PHILADELPHIA — In what could have been the first leg of a victory lap now that the survival of the Obama administration’s key foreign policy achievement is virtually assured, Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to the birthplace of the United States Tuesday to lay out in the starkest and most comprehensive terms yet why Congress and the American people should back the nuclear deal he negotiated with Iran. But instead of claiming victory, Kerry warned lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who are expected to take up a resolution of disapproval on the deal after Labor Day, that how they vote on the deal “will matter as much as any foreign policy decision in recent history.”
He made his nationally-televised remarks at the National Constitution Center before an invitation-only audience of Jewish communal leaders, Democratic Party activists, college students and local politicians. Minutes before the start of Kerry’s address, word circulated among the crowd that retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) had announced her support for the nuclear accord, giving President Obama the 34 Senate Democratic votes he needs to be able to sustain a promised presidential veto of a disapproval resolution.
Still, Kerry spoke of the Iran debate as if it were still ongoing. Pointing to Independence Hall three blocks away, he invoked one of the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin.
“In addition to his many inventions and his special status as America’s first diplomat, Franklin is actually credited with being the first person known to have made a list of pros and cons — literally dividing a page in two and writing all of the reasons to support a proposal on one side and all of the reasons to oppose it on the other,” said Kerry. “I would like to invite you — all of you, those here and those listening through the media — to participate in just such an exercise.”
In his view, said Kerry, there were no cons to the nuclear agreement, which provides for sanctions relief in return for a reduction by Iran of its fissile material and submission to an international inspections regime. He warned of the consequences of not accepting the deal, saying that the United States would lose credibility abroad as well as the ability to control Iran’s future behavior diplomatically. In short, Kerry said, the only credible alternative left would be war.
“You’ve probably heard the claim that because of our strength, because of the power of our banks, all we Americans have to do if Congress rejects this plan is return to the bargaining table, puff out our chests and demand a better deal,” he said. “I’ve heard one critic say he would use sanctions to give Iran a choice between having an economy or having a nuclear program.
“Well, folks, that’s a very punch soundbite, but it has no basis in reality,” he continued. “I was chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when our nation came together across party lines to enact round after round of economic sanctions against Iran. But remember, even the toughest restrictions didn’t stop Iran’s nuclear program from speeding ahead from a couple of hundred centrifuges to 5,000 to 19,000.”
Kerry used his hour-long speech to lash out at critics for saying the agreement was based on trust and outlined how “verification and proof” was at the core of the inspections regime. He also said that whereas with the deal, Iran might pursue a nuclear weapon 15 years down the road, without a deal, Iran would do so tomorrow.
Singling out Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s objection to the Iran deal, Kerry said that while he respected Israelis’ instinctive reaction, Netanyahu’s own warnings of an ascendant nuclear Iran to the United Nations’ General Assembly in 2013 proved the necessity of reaching compromise through diplomacy.
“I take a back seat to no one in my commitment to the security of Israel, a commitment I demonstrated through my 28-plus years in the Senate,” Kerry said, noting his more than a dozen trips to the Jewish state. “And as secretary of state, I am fully conscious of the existential nature of the choice Israel must make. … But I am also convinced, as is President Obama, our senior defense and military leaders, and even many former Israeli military and intelligence officials, that this agreement puts us on the right path to prevent Iran from ever getting a nuclear weapon.
“The people of Israel will be safer with this deal,” he added, calling as well for increased U.S. military aid to Israel, “and the same is true for the people throughout the region.”
Among those in the audience was Rabbi David Levin, an independent rabbi who is also an activist with J Street, a group which has mounted a multimillion-dollar campaign to ensure the Iran deal’s survival. Before Kerry’s speech, Levin said that far from fighting for more votes in favor of the deal — a story in Tuesday’s edition of The Washington Post hinted at the White House searching for enough Democrats to ensure a filibuster that would forestall any vote on a disapproval resolution — now was the time to come together after a debate that featured name-calling and fearmongering on both sides.
“Hopefully now, we can move on to Phase II, [which is to] repair the damage that we’re responsible for,” said Levin. “The single most important thing we can do is get past this, respect each other’s differences and build something together.
“I think the optics of the filibuster would be poor,” he continued. “Congress should have a say and a voice. To take that away from us as a people would do a disservice.”
A Jewish Democratic operative working to sway public opinion to back the Iran deal disagreed and said so long as “the other side” typified by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee was committed to continuing the fight, the White House and its allies would be foolish to tone down their efforts.
“We can’t start talking about [making peace],” he said, “until the other side is willing to admit defeat.”
Steve Feldman, executive director of the Philadelphia chapter of the Zionist Organization of America, hinted that there was a long way still to go in the fight against the deal. Feldman, who did not listen to Kerry’s speech, but who gave interviews to media outside the Constitution Center, said that should Democrats attempt a filibuster in the Senate, Republicans should employ a “nuclear option” that would allow just 51 senators to invoke cloture and allow a vote. He also advocated filing a lawsuit challenging the Corker-Cardin compromise as an unconstitutional abridgement of the Senate’s power to ratify treaties.
“If the deal was so good, the administration would not have to sell it so hard,” he said, referring to Kerry’s address. “Poll after poll, survey after survey, shows that the American people … don’t like what they hear about the deal.”
Turning to the Jewish community, he said that everyone should strive for unity, but that above all, there still need to be red lines.
“There needs to be a conversation within the Jewish community; lines have to be drawn,” he said, “with regard to Israel, with regard to the United States, with regard to right and wrong.”
For his part, Kerry acknowledged that the Iran deal is imperfect. But so, he pointed out, is the Constitution.
“In September, 228 years ago, Benjamin Franklin rose in the great city of Philadelphia, right down there, to close debate on the proposed draft of the Constitution of the United States,” he said, pointing to Independence Hall. “He told a rapt audience that when people of opposing views and passions are brought together, compromise is essential and perfection from the perspective of any single participant is not possible.”
Kerry quoted Franklin as saying, “I consent, sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best.”
“Like old Ben Franklin, I can claim and do claim no monopoly on wisdom, and certainly nothing can compare to the gravity of the debate of our founding fathers over our nation’s founding documents,” said Kerry. “But I believe, based on a lifetime’s experience, that the Iran nuclear agreement is a hugely positive step at a time when problem solving and danger reduction have rarely been so urgent, especially in the Middle East.”