Obama Speech, Kerry Interview Highlight Conflicting Narratives on Nuclear Deal

On Wednesday, HNGN reported that Reza Najafi, Iran’s delegate to the International Atomic Energy Agency, had written a formal letter to the UN monitoring organization in which he asserted that recent comments by White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest violated the nuclear agreement. In a press conference last month, Earnest reassured reporters of the US’s capability to contain Iranian threats in the light of a nuclear deal that many view as weak and lacking in guarantees of Iranian compliance.


Earnest indicated that if Iran is found to being rushing toward a nuclear weapon in spite of the provisions of the deal, a military option would still be viable as a means of destroying relevant infrastructure and setting back Iran’s illicit ambitions. He added that the Obama administration believes that inspections established by the nuclear agreement will serve to make any potential military site more efficient by providing valuable intelligence on the positions and details of some of that infrastructure.

Najafi argued that these hypothetical remarks constituted a violation of commitments to neither threatening nor using force. But many opponents of the nuclear agreement actually regard the Obama administration as having been insufficiently explicit in retaining a military option. This, they say, helped to weaken the US negotiating position and lead to a weak deal. Many of these opponents also believe that Iranian belligerence has been emboldened by the perception that the Obama administration is fundamentally unwilling to employ a military option or to otherwise impose consequences on the regime’s behavior.

During the nuclear negotiations, Iranian military leaders and hardliners repeatedly referred to the prospect of war with the United States. After the announcement of the agreement, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei expressed strict commitment to continuing to work against US policies in the Middle East and around the world. Meanwhile, Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naqdi, the commander of the Basij militia, said that Iranians would hate the US “100 times more” in the wake of the nuclear deal.

Western critics of that deal largely regard the Obama administration as having been less assertive than these Iranian figures. Consequently, the administration has faced the challenge of trying to convince some of those critics that the US still stands with its Middle Eastern allies, while also arguing in favor of a deal that some of those allies fear takes direct confrontation off the table.

Prominent among these allies is the state of Israel, supporters of which Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman attempted to reassure on Wednesday through testimony before the Senate Banking Committee. The Associated Press reports that Sherman declared the US to be willing to engage in talks with Israel over enhancement of its security situation in the wake of the nuclear deal. But her remarks also highlighted the discord that has prevailed between Israel and the US during the Iran nuclear talks, noting that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared unwilling to sit down for such talks.

The two traditionally close allies are at odds over very basic interpretations of the impact of the nuclear agreement on Israeli security. President Obama held two hours of talks with pro-Israel lobbying groups on Tuesday, many of which are opposed to the agreement but some of which remain on the fence. The Times of Israel reports that he argued that the US would be quickly pushed into war if Congress prevented the deal from going into effect next month.

Obama added that any such war would be waged asymmetrically on Iran’s part, with Israel being a major target of proxy attacks, as by the Iran-controlled Hezbollah paramilitary in Lebanon. Drawing on this and related narratives, the president addressed the American University on Wednesday, where he argued that the Iran nuclear agreement would be the most important foreign policy vote since the authorization of military force in Iraq.

The AP pointed out on Wednesday that some congresspersons now regard their support for the Iraq war as a mistake, and the Obama administration is engaged in a vigorous campaign to sell the Iran nuclear agreement as a means of avoiding another American military entanglement in the Middle East.

But CNN reports that many members of the Jewish lobbies that met with Obama on Tuesday objected to his references to war as the inevitable conclusion of the rejection of the existing deal. Many other opponents of the deal, including most of the Republican Party have similarly rejected this exclusionary narrative, arguing instead that a better deal could have been secured through continued economic pressure and a more assertive American strategy.

By contrast, Obama reportedly claimed in Tuesday’s meeting that his deal was “by no means perfect” but that no better deal was viable. The future of the deal will ultimately depend upon how many of Obama’s fellow Democrats he can convince of this narrative. The president’s veto of congressional disapproval of the deal can be overridden if 44 Democrats in the House of Representatives and 13 in the Senate side with the opposition.

While the Obama administration has successfully swayed several undecided Democrats to its side, the Republicans and Israeli lobbies have done the same. Many others, including Charles Schumer, the third highest ranking Senate Democrat, remain on the fence and will be subject to continued pressure. The August congressional recess will give lobbies an opportunity to focus attention on individual congresspersons on a full-time basis. 

Opponents of the deal regard the Obama administration as underestimating Iran’s aggression and overestimating its prospects for moderation. In its critical reporting on John Kerry’s interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, the US Secretary of State believes the existing agreement is “as pro-Israel as it gets.” But in the same interview he demonstrated what critics regard as a fundamental misunderstanding of the threat that Iran poses to Israel and other adversaries in the region.

Kerry said “I don’t know the answer to that” in reference to whether Iran’s distinctive ideological opposition to Israel translates to concrete intentions to “wipe it off the map,” as Iranian officials have repeatedly promised to do. Each year at the end of Ramadan, the Iranian regime recognizes Quds Day, on which it urges global Muslim unity focused around efforts to destroy the Jewish state. Following last year’s summer war between Israel and Hamas, the Iranian supreme leader declared victory on behalf of Palestine and called for Muslims the world over to donate money to arming both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Kerry’s expression of uncertainty comes just shortly after it was revealed that Supreme Leader Khamenei had published a book expressly outlining the steps to driving Israel out of existence and reclaiming all lands that have ever been under Muslim rule.

This book has been cited alongside Khamenei’s belligerent remarks about the US in the aftermath of the nuclear deal, to undermine the Obama administration’s notion of prospective moderation by the regime. In his Atlantic interview, Kerry claimed that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif claimed that the nuclear negotiations had empowered him to discuss broader policy cooperation with the US. But Khamenei, who is the ultimate authority in all Iranian affairs, has explicitly stated that any cooperation beyond the nuclear issue is off the table.

In his interview, Kerry advised against “screwing the ayatollah” by rejecting the nuclear agreement, for fear that this would lead Tehran to view the US as an untrustworthy negotiating partner. But Western opponents of the deal have repeatedly claimed, contrary to the administration’s assertions, that the deal already places too much trust in Iran to fulfill its own commitments.