran violates the interim pact or a comprehensive deal falls through.
The White House – and the Iranian government – have said Congress could kill the deal if it enacts new sanctions now.
US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, said on Monday the Senate will consider legislation next month to impose tighter sanctions on Iran, but only after studying the issue and possibly holding hearings.
“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,” Reid said on National Public Radio.
Comments from Reid and other lawmakers bolstered expectations that the Senate would likely hold off on imposing new sanctions for the next six months as negotiations continue.
US officials reject an argument advanced by Israeli officials that instead of an interim deal, sanctions should be tightened until Iran abandons its nuclear program entirely.
While no date has yet been announced for the next round of talks between Iran and the six powers – Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States – a senior US official said they were expected to take place in a matter of weeks.
Obama is in the middle of a three-day western swing to raise money for the Democratic Party while promoting his policy priorities on the economy. The Iran deal could be exploited politically by Republicans to garner money, and votes, from Israel supporters who view it as a threat to the Jewish state.
Obama praised the deal in his remarks.
“For the first time in a decade, we’ve halted the progress on Iran’s nuclear program. Key parts of the program will be rolled back,” he said, referring to limitations that the pact places on Iran’s uranium enrichment and plutonium programs, which each can provide a pathway to fissile material for bombs.
“And over the coming months, we’re going to continue our diplomacy, with the goal of achieving a comprehensive solution that deals with the threat of Iran’s nuclear program once and for all,” he said.