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"There’s a little bit of this that’s not on the level": Obama on Iran deal opponents

President Obama in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.
President Obama in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.
Alex Wong/Getty

There are moments when this president does not disguise his disdain for certain critics, and his meeting last week with a handful of journalists, to discuss the Iran nuclear deal, was one of those moments.

He was engaged throughout the conversation, particularly when digging into finer-grain foreign policy. But he maintained his well-known demeanor of cool detachment on all but two subjects: the prospect of war, which clearly tormented him (more on that here), and much of the criticism of the deal, which got him pretty agitated.

"The fantasy, the naiveté, the optimism, is to think that we reject this deal and somehow it all solves itself with a couple of missile strikes — that is not sound foreign policy," he said at one point of such critics.

But he made a distinction that seemed, to me, to reveal how he thinks about opposition to the Iran deal. He seemed to see opposition as coming from one of two places: people who cynically oppose the nuclear deal because what they in fact want is to launch military strikes, and people who earnestly fear the deal because they do not understand it.

What seemed to provoke not just angry retorts from Obama but what appeared, to me, to be actual anger was when he discussed groups or individuals whom he saw as cynically exploiting that fear and uncertainty to steer people into opposing the deal.

This, to me, seemed to suggest a great deal about how Obama sees both the nuclear deal itself and the political task before him, of getting that deal past Congress.

How Obama talks about critics of the Iran nuclear deal

Some of the opposition, Obama told us, "has to do with the fact that the average layperson who is not steeped in this stuff and is just reading that Israel is opposed, and knows what the supreme leader said about Israel, is naturally inclined to lean 'no' more than 'yes.'"

While Obama believes the nuclear deal does address all this, he acknowledged that it was complicated.

"If they’re not sitting down with me for an hour, or [Secretary of State] John Kerry or [Secretary of Energy] Ernie Moniz for an hour, it’s hard to absorb all that," he said.

But Obama seems to see a lot of opposition as cynical as well. You could hear this when he was asked about his assertion that the only viable alternative to the Iran deal is war. In responding, he turned the question back on Iran deal critics, who say that there are peaceful alternatives to the nuclear deal and that Obama is "fearmongering."

"Some of those same people just a while back were arguing that we should just go ahead and take a strike and it would be okay," he said. This, for Obama, was a sign of fundamental dishonesty.

"And now suddenly, because maybe that’s not the most popular position to garner votes from Democrats in Congress, they’re insisting no, no, no, no, no — that’s not necessary; we can just apply more sanctions. So there’s a little bit of this that’s not on the level," he said, growing visibly frustrated.

Obama on opposition from Jewish groups

It was interesting to see the way Obama connected what he sees as these two strands of criticism, as he did in talking about the opposition to the deal from pro-Israel and Jewish groups.

At one point, he got a question about why a number of Jewish groups oppose the Iran nuclear deal. While he noted that some Jewish groups do support the deal, and that polling shows that most American Jews support it, he accepted the premise of the question.

"The anxieties of the American Jewish community are entirely understandable," he said. "Those are amplified when there appears to be across-the-board opposition inside of Israel, not just within Likud, but among other parties."

"And some of that is emotional in a legitimate way," he went on. "You don’t like dealing with somebody who denies horrible things happening to your people or threatens future horrible things to your people. Some of it is based on legitimate concerns about what a economically stronger Iran could do to further enhance their support of Hezbollah."

But while he accepted this opposition as emotionally understandable, he still rejected the criticisms as substantially unfounded, and seemed to suggest that this fear and anxiety was being stirred up by people who oppose the deal.

"But I will say this: When I sit down with a group of Jewish leaders, just as when I sit down with members of Congress, just as when I sit down with policy analysts, I do not hear back credible arguments on the other side. I hear talking points that have been prepared," he said.

"But if you dig deep into it, the anxieties are real, they’re legitimate, but arguments that would carry the day as to why we wouldn’t do this deal, I haven’t heard presented in a way that I think persuades the room, much less persuades me."

The AIPAC story

From there, Obama recounted a well-known story about his administration's dealings with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has devoted tremendous resources to lobbying Congress to kill the deal.

He said he'd had three senior administration officials give AIPAC a presentation on the nuclear deal. Those officials — Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, and Treasury Department Sanctions Chief Adam Szubin — cleared they day, he said, to talk to AIPAC, but were given only 30 minutes to give a brief presentation.

The administration officials "were prepared to stay there as long as AIPAC wanted, to answer every single question that might be presented in the crowd, and AIPAC declined the offer to ask questions."

The message Obama clearly wanted us to take away was that AIPAC was limiting his administration's ability to speak to the group's members because they did not actually want their members to learn about the deal and come to their own conclusion.

"My working assumption is that a number of those people who had flown in and, rightly, feel passionate about this issue would have benefited from hearing directly from Wendy Sherman, and that they would have, perhaps, had a different view of this deal," he said. "They would have benefited from hearing directly from Adam Szubin about how sanctions work and why it’s not credible to think that simply doubling down on unilateral sanctions would bring about a so-called better deal."

I asked AIPAC about this: A spokesperson said that the group did limit the administration officials to only 30 minutes, and that AIPAC members were not able to ask questions. But the spokesperson blamed the White House for this, saying the officials knew beforehand they would only have 30 minutes and took up all of that time with their presentation.

What this reveals about Obama and about the nuclear deal

The assumption embedded in Obama's comments is that anyone who has taken the time to fully and earnestly understand the nuclear deal will come out supporting it.

People only oppose it, he seemed to believe, for one of three reasons: 1) they have a cynical ulterior motive, 2) they have been misled by people with a cynical ulterior motive, or 3) they do not wish to side against the Israeli leadership.

Obama made that third point more explicit in a Thursday interview with Mic, when he said, "There are going to be some Democrats who end up opposing this deal, partly because as I said yesterday in the speech, the affinity that we all feel towards the state of Israel is profound, it's deep. And you know when Israel is opposed to something a lot of Democrats, as well as Republicans, pay attention."

That may have been a subtle nod to Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, who only a few hours later announced that he was going to vote against the nuclear deal.

Yes, it's hardly surprising that a president would frame his signature foreign policy effort as good and its critics as bad. But all of this seems to add up to a level of confidence in the deal, and an earnestly held reading of its critics as necessarily wrong, that goes beyond that political necessity.

Whether you see Obama's confidence here as an encouraging sign of his faith in the deal or as a discouraging indication of his intolerance for criticism probably depends on your preexisting opinions about Obama and about the Iran deal. But what really matters right now is not so much my reaction or your reaction to Obama's temperament, but the reactions of a few dozens congressional Democrats who have not announced whether they will support or oppose the measure to kill the Iran deal.