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Obama Urges Congress to Approve Iran Nuclear Deal

WASHINGTON — President Obama on Wednesday urged lawmakers to support the nuclear deal reached with Iran, saying that failure to put it into effect would increase the likelihood of war in the Middle East and accelerate a nuclear arms race in the region that would threaten the safety of the United States.

“That’s the choice that we face,” Mr. Obama said in opening comments at a news conference in the East Room of the White House. “If we don’t choose wisely, I believe future generations will judge us harshly, for letting this moment slip away.”

Just one day after announcing the culmination of his yearslong effort to use diplomacy to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Mr. Obama said he expected a “robust debate” in Congress and among the American people. But he said he saw no alternative to the deal that would prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

“Without a deal, we risk even more war in the Middle East,” he said, adding that other countries in the region would feel compelled to pursue their own nuclear weapons programs. “This deal is our best means of assuring that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon,” he said. “From the start, that has been my No. 1 priority.”

Graphic | The Iran Nuclear Deal – A Simple Guide A guide to help you navigate the talks between global powers and Tehran.

Mr. Obama said he hoped the agreement would pave the way to a more constructive relationship with Iran, but he strongly rejected the idea that the deal deserved to be opposed because it fails to address Iran’s support for terrorism or its destabilizing activities in the Middle East.

“My hope is that building on this deal, we can continue to have conversations with Iran that incentivizes them to behave differently in the region, to be less aggressive, less hostile, more cooperative,” Mr. Obama said. “But we’re not counting on it.”

The agreement, he said, “solves one particular problem,” which is the risk of Iran developing a nuclear weapon.

“It’ll be a lot easier for us to check Iran’s nefarious activities, to push back against the other areas where they operate contrary to our interests or our allies’ interests if they don’t have a bomb,” he said.

The president directly addressed critics who said the deal threatened Israel, saying that America’s closest ally in the Middle East has “legitimate concerns” about whether Iran emerges with a greater ability to back terrorism and disrupt its neighbors.

“You have a large country, with a significant military, that has proclaimed that Israel shouldn’t exist, that has denied the Holocaust, that has financed Hezbollah,” Mr. Obama said. “There are very good reasons why Israelis are nervous about Iran’s position in the world, generally.”

But Mr. Obama insisted that “those threats are compounded if Iran gets a nuclear weapon” and he chastised the critics of the deal — including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, and Republicans in Congress — for ignoring the facts of the deal and for failing to offer a viable alternative.

“I’m hearing a lot of talking points being repeated,” Mr. Obama said. “What I haven’t heard is what is your preferred alternative?”

“My hope is that everyone in Congress also evaluates this agreement based on the facts,” he added, “not on politics. Not on posturing. Not on the fact that this is a deal that I bring to Congress, as opposed to a Republican president. Not based on lobbying.”

Taking on one of the prime criticisms of the deal, Mr. Obama defended the inspection regime that underlies it, insisting that despite the fact that it could take up to 24 days for international inspectors to gain access to sites where they feared Iran might be trying to covertly develop a weapon, the system was the most vigorous ever negotiated.

“The nature of nuclear programs and facilities is such, this is not something you hide in a closet, this is not something you put on a dolly and wheel off somewhere,” Mr. Obama said. He noted that the agreement builds in a one-year “breakout time” it would take Iran to build a weapon, and it allows sanctions to be reimposed immediately.

Critics of the inspection and verification regime are really arguing that no system would be sufficient to prevent Iran from getting a weapon, Mr. Obama said. “What you’re really saying is that you’ve got to apply military force to guarantee that they can’t have a nuclear program,” he said.

In responding to a question about how the Iran deal fits in with his long-term goals for the Middle East, Mr. Obama described a set of modest achievements that he hopes to be able to pass on to the next president. He said that he hoped the United States would be “on track” to defeating the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and that the extremist group is “more contained” than it is now. He said he hoped to have “jump-started” a process to resolve the civil war in Syria.”

“If we’ve done those things, then the problems of the Middle East will not be solved,” he conceded. And he said the region’s long-term problems will have to be solved by the people who live there. But he added that he hoped to “provide that next president at least that foundation for continued progress.”

Mr. Obama acknowledged that the United States and Iran, which controls Shiite forces that are adversaries of the Islamic State, which is Sunni, have some common goals in Iraq, although he said the United States military, which is leading the international effort to combat the group, would not seek to collaborate officially with Iran in that fight.

“I do not foresee a formal set of agreements with Iran in terms of how we’re conducting our counter-ISIL campaign,” he said, using an acronym for the group, also known as ISIS. “But clearly Iran has influence in Iraq.”

Some of Iran’s activities there are helpful, he said, while “some are less legitimate, where you see Iran financing Shiite militias that in the past have killed American soldiers, and in the future may carry out atrocities when they move into Sunni areas.”

Where possible, the president said, American officials would work with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq to “deconflict” their efforts with those of Iran’s, and inform him when they had concerns about Iran’s actions. He said he did not want a situation in which United States troops are “looking over their shoulder” because they are operating alongside Iranian-backed groups that have targeted Americans.

Mr. Obama, who was so eager to take on criticisms of the Iran agreement that he broke from convention at one point to ask if there were any unanswered questions on it, became angry at one point when asked to respond to the notion that he had been “content” to close the deal without ensuring the freedom of Americans imprisoned in Iran.

“That’s nonsense, you should know better,” he said after a long pause, glaring. “I’ve met with the families of some of those folks. Nobody’s ‘content.’ ”

He said tying a nuclear agreement to freeing American prisoners would have prompted the Iranians to seek additional concessions in the talks, and made it “much more difficult for us to walk away.”

He said American officials were “working every single day” to secure the prisoners’ release, and would not stop until they had succeeded.

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(via NY Times)