Obama’s Iran Speech Highlights

What is striking about President Obama’s rhetorical link to JFK’s 1963 “Peace Speech” is how much more perilous the U.S.’s security was 52 years ago. Then, nuclear missiles had been only 90 miles from the U.S. coast. Today, they don’t even exist in the present negotiations. Indeed, the point of the Iran deal is to ensure they cannot exist.

Still, Obama is right to call this “the most consequential foreign policy debate” since the Iraq War.

There are a number of points in Obama’s speech worth highlighting. As much as it was a speech about diplomacy, it was also a speech about security. Obama made clear that the two work hand-in-hand.

There is strength in diplomacy.

After his “Peace Speech,” Kennedy began a trend in U.S. foreign policy with the first nuclear test-ban treaty ever signed. This was followed, Obama explained, by SALT and START talks that limited the number of nuclear weapons produced.

Obama reasonably argued that these historic agreements have kept the U.S. safer and more secure over time.

“He [Kennedy] promised strong, principled American leadership on behalf of what he called a practical and attainable peace, a peace based not on a sudden revolution in human nature, but on a gradual evolution in human institutions, on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements.”

A stronger Iran is a threat to our Gulf allies.

Saudi Arabia has been one of the staunchest critics of the Iran deal. Its motives are quite clear: a lifting of sanctions on Iran allows its economy to grow, enabling it to channel even more funds to belligerent groups. This threatens Saudia Arabian (Sunni) hegemony in the region.

But Obama made clear that both he, and U.S. negotiators, are aware of this, and that the U.S. still considers Iranian-backed violence a threat to regional security.

“Moreover, there is no scenario where sanctions relief turns Iran into the region’s dominant power. Iran’s defense budget is eight times smaller than the combined budget of our Gulf allies. Their conventional capabilities will never compare to Israel’s, and our commitment to Israel’s qualitative military edge helps guarantee that.”

The only alternative is war (or military action).

This is a common argument for the deal from the Obama Administration, and it has drawn criticism from Republicans who call it fear-mongering.

In any argument over policy, however, the alternatives have to be considered — and there have been no other alternatives suggested. If the deal fails to get U.S. support, international relations with Iran will be back to square one. Iran will have no reason to stop enriching uranium, and the U.S. will feel obligated to launch targeted air strikes to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities. But there will still be underground facilities to which we have no access, making our allies and us feel threatened.

Like the march to war in Iraq, this scenario can easily spiral. And, like in Iraq, the U.S. would have to act unilaterally: Europe, insulted that the U.S. did not support diplomacy’s last effort after two-year negotiations, would not join the war effort.

“…without this deal, the scenarios that critics warn about happening in 15 years could happen six months from now. By killing this deal, Congress would not merely pave Iran’s pathway to a bomb, it would accelerate it.”

Sanctions were a mechanism to get Iran to the table.

While the sanctions relief in the deal has caused some to worry that Iran is getting too much, Obama pointed out that sanctions relief was always a natural, to-be-expected part of the process. Sanctions were the stick that got Iran to take the carrot.

But even though sanctions got Iran to the table, they did not prevent Iran from enriching uranium. This is the ultimate goal, and it makes sense to swap out sanctions for a nuclear-free Iran, Obama argued.

Moreover, Obama said, Europe, China, and Russia bought in to the sanctions regime with the goal of getting Iran to stop pursuing nuclear weapons. They are not going to continue enforcing sanctions now that the end goal has so clearly been achieved.

“Now, let’s be clear. The international sanctions were put in place precisely to get Iran to agree to constraints on its program. That’s the point of sanctions. Any negotiated agreement with Iran would involve sanctions relief.”

Ultimately, Obama made a strong case for the Iran deal, based on the dual goals of exhausting all diplomatic options and ensuring the strongest security measures possible.

If the deal passes, there will undoubtedly be a new Middle East, with foreign investment pouring into a state with newfound stature on the global stage. Iran’s proxy activities will continue. But if these have so far failed to be enough of a threat to warrant international negotiations, as Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear bomb has, then the world will be a safer place.

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