The president also acknowledged that, with 18 months left in office, he is seeking to hand off to his successor thorny problems such as the Islamic State, Syria’s civil war and Israeli-Palestinian tensions rather than trying to resolve them himself.
“It’s not the job of the president to solve every problem in the Middle East,” Mr. Obama said at a White House press conference. “The people in the Middle East are going to have to solve some of these problems themselves. But I think we can provide that next president at least a foundation for continued progress.”
Mr. Obama called the news conference to promote the Iran deal, which he views as the cornerstone of his legacy of diplomacy, as Vice President Joseph R. Biden and other administration officials began lobbying Congress to support the agreement. Negotiators for the U.S. and five other world powers reached the deal with Iran on Tuesday to limit Tehran’s nuclear program in return for lifting economic sanctions.
Opposition to the agreement appeared to be building Wednesday at home and abroad, with critics noting the accord does not require Iran to stop enriching uranium and saying it will leave Tehran closer to building a nuclear weapon after 10 years. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that the agreement was “not the end of the story.”
“We are going to continue to denounce the danger in reaching an agreement with a dictatorial regime,” Mr. Netanyahu said.
Saudi Arabia issued a stern warning, saying Iran must use any economic gains from the lifting of sanctions to improve the lives of Iranians “rather than using them to cause turmoil in the region, a matter that will meet a decisive reaction from the nations of the region.”
More lawmakers raised concerns, including some Democrats, such as former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, a candidate for the 2016 presidential nomination. Mr. Webb said he is worried the agreement will send a signal to other countries in the volatile region “that we, the United States, are accepting the eventuality that they [Iran] will acquire a nuclear weapon.”
Congress will have 60 days to review the agreement, and Mr. Obama has vowed to veto any effort to kill the accord. The administration quickly sought out Democratic lawmakers who might be needed to sustain a veto, with Mr. Biden paying a visit Wednesday to House Democrats.
“I’m here to answer questions and explain what the deal is, and I’m confident they’ll like it when they understand it all,” Mr. Biden told reporters as he entered a closed-door session at the Capitol.
In his hourlong news conference, Mr. Obama defended the accord as the “best means” of ensuring that Iran cannot build nuclear weapons, saying the opportunity for such an agreement “may not come again in our lifetimes.” He said critics are not offering a better solution.
“I’m hearing a lot of talking points being repeated about ‘this is a bad deal,’” the president said. “What is your preferred alternative? There really are only two alternatives here. Either the issue of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is resolved diplomatically through a negotiation, or it’s resolved through force, through war. Those are the options.”
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Mr. Obama “is not dealing with reality.”
“I saw a very, very naive man who does not know how the world works, who cannot put the dots together, and stood in front of the American people and said ‘I really don’t care if Congress likes this or not, I’m going to do it,’” Mr. Perry, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, said on “The Hugh Hewitt Show.”
Advocacy groups began to pressure Congress. The Foundation for American Security and Freedom, run by former U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton, launched a six-figure ad campaign online comparing the Iran deal with the nuclear agreement that President Clinton struck with North Korea in 1994.
At the time, Mr. Clinton declared “the world will be safer.” A decade later, North Korea had the bomb.
“We aren’t rewriting history … we are repeating it,” the ad states, urging viewers to tell lawmakers to vote against the Iran deal.
In the news conference, the president also bristled when a reporter, Major Garrett of CBS News, asked why he was “content, with all the fanfare around this deal,” to leave three Americans as prisoners in Iran and a fourth unaccounted for.
“The notion that I am content as I celebrate with American citizens languishing in Iranian jails, Major, that’s nonsense, and you should know better,” Mr. Obama said, seething. “I’ve met with the families of some of those folks. Nobody’s content. And our diplomats and our teams are working diligently to try to get them out.”
Christian missionary Saeed Abedini, journalist Jason Rezaian of The Washington Post and former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati are being held by Iran.
The president said linking the prisoners’ freedom to the nuclear negotiations could create an incentive for Iran to use American prisoners in the future as leverage for concessions.
“That’s why those issues are not connected,” Mr. Obama said.
Just last year, Mr. Obama came under heavy criticism for agreeing to swap five Taliban leaders for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who has since been charged with desertion.
Addressing critics who said the negotiations should have required Iran to dismantle all of its nuclear facilities, Mr. Obama said, “We don’t have diplomatic leverage to eliminate every vestige of a peaceful nuclear program in Iran.”
The president said “it’s possible” for Iran to cheat under the agreement, but that international monitors will have unprecedented access to Iran’s suspicious sites. The president said the 24 days’ advance notice called for in the pact to inspect sites is prompt enough to uncover violations.
“This is not something you can hide in a closet,” Mr. Obama said. “This is not something you can put on a dolly and wheel off somewhere.”
If uranium ore goes missing from a mine in Iran, the president said, “they got some ‘splainin’ to do.”
The president also said the criticism that the deal won’t stop Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism “defies logic,” saying the administration never expected that the agreement would force Tehran to cease its destabilizing activities in the Middle East.
“We’ll still have problems with Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism,” Mr. Obama said. “My hope is that, building on this deal, we can continue to have conversations with Iran that incentivize them to behave differently in the region, to be less aggressive, less hostile, more cooperative, to operate the way we expect nations in the international community to behave. But we’re not counting on it. This deal is not contingent on Iran changing its behavior. It solves one particular problem, which is making sure they don’t have a bomb.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce, California Republican, and Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican, said the Iran agreement calls for a “significant weakening” of the U.N. arms embargo on ballistic missiles and conventional weapons.
“It is distressing that your administration would afford Russia and China the opportunity to vote on the final agreement before the American people’s representatives do,” they wrote to the president. “It would be entirely inappropriate and divisive for your administration to vote to lift U.N.-backed sanctions should Congress reject the final agreement and override a presidential veto.”
Reflecting on his time remaining in office, the president said the agreement with Iran will be a key part of his effort to leave the Middle East in better shape for his successor.
“I think my key goal, when I turn over the keys to … the next president, is that we are on track to defeat [the Islamic State], that they are much more contained and we’re moving in the right direction there, that we have jump-started a process to resolve the civil war in Syria … [and] to make sure that in Iraq, not only have we pushed back [the Islamic State], but we’ve also created an environment in which Sunni, Shia and Kurd are starting to operate and function more effectively together,” Mr. Obama said.
An aide to Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said the president is “hopelessly disconnected from reality.”
“If he truly thinks he is on the right track to defeat [the Islamic State], there’s little reason for Americans to believe this nuclear deal will do anything to stop Iran’s drive for a bomb, or stop its efforts to promote terror and violence throughout the Middle East,” said Boehner spokesman Cory Fritz.
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