White House courts outside help in selling nuke deal

White House courts outside help in selling nuke deal

While the administration says it is not pulling strings, former officials and independent groups — including J Street — come out in support of Iran agreement after briefings with Obama aides

US President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden with members of the national security team participate in a secure video teleconference from the Situation Room of the White House with Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and the US negotiating team in Lausanne, Switzerland, to discuss the P5+1 negotiations with Iran, March 31, 2015. (White House/Pete Souza)
US President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden with members of the national security team participate in a secure video teleconference from the Situation Room of the White House with Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and the US negotiating team in Lausanne, Switzerland, to discuss the P5+1 negotiations with Iran, March 31, 2015. (White House/Pete Souza)

As the White House ramps up a lobbying effort to sell Congress, the US public and jittery Middle Eastern allies on its nascent agreement with Iran over nuclear production, it has seemingly enlisted the help of experts and groups also seeking to preach the pact’s praises.

It’s not clear to what degree the coalition of Iran deal backers is being directed by the White House, but Obama administration officials have held briefings with a number of groups on the outlines of the deal in recent days.

Washington has gone on the offensive to defend the deal, seeking to head off Israel’s rejection of the landmark agreement as well as a Congressional push to possibly stymie the pact, which may see Iran cut back its nuclear activity in return for a lifting of sanctions.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday that Iran is continuing to press publicly for a deal that would lift all sanctions immediately.

The US and its negotiating partners — Russia, China, France, the UK and Germany — have been pushing for phased-in sanctions relief. But the fact that such a key matter was left unsettled in the framework deal has fueled further doubts about the negotiations, which are supposed to be concluded by June 30.

The Obama administration has worked feverishly to persuade lawmakers, foreign leaders and advocacy groups to embrace or at least stomach the deal.

In a phone call Monday, Obama told Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman that the US was committed to working with Oman and other Gulf nations to address “Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region,” the White House said.

More than a dozen top officials, including Obama’s chief of staff, national security adviser, UN ambassador and secretaries of State and Treasury, have fanned out to brief members of Congress.

Those officials were echoed by outside voices, such as the Arab American Institute, the National Iranian American Council and the left-leaning Israel advocacy group J Street, that joined together Monday to lend their support to the deal.

“As Arab Americans, Jewish Americans, and Iranian Americans, we are especially cognizant of what this agreement may mean for the Middle East,” a statement from the three read. “This deal may provide an important first step towards de-escalating regional tensions and pave the way for resolving the many conflicts that still persist.”

And a group of more than 50 foreign policy veterans, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., published an open letter approving of the deal.

“We call on the US Congress to take no action that would impede further progress or undermine the American negotiators’ efforts to complete the final comprehensive agreement on time,” read the statement.

White House aides told Politico they had not directed the officials and groups on what to say, but just informed them about the deal.

“There is loose coordination going on between organizations and experts who support the framework deal,” said Daryl Kimball, the head of the Arms Control Association, whose group released a statement by 30 nuclear non-proliferation experts touting the deal.

“They don’t give us talking points. They do convey key messages,” NIAC official Jamal Abdi told Politico.

Other groups also lent support to the agreement, including the Atlantic Council, the International Crisis Group, and the Foundation for Middle East Peace.

“All of the parties to this agreement have to fend off domestic critics who will not be satisfied with any realistic deal – this agreement must be given an opportunity to achieve its goals,” Mitchell Plitnick, a program director for the foundation, said in a statement.”

Aside from outside help, officials have also been dispatched to defend the agreement.

Earnest tweeted out a link Monday to an op-ed in Israeli news site Ynet by former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy calling on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to drop his objections to the agreement.

State Department Spokesperson Marie Harf said Monday she was “perplexed” by statements made by Netanyahu on Sunday saying Iran would be allowed to keep its centrifuges.

“He said that Iran would not dismantle any of its centrifuges; but under the JCPA, Iran will physically remove about 13,000 centrifuges from where they stand today in Iran’s nuclear facilities,” she said, though she later added that Iran would keep the unconnected centrifuges.

The White House also deployed Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz — a nuclear physicist — to offer a scientific defense of a deal that Moniz said would block all Iranian pathways to a nuclear weapon. He described the emerging deal as a “forever agreement,” disputing skeptics who contend it would merely delay Iran’s progress toward a bomb.

“This is not built upon trust,” Moniz said, describing a set of intrusive inspections that would tip off the global community if Iran attempts to cheat. “This is built upon hardnosed requirements in terms of limitations on what they do, at various timescales, and on the access and transparency.”

Under the agreement, Moniz said, Iran would agree — in perpetuity — to a beefed-up level of inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Other elements of the inspection regimen, such as those dealing with storage and mining of nuclear materials, would end sooner.

And Moniz acknowledged that over time, some restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities might be eased if the world gains confidence that its program is being operated for purely peaceful purposes.

Skeptics of Obama’s diplomatic outreach to Iran have been undeterred.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., just back from the Middle East, questioned why Iran would be allowed to retain more than 6,000 centrifuges — despite Obama’s earlier suggestion that he was pursuing a deal that would end Iran’s nuclear program, not simply shrink it.

“The parameters of the interim deal, in essence, establish an internationally recognized, 10-year nuclear research and development program,” McConnell said.

The strongest international criticism has come from Israel, where leaders consider a nuclear-armed Iran to be an existential threat.

Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said Israeli military action against Iran’s nuclear program remains an option, and Netanyahu has also insisted any final deal must include a “clear and unambiguous Iranian recognition of Israel’s right to exist.”

Obama, in an NPR News interview Monday, said requiring formal recognition of Israel was a “fundamental misjudgment,” tantamount to insisting that the Iranian regime completely transform as a prerequisite to a deal.

“We want Iran not to have nuclear weapons precisely because we can’t bank on the nature of the regime changing,” Obama said.

Lawmakers in the US are pushing to give Congress a say in whether the agreement should stand. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., is pressing legislation that would not only let lawmakers vote to approve or reject the bill, but would also prevent Obama from using his own authority to temporarily waive existing US sanctions while Congress debates the deal.

The Foreign Relations panel plans to vote on the measure next week. With support assured from nearly all Republicans, the bill would need only a handful of defecting Democrats to support the bill to override a promised veto from Obama. A number of Democrats have indicated concerns, raising the prospect of the first veto override of Obama’s presidency.

Obama, in a weekend interview, suggested he might be open to another way for Congress to register its views without encroaching on his prerogative to conduct foreign policy. That led to speculation that Obama might support proposals for Congress to take a nonbinding resolution. But Earnest said the White House opposes any and all votes by Congress — other than an eventual vote to fully lift the sanctions Congress has slapped on Iran.

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