Obama takes on opponents of Iran nuclear deal

Obama takes on opponents of Iran nuclear deal
PHOTO: Reuters

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama on Wednesday confronted critics of the nuclear deal reached with Iran, saying they were at odds with "99 percent" of the world and had failed to offer any real alternative.

As the freshly-inked deal was put to members of the UN Security Council, a combative and at times testy Obama said opponents at home and abroad had offered only a path to war.

"If 99 percent of the world community and the majority of nuclear experts look at this thing and they say this will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, and you are arguing either that it does not or that even if it does, it's temporary... then you should have some alternative," Obama said.

"And I haven't heard that. And the reason is because there really are only two alternatives here," he insisted.

The issue is either resolved "diplomatically, through a negotiation, or it's resolved through force. Through war. Those are the options," he said.

As part of the international charm offensive to sell the deal, the US State Department announced Secretary of State John Kerry would meet Thursday with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in Washington.

Kerry would also brief the diplomatic corps about the outcome of the talks in a closed-door session.

Obama's Republican rivals, who hope to scupper the agreement in a planned Congressional vote, have accused him of appeasement.

The agreement, signed on Tuesday after two years of talks, aims to roll back Tehran's nuclear program in return for lifting sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy.

While Vice President Joe Biden spent the morning corralling and caressing sometime skeptical Congressional Democrats into voting for the deal, Obama preferred the presidential bully pulpit.

'Profound differences'

He directed some of his sharpest comments at long-time ally Israel, which has vociferously opposed the deal.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described it as a "historic mistake" and hinted at a possible military response.

"If somebody wants to make that debate," Obama said, "whether it's the Republican leadership or Prime Minister Netanyahu or the Israeli ambassador or others, they are free to make it, but it's not persuasive." He was more conciliatory towards Gulf Arab states, whose concerns about the deal legitimizing Iran's actions in the region have largely been voiced in private.

Obama said however that the agreement would not end "profound differences" with the Shiite-majority Islamic republic.

"Iran still poses challenges to our interests and values," the US leader told reporters, citing "its support of terrorism and its use of proxies to destabilize parts of the Middle East."

Diplomatic push

At the United Nations in New York, Obama's diplomats presented a draft resolution to the UN Security Council to further codify the deal.

The resolution would endorse the agreement, call on the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor Iranian facilities and allow for a web of Security Council sanctions to be lifted.

It should pass with little difficulty since the five veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council - Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States - were among the countries that negotiated the Vienna accord.

Many of those nations are now clamoring to build business with a nation economically isolated for years, and with a population of 77 million that is young and hungry for Western-style goods and services.

German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel's office announced he will lead a business delegation to Iran as soon as Sunday.

France's foreign minister said he had accepted an invitation to visit, and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond voiced hope his country could reopen its embassy in Tehran this year.

Meanwhile in the Iranian capital, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who led Iran's negotiating team, returned home claiming a "manufactured crisis" had been ended.

Iran has always denied seeking an atomic bomb, a stance President Hassan Rouhani reiterated after Tuesday's agreement.

Under the deal, Iran will cut by about two-thirds the number of centrifuges - which can make fuel for nuclear power stations but also the core of a nuclear bomb - from around 19,000 to just over 6,000.

It has also agreed to allow the UN nuclear watchdog tightly-controlled access to its military bases, an Iranian official said.

"We will take measures, and they will do their part," Zarif told reporters.

Obama spoke by phone Wednesday with Vladimir Putin, thanking his Russian counterpart for his "important" help in reaching the deal.

US ties with Russia have been strained in recent months, but Moscow was an "important" part of the group of nations that negotiated the deal with Tehran, the White House said.

"The president thanked President Putin for Russia's important role in achieving this milestone," the White House said in a statement.

The agreement was hailed by leaders across the globe, including Cuba's Raul Castro, head of another nation which has had years of bitter enmity with the United States, who insisted on Wednesday that Iran has an "inalienable right" to develop a peaceful nuclear energy program.

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