Obama on the Iran Deal: The ‘Strongest Nonproliferation Agreement Ever Negotiated’

The president’s speech is part of a broad push by the administration to persuade Congress and the public.

President Obama, in a speech Wednesday at American University in Washington, says the nuclear deal with Iran builds on the tradition of Cold War-era diplomacy. (Susan Walsh / AP)

Updated on August 5, 2015, at 12:55 p.m. ET

President Obama said Wednesday the deal with Iran on its nuclear program does not resolve all our problems with the Islamic republic, “but it achieves one of our most critical security objectives.”

“This is the strongest nonproliferation agreement ever negotiated,” Obama said.

Obama’s speech was at American University, the same place President Kennedy called for diplomacy and nuclear disarmament at the height of the Cold War. Wednesday’s speech also fell on the anniversary of the nuclear test-ban treaty signed by the U.S., U.K. and the Soviet Union in 1963. Obama said the agreement builds on that strong tradition of Cold War-era diplomacy.

The agreement with Iran has praised by many nonproliferation experts, but criticized on Capitol Hill as well as in Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called it a “historic mistake.” Critics say the deal offers Iran many incentives, including sanctions relief, and gets too little in return.

Obama, in his speech Wednesday, spoke directly to the Israeli people, saying their concerns were “understandable,” given the nature of Iran’s theocratic regime, but: “A nuclear-armed Iran is far more dangerous … than an Iran that benefits from sanctions relief.”

The president also reiterated the administration’s position that the alternative to the agreement with Iran was conflict.

“The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy and some form of war,” he said, adding that “military action would be far less effective that this deal” in preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

The president’s comments are part of a broad push by the administration to sell the deal—which Obama described as the “most consequential foreign policy debate since the invasion of Iraq”—to Congress and the American public.

In an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned that if Congress rejects the deal, it will confirm suspicions harbored by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and eventually lead to war. Kerry also sought to assuage Israeli concerns about a deal.

“I’ve gone through this backwards and forwards a hundred times and I’m telling you, this deal is as pro-Israel, as pro-Israel’s security, as it gets,” Kerry said. “And I believe that just saying no to this is, in fact, reckless.”

As part of the administration’s outreach to Congress on the deal, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz; Wendy Sherman, chief U.S. negotiator in the Iran talks; and Adam Szubin, acting undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial crimes, will brief senators Wednesday in a closed-door session.

The Associated Press notes:

The president, long criticized for his limited outreach to Capitol Hill, has displayed in particular a rare level of personal engagement with congressional lawmakers. Since the Iran agreement was finalized last month, Obama has had individual or small group conversations with 84 lawmakers. Cabinet secretaries and other senior officials have had similar outreach to 180 members.

Congress has until September 17 to vote on the deal that was struck in July. Obama has threatened a veto if lawmakers reject the historic accord. It’s unclear if Congress has enough votes to override a presidential veto.

In his speech Wednesday, Obama noted that “many of the same people who argued for war in Iraq” are opposed to the deal with Iran.

Most Republicans oppose the deal, as do some prominent Jewish Democrats, including Congressman Steve Israel of New York. Democratic lawmakers who support the agreement include Congressman Adam Schiff of California, as well as Senators Barbara Boxer of California and Bill Nelson of Florida.