Web Video: Is Obama’s Iran deal rhetoric working?

Aug. 06, 2015 AT 12:08 p.m. EDT

President Obama, in an address denouncing critics of the Iran nuclear agreement, warned that America’s international credibility would be lost if Congress kills the deal. How successful was the president in making his case? Gwen Ifill gets views from Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations and Nicholas Burns of Harvard University.

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GWEN IFILL: President Obama today stepped up his full-court press against critics of the Iran nuclear agreement. In an address staged at the very place John F. Kennedy delivered a speech pressing for an arms deal with Russia in 1963, Mr. Obama linked the deal’s opponents to those who supported going to war with Iraq.

He also warned that America’s international credibility will be lost if Congress kills the agreement.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Before the ink was even dry on this deal, before Congress even read it, a majority of Republicans declared their virulent opposition.

GWEN IFILL: In an almost hour-long speech, the president denounced critics of the nuclear agreement in his strongest terms yet.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If the rhetoric in these ads and the accompanying commentary sounds familiar, it should, for, many of the same people who argued for the war in Iraq are now making the case against the Iran nuclear deal. It was a mind-set characterized by a preference for military action over diplomacy, a mind-set that put a premium on unilateral U.S. action over the painstaking work of building international consensus.

GWEN IFILL: And, he warned, rejecting the Iran deal now will set the country on the path to new conflict.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war. There are opponents of this deal who accept the choice of war. In fact, they argue that surgical strikes against Iran’s facilities will be quick and painless.

But if we have learned anything from the last decade, it’s that wars in general and wars in the Middle East in particular are anything but simple.

GWEN IFILL: The president also argued again that Iran will accelerate its nuclear efforts if Congress blocks this deal.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in advance of the president’s remarks, rejected that claim outright.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, Majority Leader: It’s clear this deal is making members of both parties uneasy, and with good reason. America’s role in world, its commitment to global allies and the kind of future we leave our children are all tied up in this issue. That’s why I have called for a debate worthy of the importance of the agreement, when the Senate takes it up in September.

GWEN IFILL: Also on Capitol Hill, senators met with the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency for a private briefing on how the agreement would affect Iran’s nuclear efforts.

SEN. BOB CORKER, Chair, Committee on Foreign Relations: It wasn’t a reassuring meeting.

GWEN IFILL: Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, raised questions about access to Iran’s nuclear sites.

SEN. BOB CORKER: Most members left with greater concerns about the inspection regime than they came in with.

GWEN IFILL: But the IAEA chief, Yukiya Amano, said he cannot give Congress a copy of his agency’s nuclear inspection agreement with Iran.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), New York: I have had many questions answered. I have not yet reached a conclusion.

GWEN IFILL: And at a separate hearing, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman was questioned on that same point.

WENDY SHERMAN, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs: Ultimately, what we are talking about here is the credibility of the International Atomic Energy Agency, whether in fact we believe that they are a credible, independent verification organization, which it is.

GWEN IFILL: Polls show the American public is also divided over the agreement. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey found a third supporting the deal, a third opposing it, and a third saying they don’t know enough to make a decision. Congress has begun a 60-day review, and has until September 17 to vote. The president has warned he will veto any resolution of disapproval.

So how successful was the president in making the case for the Iran nuclear agreement? We get two views.

Nicholas Burns had a 27-year career in the Foreign Service. He’s now at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. And Ray Takeyh was a senior adviser on Iran at the State Department during President Obama’s first term. He’s now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Ray Takeyh, the president had some tough words today. He talked about how Netanyahu was just wrong. He linked the Iranian opposition to the Republican Party, the Republican Caucus, and he said that he criticized his opponents as armchair nuclear scientists. But, most of all, he made this link to people who voted for the war in Iraq.

Was the president on target or off?

RAY TAKEYH , Council on Foreign Relations: I went back and actually read Jack Kennedy’s speech and commencement address at American University.

And Jack Kennedy’s speech was lofty, idealistic. I think, if I quote it right, he said we shouldn’t wave the finger of accusation or issue indictments.

I think the president was unyielding. He was passionate, but his tone was at times truculent. And he didn’t make a successful pitch to his critics. This is a technologically flawed agreement, and the president should have attempted to broaden the parameters of this, the parameters of the conversation about this agreement. I think, in that sense, the president missed his mark, and I think it was unwise.

GWEN IFILL: Nicholas Burns, what do you think about the president’s tone in particular?

NICHOLAS BURNS, Harvard University: Gwen, I thought the president made a very strong case on the merits.

And it was an impassioned case because I think, in many ways, this may be, for him, his most important foreign policy issue. And I think he made two important points. One, this deal is going to freeze Iran’s nuclear program. They have been on the march for 10 years. It will freeze them for 10 or 15 years.

It will put them under very intrusive IAEA safeguards for 25 years. And it — very importantly, Iran, the administration says, is about two to three months away now from having the capability the produce a weapon. This deal means that Iran will be set back to a year, and all this done by diplomacy and negotiation, not war.

And I think, as Americans, we ought to have the self-confidence to try diplomacy first, rather than war. I will say this, Gwen, in answer to your specific question. I think the president ought to have a big tent policy here. To say that if the deal is turned down, if Congress defeats the president, it overrides his veto in December, then that leads to war, I think, is a little stark.

It’s much more probable that, if a deal breaks down, it will be bad for the United States, because we will be the ones who will have broken the agreement, the Iranians will be able to reconstitute a civil program. I don’t think, however, the Iranians are going to elect to then go to a nuclear weapon, which would invite an American response.

