The President Defends His Iran Plan

Why is Barack Obama saying, “It’s the deal—or war?” Is it fear-mongering? Or “the dictates of cold, hard logic”? He explains his thinking in a conversation with journalists.

President Obama after his speech at American University in Washington on Wednesday (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

On Wednesday at American University, Barack Obama made the case for the Iran nuclear agreement, and against its critics, in a long and detailed speech. The official transcript is here; the C-Span video is here. Later that afternoon, the president met in the Roosevelt Room of the White House with nine journalists to talk for another 90 minutes about the thinking behind the plan, and its likely political and strategic effects.

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg was one of the people at that session, and he plans to write about some aspects of the discussion. Slate’s Fred Kaplan was another, and his report is here. I was there as well and will try to convey some of the texture and highlights.

Procedural note: The session was on the record, so reporters could quote everything the president said. We were allowed to take notes in real time, including typing them out on computers, but we were not allowed to use audio recorders. Direct quotes here have been checked against an internal transcript the White House made.

Nothing in the substance of Obama’s remarks would come as a surprise to people who heard his speech earlier that day or any of his comments in the weeks since the Iran deal was struck—most notably, his answers at the very long press conference he held last month. Obama made a point of this constancy. Half a dozen times, he began answers with, “As I said in the speech...” When one reporter observed that the American University address “reads like a lot of your other speeches,” Obama cut in to say jauntily, “I’m pretty consistent!,” which got a laugh.

But although the arguments are familiar, it is still different to hear them in a conversational rather than formal-oratorical setting. Here are some of the aspects that struck me.

* * *

Intellectual and Strategic Confidence

This is one micron away from the trait that Obama-detractors consider his arrogance and aloofness, so I’ll try to be precise about the way it manifested itself.

On the arguments for and against the deal, Obama rattled them off as he did in his speech and at his all-Iran July 15 press conference: You think this deal is flawed? Give me a better alternative. You think its inspection provisions are weak? Look at the facts and you’ll see that they’re more intrusive and verifiable than any other ever signed. You think because Iran’s government is extremist and anti-Semitic we shouldn’t negotiate with it? It’s because Iran has been an adversary that we need to negotiate limits, just as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan did with the evil and threatening Soviet Union. You think that rejecting this deal will somehow lead to a “better” deal? Well, let’s follow the logic and see why you’re wrong.

It’s the follow the logic theme I want to stress. Obama is clearly so familiar with these arguments that he was able to present them rapid-fire and as if each were a discrete paragraph in a legal brief. (At other times he spoke with great, pause-filled deliberation, marking his way through the sentence word by word.) And most paragraphs in that brief seemed to end, their arguments don’t hold up or, follow the logic or, it doesn’t make sense or, I don’t think you’ll find the weakness in my logic. You’ll see something similar if you read through his AU speech.

The real-world context for Obama’s certainty on these points is his knowledge that in the rest of the world, this agreement is not controversial at all.

There is practically no other big strategic point on which the U.S., Russia, and China all agree—but they held together on this deal. (“I was surprised that Russia was able to compartmentalize the Iran issue, in light of the severe tensions that we have over Ukraine,” Obama said.) The French, Germans, and British stayed together too, even though they don’t always see eye-to-eye with America on nuclear issues. High-stakes measures don’t often get through the UN Security Council on a 15-0 vote; this deal did.

Some hardliners in Iran don’t like the agreement, as Obama frequently points out, and it has ramifications for many countries in the Middle East. But in Washington, only two blocs are actively urging the U.S. Congress to reject it. One is of course the U.S. Republican Party. The other is the Netanyahu administration in Israel plus a range of Israelis from many political partiesthough some military and intelligence officials in Israel have dissented from Benjamin Netanyahu’s condemnation of the deal.

Obama has taken heat for pointing out in his speech that “every nation in the world that has commented publicly, with the exception of the Israeli government, has expressed support.” But that’s the plain truth. As delivered, this line of his speech was very noticeably stressed in the way I show:

I recognize that Prime Minister Netanyahu disagrees—disagrees strongly. I do not doubt his sincerity. But I believe he is wrong. … And as president of the United States, it would be an abrogation of my constitutional duty to act against my best judgment simply because it causes temporary friction with a dear friend and ally.

To bring this back to the theme of confidence: In this conversation, as in the speech, Obama gave Netanyahu and other Israeli critics credit for being sincere but misinformed. As for the GOP? Misinformed at best. “The fact that there is a robust debate in Congress is good,” he said in our session. “The fact that the debate sometimes seems unanchored to facts is not so good. ... [We need] to return to some semblance of bipartisanship and soberness when we approach these problems.” (I finished this post while watching the Fox News GOP debate, which gave “semblance of bipartisanship and soberness” new meaning.)

Obama’s intellectual confidence showed through in his certainty that if people looked at the facts and logic, they would come down on his side. His strategic confidence came through in his asserting that as a matter of U.S. national interest, “this to me is not a close call—and I say that based on having made a lot of tough calls.” Most foreign-policy judgments, he said, ended up being “judgments based on percentages,” and most of them “had hair,” the in-house term for complications. Not this one, in his view:

“When I see a situation like this one, where we can achieve an objective with a unified world behind us, and we preserve our hedge against it not working out, I think it would be foolish—even tragic—for us to pass up on that opportunity.”

