On August 5, President Obama took to the podium at American University to justify his controversial nuclear pact with Iran. The location was chosen with seeming care, as over five decades earlier, John F. Kennedy delivered a key speech at the same Washington school calling for arms control agreements with another adversary, the Soviet Union.
That’s where the similarities end. In terms of the tone of the speech and content of policies, the two presidents could not have been more different.
Kennedy’s speech was a lofty statement of American idealism. He advised his countrymen that given the accumulated nuclear arsenals of the two superpowers, they should embrace dialogue and compromise. He reached out to his domestic detractors, stressing, “Let us re-examine our attitude towards the cold war...we are not here, distributing blame or pointing the finger of judgment.”
In contrast, Obama’s speech was truculent and accusatory. He claimed that Iranian hardliners who routinely chant “Death to American” are “making common cause with the Republican caucus.” To be clear, Iranian hardliners are terrorists such as the commander of the Quds Brigade Qassim Soleimani and Holocaust deniers such as the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. To claim any association between such unsavory actors and American legislators was provocative and unwise.
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Beyond style, the content of the two presidents’ arms control policies also differ. Obama insists that the anytime, anywhere inspections cannot be achieved short of war as was done with Iraq in 1991. And yet as early as 1961, the Kennedy administration stressed that any viable arms control accord must entail “inspectors having unrestrained access everywhere without veto for full verification.” In contemporary parlance, Kennedy maintained that anytime, anywhere access was necessary for effective verification.
Beyond its lax inspection regime, the agreement with Iran suffers from other significant shortcomings. The so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) concedes a vast enrichment capacity. Iran maintains much of its existing infrastructure while embarking on an accelerated research and development program. Even more unsettling is the fact that the accord’s most important restrictions fade after a decade. At that time, the Islamic Republic can embark on an industrialized nuclear program not that dissimilar to that of Japan.
Should Iran be in possession of such a vast infrastructure, there is no inspection modality that could detect its dash to a bomb in a timely manner. The agreement essentially dismantles the economic sanctions architecture that a bipartisan coalition spent a decade putting together. The notion that such an intricate sanctions regime can be simply snapped back and that trade dollars flowing into Iran can be reversed is delusional.
It is neither unwarranted nor unprecedented for Congress to reject international accords or demand significant revisions to them. Congress in its history has rejected 130 agreements transacted by the Executive branch and has demanded that 200 other accords be modified before gaining approval. The Obama administration itself renegotiated a nuclear agreement after congressional objections. In 2009, the United States and United Arab Emirates (UAE) concluded a nuclear accord. Many in Congress raised concerns that the agreement was not sufficiently rigorous, causing the Obama White House to renegotiate the accord in May 2009 with the stipulation that UAE would forgo a domestic enrichment capability.
Given that the JCPOA is a political agreement whose obligations are voluntarily undertaken, it seems a suitable candidate for similar congressional treatment.
Paradoxically, the supporters of the agreement should welcome congressional disapproval. As it stands, the agreement is rejected by most Republican lawmakers and the president has had to resort to arm-twisting and threats to ensure Democratic support. It may come to pass that Obama can sustain his agreement through a parliamentary manipulation called a presidential veto. However, it should concern the White House and its supporters that its controversial agreement rests on no real domestic consensus. It is hard to see how an accord can endure for over a decade when a majority of the American people and their representatives disapprove of it.
There is a path forward should the White House desire an agreement that rests on a sturdier domestic foundation. Should the JCPOA be rejected later this fall, the administration ought to open a dialogue with the Republican leadership on the Hill and determine what their objections are and how it can allay those concerns in a renegotiated agreement. And should the administration be able to do so, the Republicans must pledge to support the revised accord. Such a move would indeed be consistent with the spirit of John Kennedy’s American University address.
Ray Takeyh is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.