There is one quote, buried in the middle of Obama's Thursday address on the new Iran nuclear deal, that really captures his approach to what has become one of his key foreign policy priorities. It explains both why Obama wants this deal so badly — and how he's planning to tackle the inevitable political fallout now that a basic framework for an agreement has been struck.
Here's the passage:
When you hear the inevitable critics of the deal sound off, ask them a simple question: do you really think that this verifiable deal, if fully implemented backed by the world's powers, is a worse option than the risk of another war in the Middle East?
The question, for Obama, isn't whether this deal is perfect (though he clearly thinks it's pretty good). It's whether there are any alternatives that might be better. And the president, quite fundamentally, believes there aren't.
Obama sees a deal with Iran as the least-worst option
As he said in the speech, Obama thinks there are only two possible alternatives to the deal that's shaping up if the US wants to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb. Either America could go to war with Iran, or it could withdraw from negotiations and hope sanctions would force Tehran to give up its hopes for a bomb.
The second option hasn't worked so far. "Is [a deal] worse than doing what we've done for almost two decades with Iran moving with its nuclear program and without robust inspections?" he asked. "I think the answer will be clear."
That leaves only one real alternative: war. Obama (along with most military experts) believes that war would delay Iran's nuclear program at best. He believes, deeply and in his bones, that international inspections are a more effective way of stopping Iran from getting nukes — and that the consequences of war would be severe. This is, after all, a president who was elected on the basis of his opposition to the Iraq War.
This argument — that all of the alternatives to the deal are worse — also explains how Obama plans to handle the political challenges to the deal. At home, Republicans will vociferously oppose the deal. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of America's closest ally in the Middle East, will do the same. Both believe Iran can't be trusted, and appear to believe that terms of this agreement aren't enough to ensure Iran won't get a nuclear weapon.
Netanyahu and the Republicans are perhaps the most important of the "inevitable critics" Obama mentioned in his speech. His response to them is clear: what do you have that's better? What is the credible alternative to what I'm doing, and how — specifically — could it prevent Iran from getting a bomb without taking us to war?
Or is it war you want?
This argument isn't just an exercise in spin. If Congress chooses to pass new sanctions, and enough Democrats vote with Republicans to override Obama's veto, it can kill the Iran deal. This line about alternatives is likely what the president and his aides will peddle to legislators, especially congressional Democrats tempted to side with Republicans, in the days to come.
Essentially, we're about to get a test of whether enough Democrats share the president's belief that "there is no alternative" to a deal — and whether that argument, together with partisanship and party loyalty, are enough to save the deal from the coming political fight.