So — and rather than paint the critic as the Iraq War critics, I have been up on the Hill for three weeks. I have testified four times. I have met lots of members. They come in very different forms. There are Democrats who are worried about this deal, Democrats who worry about Israel.

So I think the president would be well-advised not to try to paint his critics as warmongers, but to explain the case on the merits. The merits for this deal are very strong.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about this question or this choice between unilateral action and diplomacy. Is that — you see those array of Nick Burns’ concerns. Are they yours as well, Ray Takeyh?

RAY TAKEYH: Not entirely.

The history of arms controls suggest, when there’s congressional objections, as was the case in SALT-I and SALT-II, and the president mentioned those, there is an attempt to go back and renegotiate aspects of this. And I think that’s what president should have done when he met the criticism, as opposed to just dismiss it.

There are aspects of this agreement that are very problematic, such as the sunset clause, where, after essentially 10 years, Iran gets to embark on an industrial-sized nuclear program. And when you have an industrial-sized nuclear, there is no inspection modality really that can detect a sneak-out to a weapon option.

The president essentially, even now, after the rejection of the deal, should there be one, has a chance to go back, renegotiate some aspect of the deal, therefore strengthen it. And as he strengthens that deal, I think he can broaden the bipartisan support for it.

I would be very concerned if I was a supporter of this deal that this deal is based on such a narrow margin of public support in the Hill. I think the longevity of this deal is seriously questioned by its absence of bipartisan support.

GWEN IFILL: Nick Burns, I want to talk about the politics of that, but I also want to ask you about this question about sanctions and inspections and whether those are loopholes which cause legitimate concern.

NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, I think this deal is a benefit, Gwen — a mix of benefits and of risks.

There are some risks. The primary risk is that what this does is, it freezes the Iranians for 10 years, but then, after 10 to 15 years, the Iranians do have the right to reconstitute a civil nuclear program. In my view, I support the deal, as someone who worked in the Bush and Clinton administration.

And I support it because we’re not going to be any worse off after having frozen the Iranians for 10 to 15 years at that time. We will still be a lot stronger militarily. We will still be able to reassemble a sanctions coalition, if we have to do that, and I think the benefits, I think, for me, outweigh the risks. So I think that’s what the country should do.

But the critics of this deal, Gwen, mainly in the Republican Party, have tried to say that there is an alternative, and the alternative is to walk away from these talks and sanction Iran further and wait for a better deal. And the problem with that is, we have built a big global coalition, but it’s an unwieldy one.

I don’t think that global coalition will stay together if the U.S. unilaterally walks out of the deal. The sanctions regime would likely erode. And here’s the really important point. If we walk away from the deal, the Iranians won’t have to live by its restrictions and they will be free to begin building a nuclear program.

Again, I think that scenario of the Republican critics largely strengthens Iran and it weakens the United States.

GWEN IFILL: But what about Ray Takeyh’s point that, with a narrow window of support or a narrow margin of support on Capitol Hill, and a veto threat hanging over it all, that the president is making a tactical political error?

NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, I think, from my observation, this has become a very partisan discussion on Capitol Hill.

There are only a handful of Republicans who may support this deal. The real debate is in the Democratic Party. And I think that’s where the president has to turn his attention to make sure — it looks, Gwen, that if the vote is held, when it’s held in September, the Congress will vote, because of Republican majorities in both houses, to disapprove the deal.

The president will then veto. He said he will do that. Can the president sustain his veto? And I think everything will depend on the Democrats in the House and obviously the Democrats in the Senate. And I would be surprised if the president’s veto is overridden, just based on what I’m hearing and talking to members in my time on Capitol Hill this week.

GWEN IFILL: Ray Takeyh, the president and Nick Burns both say, and others, that there is no better deal. Is there?

RAY TAKEYH: Well, frankly, the president used a lot of straw man, and to some extent, Nick did as well.

Nobody’s talking about walking away from the table. We’re talking about — at least I’m talking about renegotiating certain aspects of this agreement that are particularly problematic and contentious, such as…

GWEN IFILL: How do you renegotiate a deal where all these other nations have already signed off?

RAY TAKEYH: I think it will be very — it will be very difficult, but not impossible, because some of these provisions are so glaringly flawed that I think other countries would welcome negotiations.

I mentioned the sunset clause. Iran’s development of IR-8 centrifuges, which essentially produce uranium 17 times faster, and that gives Iran enrichment capacity that is quite substantial — the verification on this deal is extraordinarily imperfect.

The president keeps talking about that this is the most intrusive verification system, and the only other verification system that was more intrusive resulted from the Iraq War and the armistice. That’s just not true.

South Africa, under Nelson Mandela, agreed to anytime/anywhere inspection, which, in practice, you had access to military facilities within one day. So we can go back and renegotiate four, five, six aspects of this agreement. The history of arms controls is replete with such exercises.

And I think if you do that, this agreement would be strengthened. It will be based on a bipartisan anchor, it would ensure its longevity, it would ensure that proliferation cascade in the Middle East will not take place, and it will ensure that Iran will not sneak out to a bomb.

The first and foremost and only test of an arms control agreement is, does it reliably and permanently control arms? There’s question about the reliability of this agreement. There is no question about its permanence. It’s like a carton of milk. It has an expiration date and we should revisit some of those aspects of it.

GWEN IFILL: Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations and Ambassador Nicholas Burns of the Kennedy School, thank you both very much.


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