WASHINGTON — Pushing back hard against critics, President Barack Obama forcefully defended the temporary agreement to freeze Iran’s disputed nuclear program on Monday, declaring that the United States “cannot close the door on diplomacy.”
Without naming names, Obama swiped at those who have questioned the wisdom of engaging with Iran.
“Tough talk and bluster may be the easy thing to do politically, but it’s not the right thing to do for our security,” he said during an event in San Francisco.
The president’s remarks followed skepticism of the historic accord expressed by some US allies abroad as well as by members of Congress at home, including fellow Democrats. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the fiercest opponents of the six-month deal, called it a “historic mistake” and announced he would be dispatching a top envoy to Washington to try to toughen the final agreement negotiators will soon begin hammering out.
“I spoke last night with President Obama. We agreed that in the coming days an Israeli team led by the national security adviser, Yossi Cohen, will go out to discuss with the United States the permanent accord with Iran,” Netanyahu told members of his Likud party Monday.
The weekend agreement between Iran and the P5+1 countries — the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany — is to temporarily halt parts of Tehran’s disputed nuclear program and allow for more intrusive international monitoring of its facilities. In exchange, Iran gets some modest sanctions relief and a promise from Obama that no new economic penalties will be levied during the terms of the six-month deal.
The groundwork for the accord was laid during four clandestine meetings between US and Iranian officials throughout the summer and fall. An earlier meeting took place in March, before Iranians elected their new, more moderate-sounding President Hassan Rouhani. Details of the secret talks were confirmed to The Associated Press by three senior administration officials.
The temporary accord with Tehran is historic in its own right, marking the most substantial agreement between Iran and the West in more than three decades. The consequences of a permanent deal could be far more significant, lowering the prospects of a nuclear arms race in the volatile Middle East and perhaps opening the door to wider relations between the US and Iran, which broke off diplomatic ties following the 1979 Islamic revolution.
However, Obama and his advisers know the nuclear negotiations are rife with risk. If Obama has miscalculated Iran’s intentions, it will vindicate critics who say his willingness to negotiate with Tehran is naive and could inadvertently hasten the Islamic republic’s march toward a nuclear weapon. Obama also runs the risk of exacerbating tensions with key Middle Eastern allies, as well as members of Congress who want to deepen, not ease, economic penalties on Iran.
Even some members of Obama’s own party say they’re wary of the deal struck in Geneva.
“I am disappointed by the terms of the agreement between Iran and the P5+1 nations because it does not seem proportional,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a close ally of the White House. “Iran simply freezes its nuclear capabilities while we reduce the sanctions.”
Despite Obama’s assurances that no new sanctions will be levied on Iran while the interim agreement is in effect, some lawmakers want to push ahead with additional penalties. A new sanctions bill has already passed the House, and if it passes the Senate, Obama could have to wield his veto power in order to keep his promise to Tehran.
Some lawmakers are also concerned about concessions the world powers made to Iran on its planned heavy water reactor in Arak, southwest of Tehran. Two congressional aides said that under the terms of the agreement, international monitors will not being able to watch live feeds of any activity at Arak and will instead retrieve a recording from the preceding day during each daily inspection.
The aides were not authorized to provide details of the agreement and demanded anonymity.
Despite the weekend fanfare, administration officials said key technical details on the inspections and sanctions relief must still be worked out before the agreement formally takes effect. Officials said they expect to finalize those details in the coming weeks. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he expects the deal to be fully implemented by the end of January.
European Union officials said their sanctions could be eased as soon as December. Those restrictions affect numerous areas including trade in petrochemicals, gold and other precious metals, financial transfers to purchase food and medicine, and the ability of third countries to use EU-based firms to insure shipments of Iranian oil again.
With a short-term pact in place, world powers will now set about trying to negotiate a broader agreement with Iran to permanently neutralize the nuclear program and assuage international concerns. Those talks will tackle the toughest issues that have long divided Iran and the West, including whether Tehran will be allowed to enrich uranium at a low level.
Iran insists it has a right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes and many nuclear analysts say a final deal will almost certainly leave Iran with some right to enrich. However, that’s sure to spark more discord with Israel and many lawmakers who insist Tehran be stripped of all enrichment capabilities.