President Barack Obama, seeking to sell the Iran nuclear deal to skeptical Washington lawmakers and the U.S. public, insisted Wednesday that the landmark agreement was the best way to avoid a nuclear arms race and more war in the Middle East.
Obama responded to critics at home and abroad after Iran and six world powers sealed an accord in Vienna on Tuesday to restrict Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
"Without a deal,” Obama said, “there would be no limits to Iran’s nuclear program, and Iran could move closer to a nuclear bomb. Without a deal, we risk even more war in the Middle East.”
Obama said that if the United States does not seize the opportunity for a deal, “future generations will judge us harshly.”
The agreement is a political triumph for Obama, who has made diplomatic outreach to Iran over its disputed nuclear program a major foreign policy priority.
Obama is now spearheading an intense White House push to counter Republican critics in Congress and reassure nervous U.S. allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Critics say the deal contains loopholes, especially in inspection procedures that Iran could exploit, and will provide Tehran with an infusion of unfrozen assets to fund its proxies in sectarian conflicts ranging from Syria to Iraq to Yemen.
Obama argued that a "snap-back" mechanism contained in the agreement to restore sanctions if Iran cheated would ensure it faced real consequences for not keeping its nuclear promises.
But he acknowledged that although he hopes the international deal will encourage Iran to rein in its aggressive conduct in the region, he was not betting on change. Nonetheless, he said, the nuclear deal represented the best chance for rapprochement with Iran.
"Without a deal, the international sanctions regime will unravel, with little ability to re-impose it,” he said. “With this deal, we have the possibility to peacefully resolve a major threat to regional and international security."
Without Iran agreeing to restrain its nuclear program, Obama said countries in the region would feel compelled to pursue their own nuclear ambitions "in the most volatile region in the world."
Under the agreement, sanctions imposed by the U.S., the European Union and the United Nations will be lifted in return for Iran agreeing to long-term curbs on a nuclear program that the West has suspected was aimed at creating a nuclear bomb. Iran has long-maintained that the program is for peaceful purposes.
Obama has run into a storm of accusations from Republican lawmakers and close U.S. ally Israel that he gave away too much to Tehran.
He said he does not anticipate Republicans in Congress will rally in support of the nuclear pact, but said that if lawmakers vote based on the facts, the majority of them should approve the deal. Obama has vowed to veto any effort to block the deal.
Tuesday's agreement left Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu crying foul, calling the deal a “historic mistake.”
Obama said Israel, widely assumed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed state, had legitimate concerns about Iran's threat to its security but insisted that danger would be compounded if Iran acquired a nuclear weapon.
Congress has 60 days to review the agreement. Republicans have majorities in both the House and the Senate, but they would need the support of dozens of Obama's fellow Democrats to sustain a "resolution of disapproval" that would cripple the deal.
The odds are slim that they could muster enough support to overrule an Obama veto.
Al Jazeera and Reuters