If you agree with the way Obama follows these facts to these conclusions, as I do, you’re impressed by his determination to fight this out on the facts (rather than saying, 2009 fashion, “We’ll listen to good ideas from all sides”). If you disagree, I can see how his Q.E.D./brainiac certainty could grate.

* * *

Awareness of the Intellectual and Strategic Unknown

Obama missed no chance to push right back if there was a question or a premise he disagreed with.

For instance: After he’d given a discourse about the risks of accidental war with a nuclear-armed Iran, one reporter asked him, “Do you have a head count on the Hill?” Obama immediately shot back, “Come on! We’re having a big geopolitical conversation!” It was with a laugh, but he moved right on to the next questioner. When another questioner began by asking for Plan B if he lost the congressional vote, Obama said (essentially): I’m going to stop you right there and give you a chance to ask a question that I will answer. I’m not going to answer this one because, “I make it a point not to anticipate failure.”

But Obama did engage one string of questions whose premise he challenged. The questions involved whether he was naively placing too much faith in the idea that Iran’s reconnection with the world would liberalize its society and undermine its extremist leaders.

Obama disagreed with the premise because, he said, the deal made no assumptions about what might happen in Iran. E.g., “There is nothing in this deal that is dependent on a transformation of the character of the Iranian regime. … This is a hard-headed, clear-eyed, calculated decision … to seize our best opportunity to lock down the possibility of Iran getting a nuclear weapon.”

That’s consistent with the case he’s been making all along. I was more interested in what he said next, when asked directly about what he expected to occur in Iran. The question was: Let’s not talk about assumptions built into the deal. Please tell us what you, President Obama, think will happen in Iran if the deal goes through. He answered,

I just don’t know.

When Nixon went to China, Mao was still in power. He had no idea how that was going to play out. He didn’t know that Deng Xiaoping suddenly comes in … and the next thing you know you’ve got this state capitalism on the march. You couldn’t anticipate that.

When the first arms-control treaties were entered into with the Soviet Union, nobody was anticipating that at some point the entire system—well, maybe George Kennan was anticipating it—but at some point, the system rots to the point where the Berlin Wall comes down. You have a more immediate objective, which is let’s make sure that we’re not triggering nuclear war...

I was the first president to visit Burma—after 40 years of as repressive a regime as there is. And we still don’t know yet how that experiment plays itself out. But what we do know is suddenly there’s this opening, this space. … We’ve created a possibility for change.

He went on to say that he was more confident about predicting changes in Cuba, because “that’s a small country which has almost a unique relationship to us.” As for Iran?

Iran is the latest expression of a deep, ancient, powerful culture that’s different than ours. And we don’t know how it’s going to play itself out. But as I said before, it’s not necessary for us to be optimistic in order for us to assess the value of this deal. If you believe that Tehran will not change, and the latest version of the current supreme leader is in charge 10, 15 years from now … you’d still want this deal. In fact, you want this deal even more.

The fantasy, the naiveté, the optimism, is to think that we reject this deal and somehow it all solves itself with a couple of missile strikes—that is not sound foreign policy.

My point: It can be as revealing to hear people talk about what they don’t or can’t know as what they do. In our evolving understanding of Obama, I mean to highlight the contrast between his certitude on facts-and-logic of the deal, and his agnosticism about these major social and strategic shifts that might ensue.

* * *

Or Else, War

Many critics of the deal, and some supporters and others in the press, are furious about what they feel is Obama’s scare-tactic false choice: If you don’t vote for this deal, you’re voting for war. Here was the Israeli Embassy’s reaction:

From the Israeli Embassy’s Twitter feed on Thursday

Eli Lake, of Bloomberg, lamented Obama’s stooping to the “politics of fear.”

This sensitivity to fear-mongering is selective at best, considering the apocalyptic tone of many arguments against the deal. I mention it because in the conversation on Wednesday, Obama was asked about it directly. His answer, which was even longer than I will relay here (but similar to what he has said in his speeches), was simply to move through the chain of logic link by link:

First, the U.S. Congress rejects the deal. The secretary of state has negotiated it; the president has endorsed it; the UN has approved it; so have all other involved governments. But the U.S. will not take part. What then?

Next, “at a minimum, what we’ve done is we’ve put Iran in the driver’s seat. And Iran could make various decisions here, none of which are good for us, and all of which are good for them.” Logically, what would those options be?

“They could decide to pull out of the comprehensive deal or the interim deal, put the entire blame on the United States, and proceed with their R&D, their research, the installation of more advanced centrifuges, claiming the entire time that these are all still peaceful. They would have been willing to defer on the installation of some of those centrifuges in exchange for sanctions relief, but since the U.S. Congress refused to be reasonable, they’re going to go ahead—in which case, the scenario that everybody talks about happening 15 years from now happens six, nine, 12 months from now.”

