Congressional support for the nuclear deal with Iran may well depend on whether President Obama can get Democrats to ignore arguments that it puts that country in a better economic position to dominate the Middle East, and get them to focus only on the 10-year delay in Iran's nuclear program.
In a contentious news conference with reporters Wednesday, Obama focused on his administration's strongest selling point — that the deal puts stronger limits on Iran's nuclear ambitions than would exist without one.
"There's no scenario in which a U.S. president is not in a stronger position 12, 13, 15 years from now if, in fact, Iran decided at that point they still wanted to get a nuclear weapon," he said. "Even if everything the critics were saying was true — that at the end of 10 years, or 12 years, or 15 years, Iran now is in a position to decide it wants a nuclear weapon, that they're at a breakout point — they won't be at a breakout point that is more dangerous than the breakout point they're in right now."
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Nearly all Republicans see the deal as an opportunity for Iran to end its international isolation and gain both new resources and the veneer of legitimacy for its efforts to grow stronger in its region of the world. And instead of engaging those concerns, Obama chose Wednesday to attack those raising them.
"The argument that I've been already hearing ... that because this deal does not solve all those other problems, that that's an argument for rejecting this deal, defies logic. It makes no sense. And it loses sight of what was our original number-one priority, which is making sure that they don't have a bomb," Obama said.
But many Democrats in Congress also worry that what the United States and its allies gave up to limit Iran's nuclear ambitions will make a rogue regime stronger and more able to make trouble in the Middle East.
"The only thing that's bipartisan right now is a sense of skepticism," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said in an implicit criticism of the administration's months-long stonewalling of Republican concerns about the deal.
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Lawmakers are particularly concerned about a last-minute concession to allow the U.N. arms embargo against Iran to expire in up to five years and restrictions on ballistic-missile technology transfers in eight years.
"While I'll reserve final judgment on the deal until I am able to read it through completely, I'm deeply concerned and disappointed by what appears to be in its terms," Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., said Tuesday. "We have a deal that neglects in any way to address Iran's providing arms and support for terrorists. Furthermore, we have a deal that to our surprise will allow the lifting of the arms embargo against Iran."
Obama brushed off concerns about the arms embargo by saying that "we have a number of mechanisms under international law that give us authority to interdict arms shipments by Iran" to terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah or to Shiite Houthi rebels fighting the Saudi-backed government in Yemen. He also said "we will be in a stronger position to work with Israel, work with the Gulf countries, work with our other partners, work with the Europeans to bring additional pressure to bear on Iran around those issues that remain of concern.
That last point has been hotly disputed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in public and more quietly by Arab governments as well.
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The president did not address concerns raised by U.S. military leaders and lawmakers about how lifting the embargo would enable Iran to obtain arms which could greatly increase the risk for U.S. forces operating in the Middle East. Instead, he pushed back against critics who have suggested Iran will use the bulk of the estimated $150 billion in sanctions relief to increase its subversive activities throughout the region.
"Do we think that with the sanctions coming down, that Iran will have some additional resources for its military and for some of the activities in the region that are a threat to us and a threat to our allies? I think that is a likelihood that they've got some additional resources," Obama said. "Do I think it's a game-changer for them? No."
But the president will likely have to do a better selling job on key Democrats who have worked for years to counter Iranian aggression, such as Rep. Brad Sherman of California, a senior member of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
"Showering this government with economic benefits is not going to lead to its destruction or its eclipse," Sherman said in a floor speech Tuesday. "Look at Tehran. What you see is what you get."