President Barack Obama on Wednesday described the historic deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program as the best way to make the world safer and more secure, and challenged critics at home and abroad to offer an alternative that doesn’t mean war.
“This deal is our best means of assuring that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon,” Obama said at a press conference in the East Room of the White House. “From the start, that has been my number one priority, our number one priority. We’ve got a historic chance to pursue a safer and more secure world, an opportunity that may not come again in our lifetime.”Obama was eager to spar with reporters and address every point raised in the last 48 hours criticizing aspects of the deal. Chief among his critics is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who gave a round of interviews ahead of the news conference with U.S. reporters. ”Can you imagine giving a drug dealer 24 days’ notice before you inspect the premises?” Netanyahu asked “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt on Wednesday, highlighting a controversial aspect of the deal. “That’s a lot of time to flush a lot of meth down the toilet.”
Iran is still considered to be years away from being able to successfully assemble a nuclear weapon. Obama pushed back on Netanyahu’s 24-days claim, saying that a nefarious nuclear facility is “not something you hide in a closet. This is not something you put on a dolly and wheel off somewhere.”
“This is the most vigorous inspection regime that has ever been negotiated,” Obama added. “Is it possible that Iran tries to cheat despite having this inspection regiment? It’s possible.”
Obama scolded CBS News White House correspondent Major Garrett for suggesting that the president was celebrating the deal as four American citizens languish in Iranian jails. “That’s nonsense, and you should know better,” Obama told Garrett. Just one reporter whom Obama called on asked questions about other issues, including whether he would consider revoking Bill Cosby’s Presidential Medal of Freedom in light of sexual assault allegations against the embattled comedian.
Obama said there’s “no precedent” for revoking the Medal of Freedom, the highest honor available to American civilians. “We don’t have the mechanism.”
Cosby has never been charged with a crime, and he has denied the allegations against him in the past. In recently unsealed testimony from 2005, Cosby admitted he acquired sedatives in the 1970s to give to women he wanted to have sex with.
“If you give a woman – or a man, for that matter – without his or her knowledge a drug, and then have sex with that person without their consent, that’s rape,” Obama added. “And I think this country, any civilized country should have no tolerance for rape.”
The president emphasized the long-term impact of the Iran deal, which world powers and Iran reached early Tuesday. Iran must shrink its uranium stockpile by 98% for 15 years, and enrichment cannot exceed 3.67%. The deal also stipulates that Iran cut its centrifuges by two-thirds. In exchange, Iran will receive relief from sanctions that have crippled the country’s economy.
The genesis of the deal dates back to November 2013, when Secretary of State John Kerry and other foreign leaders agreed on a “first step deal” to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities. That initial agreement – brokered in Geneva – to open negotiations marked a slight thaw in the icy relations between the U.S. and Iran that have persisted since the 1979 hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The U.S. and Iran reached another breakthrough in the negotiations back in April. The latest round of talks, held in Vienna, stretched on for weeks, with negotiators blowing past several self-imposed deadlines.
“Today, after two years of negotiations, the United States, together with our international partners, has achieved something that decades of animosity has not – a comprehensive, long-term deal with Iran that will prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Obama said early Tuesday morning in a televised statement at the White House.
Obama defended the deal as being built on “verification,” not “trust.”
“This deal demonstrates that American diplomacy can bring about real and meaningful change, change that makes our country and the world safer and more secure,” Obama added.
Congressional Republicans have roundly renounced the deal, with House Speaker John Boehner threatening to block it. Congress passed legislation in May giving lawmakers 60 days to review the deal. Obama has threatened to veto any legislation that undoes the deal, and Congress would need a two-thirds majority to overrule the president. While Congress debates the deal, Obama is prohibited from relaxing any sanctions, according to NBC News’ Frank Thorp.
Obama said Wednesday he hopes members of Congress will evaluate the agreement “based on the facts. Not on politics. Not on posturing. Not on the fact that this is a deal I bring to Congress as opposed to a Republican president.”
He challenged opponents of the deal to present an alternative. “And if the alternative is, we should bring Iran to heel through military force, then those critics should say so.”
Obama said he has spoken to congressional leaders of both parties, and his national security team has begun briefing lawmakers on the specifics of the deal. Vice President Joe Biden was on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to meet with House Democrats try to whip support for the deal.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney railed against the deal in no uncertain terms Tuesday evening, telling Fox News that the accord “put us closer to the actual use of nuclear weapons than we’ve been at any time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II.” While much of the debate over the Iran deal has focused on whether Iran can be trusted to uphold its end of the bargain, Cheney said Obama could not be trusted on matters of national security.
“He’s not a man of his word. He’s not a man who can be trusted,” Cheney said. “And I think our allies who find their very survival at question here, there isn’t any way they’re going to rely upon Barack Obama for safety and security. They’re going to get their own.”
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who served as secretary of state under Obama, called the deal an “important step for putting a lid on Iran’s nuclear program” on Tuesday, but she added that she has concerns about it emboldening Iran and stopped short of explicitly endorsing the accord.
Clinton’s Republican opponents uniformly condemned the deal, with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush calling it “appeasement” and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie saying Obama “should have walked away” from the negotiations. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz called the agreement “a fundamental betrayal of the security of the United States and of our closest allies, first and foremost Israel.”