“Alternatively, they could say, ‘We’re going to go ahead and abide by the deal despite what the U.S. Congress says,’ and put our partners—Russia, China, as well as the Europeans—on notice that they’re ready to do business...”

“It’s hard to conceive of Russia and China not taking full advantage of that—not only because of commercial purposes, but because of the enormous propaganda boom that it provides them at a time when the entire story they’re telling around the world is that U.S. hegemony is over, that we need an entirely new set of global institutions that are more reflective of the balance of power.”

Would the Russians and Chinese, as Netanyahu has claimed, simply forget about the current deal and join in a GOP-dictated request for tougher sanctions? “Inconceivable,” Obama said. The way he actually put it was:

And if we now had Congress reject an initiative that a U.S. president and a U.S. secretary of state had led and that now has virtually universal approval, then it is inconceivable that President Xi or President Putin or, for that matter, a number of our European partners would then say, ‘We’ll just do what Tom Cotton has to say with respect to our geopolitical interests.’

There’s a lot more to the chain of logic, but at its end, according to the president, is an Iran much closer to nuclear-weapon capacity than it would be under the deal, and a United States with no leverage other than the military to deal with it. And what comes with that final link?

So in almost every scenario, our ability to monitor what’s happening in Iran, our ability to ensure that they are not breaking out, our ability to inspect their facilities, our ability to force them to abide by the deal has gone out the window.

And as I said in the speech, everybody around this table knows that within six months or nine months—I don’t know how long it would take—of Iran having pulled out of this deal, or cheated on this deal, or interpreted the deal in a way that was deemed contrary to the spirit, if not the letter, of the deal, that some of the same voices who were opposed to the deal would insist that the only way to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon is to take strikes. And it will be framed as limited military strikes, and it will be suggested that Iran will not respond. But we will have entered into a war.

That doesn’t mean that Iran suddenly attacks us directly. It does mean that I’ve got a whole bunch of U.S. troops on the ground trying to help Baghdad fight ISIL, and they’re now looking over their shoulders with a host of Shia militia. It does mean that Hezbollah potentially makes use of some of those rockets into Israel, which then precipitates us having to take action. It does mean that the Strait of Hormuz suddenly becomes a live theater in which one member of the IRGC, or Quds Force, or [Iranian Quds Force commander] Mr. Soleimani directs a suicide speedboat crashing into one of our naval ships, in which case I think it’s fair to say that the commander in chief of the United States will be called upon to respond.

So when he says it’s the deal, or war, this is the case he is making. “I do not say that a military option is inevitable just to be provocative, just to win the argument. Those are the dictates of cold, hard logic.”

Agree with him or not, to classify this as “fear-mongering,” on a topic where presidential candidates are talking about “leading to the door of the oven” and a “declaration of war on Israel,” is to stretch that term beyond meaning. (And a new term altogether would be useful for the irrepressible Dick Cheney, who most recently said that the deal would make “the actual use of nuclear weapons more likely.”)

* * *

The Mindset

In addition to “the deal or war,” the part of the AU speech most calculated to infuriate opponents was Obama’s emphasis on “the mindset.” By this he meant a general over-reliance on military responses—“we shortchange our influence and our ability to shape events when that’s the only tool we think we have in the toolbox”—and the specific, disastrous resort to a military response in invading Iraq.

Obama is fully aware that bringing up Iraq is a “divider, not a unifier” move. The Munich agreement, nearly 80 years in the past, is rolled out whenever anyone wants to criticize a modern-day treaty. The Iraq misjudgments, so much more recent and involving so many still-active figures from both parties, are trickier to bring up. Obama made clear that he wanted to highlight rather than obscure the connection between the thinking that led the United States into Iraq and the arguments that oppose this deal. He said:

I also think that there is a particular mindset that was on display in the run-up to the Iraq War that continues to this day. Some of the folks who were involved in that decision either don’t remember what they said or are entirely unapologetic about the results, but that views the Middle East as a place where force and intimidation will deliver on the security interests that we have, and that it is not possible for us to at least test the possibility of diplomacy.

And I’ll leave it to you guys to do the political analysis of why those views are most prominent now in the Republican Party. I’ll leave it at that.

Obama wouldn’t be talking this way if he thought he could bring any of those Republicans to his side of the argument. He doesn’t. “The degree of polarization that currently exists in Washington is such where I think it’s fair to say if I presented a cure for cancer”—he was saying this jokingly, and it drew a laugh—“getting legislation passed to move that forward would be a nail-biter.”

* * *

The Art of the Possible

One reporter asked Obama whether he was upset that the deal would, at best, squeak by in Congress. The Republican majorities in the House and Senate will almost certainly pass a measure condemning it; Obama will certainly veto that; and the deal’s survival will depend on denying opponents the two-thirds majority they would need in both the House and the Senate to override his veto.

Is that an inglorious way to prevail? He said no. “My main concern is simply to be able to implement the deal, and then make sure that, globally, we put in place the structure to make it stick.” And a little later,  “I’m less concerned about the point spread. I’m more concerned about getting it done.”

His final words before he shook our hands and left were, “Nothing is easy in this town”—he has been in Washington long enough to say this town. “But it’s all worthwhile.”