US war of words over Iran

Bare-knuckled brawl between Obama and Republicans escalates
Friday 21/08/2015
Tough words. US President Barack Obama pauses during remarks on a nuclear deal with Iran at Ame­rican University in Washington August 5, 2015.

Washington - The partisan rhetoric be­tween US President Barack Obama and his Republican opponents on the Iran nuclear deal has reached such a pitch that it is highly unlikely the two sides will cooper­ate on foreign policy issues for the remainder of Obama’s term.

Obama asserts that the Iran nu­clear deal is the best he could have gotten and has dismissed as “fan­tasy” the idea put forward by some Republicans that the United States should walk away from the agree­ment, strike a better accord down the road and hold the international community together by enforcing sanctions.

Obama’s early August speech at American University in Washing­ton was noted by political observ­ers, not for its lofty goals but for its sharp attack on Republican critics. He said Iranian hardliners are “mak­ing common cause with the Repub­lican caucus” in Congress.

Obama did not back down from this statement in an interview he gave to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. In fact, he said this comment was “ab­solutely true factually”.

What has particularly irked Obama was that Republicans at­tacked the Iran nuclear deal “even before they read it”. The opposition, Obama says, is making arguments against the deal purely for partisan reasons but the deal is strong on “its merits”.

As a student of history, Obama seems especially angered by the comparison made by some Repub­licans that the deal is another “Mu­nich” — a reference to when Britain and France appeased Hitler in his demands to take over Czechoslo­vakia’s Sudetenland in 1938, which only further fed Hitler’s appetite for conquest.

Even Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., Obama’s opponent for the presidency in 2008 and not nor­mally an extremist, made this ref­erence. Obama, McCain said, “was carrying on the finest traditions of Neville Chamberlain”, Britian’s prime minister in 1938.

Not to be outdone, all of the Re­publican presidential candidates have denounced the Iran deal. Wis­consin Governor Scott Walker said he would “tear it up”, while former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee accused Obama of marching Jews “to the door of the oven” — an in­sidious reference to the Holocaust and playing to Jewish-American fears of Iran’s threats against Israel.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., tried to take the high road by stating that Obama’s rhetoric “is not helpful” but went on to accuse the president of treat­ing the Iran issue “like a political campaign”. McConnell has also not pressured his fellow Republicans to tone down their rhetoric.

Some Obama supporters, such as columnist E.J. Dionne, have writ­ten that it is useless for Obama to try to reach out to Republicans be­cause “friendly gestures won’t win over those determined to block his policies”. Other Obama supporters, such as columnist Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post, have writ­ten that it is a mistake for Obama to dismiss his Iran critics because some of them have real concerns that the president does not believe are legitimate.

Even US Secretary of State John Kerry, who negotiated the deal, tried to soften the administration’s rhetoric by stating on August 11th: “I’m not saying that anyone is… being a warmonger” for opposing the Iran deal but “what I am say­ing is people owe it to everybody to evaluate fully what happens if Congress were to override a veto and say no.”

But in his American University speech, Obama said “the choice we face is ultimately between diplo­macy and some sort of war”, which he has also not backed away from. Obama knows that the Iran deal is not popular with the American people but he also knows that the American people do not want to go to war with Iran. Hence, he seems to believe that portraying the is­sue as an either/or proposition is his best selling point, which Mc­Connell has criticised as “ridicu­lous”.

Although prominent Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, from New York, (in line to replace Harry Reid as leader of the Senate Democrats) has come out against the Iran deal, the White House is confident it can muster enough support among Democrats to prevent a veto-proof, two-thirds majority from coalesc­ing in Congress against the deal.

While Obama will likely win this fight with Congress, relations be­tween the executive and legisla­tive branches are so poor that it is highly doubtful that Congress will cooperate with the White House on any new foreign policy initiative for the remainder of Obama’s term.

From Obama’s perspective, as he stated at American University, “some of it can be ascribed to knee-jerk partisanship that has become all too familiar, rhetoric that ren­ders every decision to be a disaster, a surrender”. But if Obama can se­cure the Iran deal — his major for­eign policy success — that may be enough to satisfy him and assure his legacy.