With Criticism Mounting, Obama Defends Iran Nuclear Deal

Obama Iran
President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference at the White House on July 15, 2015. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Insisting that "we have a historic chance to pursue a safer and more secure world," President Barack Obama went before reporters at the White House on Wednesday to defend the U.S.-led international agreement to curtail Iran's nuclear program.

The accord forged with Iran this week is being harshly criticized by Republicans, some Democrats and some U.S. allies, including Israel. It's the product of negotiations among the U.S., Iran, four permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (France, China, the United Kingdom and Russia) and Germany. The president's press conference was part of an all-out campaign to sell the deal to Congress, American citizens and doubters across the globe.

Obama stressed that the deal would cut Iranian stockpiles of uranium by 98 percent, dramatically reduce the number of centrifuges Tehran is operating and establish an inspection regimen that would assure the country's compliance. "We will have inspections along the entire supply chain," the president said. "I can say with confidence, and more importantly nuclear experts can say with confidence, that Iran would not be able to build a nuclear weapon."

Because Obama has vowed to veto any congressional actions that would scuttle the deal, it's likely to be fully implemented. Overcoming that veto would require a two-thirds majority vote in each chamber, and while the House, which has the largest Republican majority since the 1920s, might well meet that threshold, it seems highly unlikely that 13 members of the Democratic caucus in the Senate would abandon the president and kill the accord.

Nevertheless, Obama knows anything is possible. So he continues to lobby heavily, giving interviews to foreign policy-oriented columnists like Thomas Friedman of The New York Times in hopes of moving elite opinion and keeping congressional defections to a minimum. Opponents of the plan are expected to launch television ads and apply pressure on wavering members of Congress.

The agreement was signed Tuesday, but critics have already focused on a few areas: the time limits on some of the deal's terms and what some call a weak inspection system. At his press conference in the East Room of the White House, Obama repeatedly stressed that the agreement has multiple safeguards to prevent Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon. Addressing the "24 days" criticism—a provision in the agreement in which adjudication of a request for inspection could potentially take more than three weeks to resolve—Obama noted that as "your high school physics will remind us," nuclear materials leave a trace.

At one point, the president grew visibly angry when Major Garrett of CBS News asked if he was "content" not to have included the release of Americans being held in Iran as part of the agreement. "You know better than that," Obama said.

He added that the administration remains committed to securing their release and that linking it to the nuclear talks would have set a dangerous precedent and given the Iranians more leverage. "I've met with the families of some of those folks," the president said. "Nobody's 'content.'"