Evan Vucci / AP

Obama: Congress must choose between diplomacy or war with Iran

President calls a looming vote on nuclear deal the most consequential foreign policy choice since the Iraq War

President Barack Obama on Wednesday characterized an upcoming vote by Congress on whether or not to approve a nuclear deal struck with Iran last month as the most consequential foreign policy decision since it authorized the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003.

During a speech at American University in Washington, Obama urged lawmakers to jettison the mindset that led to the second Gulf war and instead support an agreement he said builds on the bipartisan Cold War tradition of “strong, principled diplomacy.”

"I raise this history because now more than ever we need clear thinking in our foreign policy," Obama said.

The president pressed his case for the nuclear arms-control agreement that the U.S. and five other world powers reached with Iran in Vienna on July 14, part of a public campaign to persuade a skeptical Congress that will vote next month on a resolution either approving or disapproving the pact.

The agreement aims to limit Tehran’s nuclear capabilities in exchange for relief from crippling economic sanctions. The White House says the deal would cut off all of Iran's pathways to a bomb and mandate robust inspections that would catch Tehran if it cheats.

In a point-by-point rebuttal of criticism of the Iran agreement, Obama warned that if Congress blocks the deal it will put the U.S. on the path to military action to stop Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

"The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy and some form of war," Obama said. "Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months from now, but soon."

Seeking to isolate his critics, Obama said the rest of the world supports the Iran accord, with the notable exception of Israel. He reaffirmed his support for Israel's security and said he doesn't doubt the sincerity of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the fiercest opponents of the agreement. But in a blunt assessment of Netanyahu's views, Obama said, "I believe he is wrong."

Opponents of the Iran deal argue Obama is setting up a false choice aimed at making them appear eager for war, but the president called on these critics to present a better diplomatic path forward than the one his administration is now offering.

Opponents of the deal also believe it would leave too much of Iran's nuclear infrastructure in place, allowing Tehran to start rebuilding its program after a decade, and that the country would use an influx of funds now frozen under international sanctions to further destabilize the Middle East.

The White House has urged lawmakers to vote solely on the deal's ability to prevent Iran from building a bomb, not on its other controversial activities or anti-America rhetoric. The administration also contends that the limits the deal places on Iran's program, even if not perfect, are far preferable to the status quo, under which Iran's program lacks any oversight. 

Obama also said on Wednesday that while Iranian hardliners may chant "Death to America" in the streets of Tehran, that's not the belief of all Iranians.

"In fact, it's those hardliners who are most comfortable with the status quo," he said. "It's those hardliners chanting ‘Death to America’ who have been most opposed to the deal. They're making common cause with the Republican caucus."

Republicans, who are largely united in their opposition to the diplomatic deal, appeared unmoved by the president's lengthy address. Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina accused him of relying on "endless strawmen to divert attention from his failed policies."

Challenging those who say the U.S. should have levied tougher sanctions on Tehran and held out for a better deal, Obama said they "are either ignorant of Iranian society or they're just not being straight with the American people."

"If Congress were to kill this deal, they would not only pave Iran's pathway to a bomb, they would accelerate it," he said.

The White House is preparing for the likelihood that lawmakers will vote against the deal next month and is focusing its lobbying efforts on getting enough Democrats to sustain a veto. Only one chamber of Congress is needed to sustain a veto and keep the deal in place.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday that the Obama administration is confident it can sustain a veto "at least in the House."

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, announced his support on Wednesday, saying there is "no credible path to a better deal if the sanctions get weaker and Iran's nuclear program gets stronger. The agreement has flaws, but the prospect that a better deal would result from congressional rejection seems like pure fantasy to me."

Democratic Rep. Mike Thompson of California, a former member of the House Intelligence Committee and a Vietnam War veteran, also announced his support.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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