Is even suggesting such a thing overstepping the line of what is appropriate in challenging the executive branch’s pursuit of foreign policy?
Wrangling over the administration’s Iran policy turned heated in recent days, with one Vietnam War veteran, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), accusing another, Secretary of State John Kerry, of being “delusional” and trying “to sell a bill of goods” to skeptical Americans.
President Obama then stepped in to defend Kerry, slamming McCain and other critics, like the 47 GOP senators who signed an open letter to Iran’s leaders warning that any deal not approved by Congress could be scrapped by a future president.
Key discrepancies have emerged in the White House and Iranian versions of what was agreed upon in talks in Switzerland, including stark differences over the right to inspect suspect sites and on the timing of the lifting of sanctions. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei underlined those in a speech Thursday in which he accused the White House of “lying.”McCain then told radio host Hugh Hewitt that Khamenei was “probably right.”
“In my view, I think you’re going to find out that they had never agreed to the things that John Kerry claimed that they had. So in a way, I can’t blame the ayatollah, because I don’t think they ever agreed to it, and I think John Kerry tried to come back and sell a bill of goods, hoping maybe that the Iranians wouldn’t say much about it.”
Asked during a press conference in Panama on Saturday night about the task he faces selling the deal to lawmakers, Obama brought up McCain’s criticism.
“When I hear some, like Senator McCain recently, suggest that our Secretary of State John Kerry – who served in the United States Senate, a Vietnam veteran, who’s provided exemplary service to this nation – is somehow less trustworthy in the interpretation of what’s in a political agreement than the supreme leader of Iran, that’s an indication of the degree to which partisanship has crossed all boundaries.”
Obama went on to cite a letter to Iran’s leaders, initiated by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and signed by 47 GOP senators. The letter informed the regime that they will consider any nuclear agreement that is not approved by Congress to be “nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei.”
Obama characterized the initiative as warning the supreme leader of Iran “not to trust the United States government.”
“And now we have a senator suggesting that our secretary of state is purposely misinterpreting the deal, and giving the supreme leader of Iran the benefit of the doubt in the interpretations.
People were entitled to object to the deal, Obama said, but the suggestion that the secretary of state is “somehow spinning presentations in negotiations with a foreign power – particularly one that you say is your enemy – that’s a problem. It needs to stop.”
Responding to Obama’s criticism, McCain said in a brief statement the fact remains that there are deep differences in the two sides’ interpretations of what has been agreed upon.
“It is undeniable that the version of the nuclear agreement outlined by the Obama Administration is far different from the one described by Iran’s Supreme Leader – on inspections, sanctions relief and other critically important issues,” he said.
“These widely divergent explanations of the nuclear deal must be fully explained and reconciled if we are to give serious consideration to this agreement.”
“I strongly agree with two of America’s most eminent statesmen, former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, who last week laid out the serious consequences of this deal for our nation’s security,” McCain added.
(State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf last week said the evaluation by Kissinger and Schultz contained lots of “big words and big thoughts” but not “a lot of alternatives.”)
‘Consensus is too strong a word’
In his remarks in Panama, Obama said most experts were in agreement that a final agreement that “comports” to the negotiated framework deal would be “the best way to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.”
That was not just his own opinion, he said, but also that of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and of “a whole bunch of nuclear experts who examined the deal.”
“Very rarely do you see a consensus – consensus is too strong a word – a large majority of people who are experts in the field saying, this is actually a realistic, plausible, meaningful approach to cut off the pathways for Iran getting a nuclear weapon – and that it is more likely to succeed, not only than maintaining current sanctions or additional sanctions, but more likely to succeed than if we took a military approach to solving the problem.”
Citing critics of the deal like Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, he said, “I have repeatedly asked ‘what is the alternative that you present, that you think makes it less likely for Iran to get a nuclear weapon?’ And I have yet to obtain a good answer on that.”
On Khamenei’s remarks last week, Obama’s linked his stance to Iran’s internal politics, saying the country also had “hardliners” and “countervailing impulses” to deal with.
“It’s not surprising to me that the supreme leader or a whole bunch of other people are going to try to characterize the deal in a way that protects their political position.”
As for critics on Capitol Hill, Obama said, “part of the challenge in this whole process has been opponents of basically any deal with Iran have constantly tried to characterize what the deal is, without seeing it.”
He said he wanted to work with Congress so that it could “look at this deal – when it’s done.”
“What I’m concerned about is making sure we don’t prejudge it – or those who are opposed to any deal whatsoever try to use a procedural argument essentially to screw up the possibility of a deal.”
Kerry said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that he stood by “every fact that I have laid out” about the framework deal negotiated in Switzerland.
On Tuesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to debate legislation sponsored by its chairman, Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) seeking a congressional review of the nuclear deal before it is implemented.
The White House has signaled its intention to veto the bill as written, and committee Democrats have proposed a raft of amendments.