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Answer by Barack Obama, 44th president of the United States:
The congressional vote on the Iran nuclear agreement is the most consequential foreign policy debate our country has had since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. So thank you for asking this question—it’s an important one.
As commander-in-chief, I have no greater responsibility than keeping our country safe and supporting the men and women who put their lives on the line for our country. When I took office, there were nearly 180,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve worked hard to bring almost all of them home. So it is with them in mind that I weigh questions of war and peace. Congress should too—because that is a question members are facing this week when they decide whether they will reject the Iran nuclear agreement. Here’s why:
The U.S. and international community have long recognized a nuclear-armed Iran as one of the greatest threats to global security. There is no disagreement about that. A nuclear-armed Iran would threaten our friends in the Middle East, and provide a nuclear shield to the Iranian regime’s support for terrorism, human rights abuses, and other destabilizing activities in the region. It would pose an unacceptable risk to Israel, which Iranian leaders have threatened to destroy. Should Iran obtain a nuclear weapon, it could compel other countries in the region to pursue their own nuclear programs, sparking a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region in the world. And, right now, we are dangerously close to that reality, as Iran currently has enough fissile material to build 10 to 12 bombs.
So the question is not whether we should prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, but how. When I took office, I made it my policy to keep all options—including possible military options—on the table to address that danger. But I have consistently said that if an opportunity to find a diplomatic resolution could be found, the U.S. should pursue it—not just because of the costs of war, but also because a negotiated agreement would offer a more effective, verifiable, and durable resolution.
That is why my administration worked hard to bring our international partners together to enact the multilateral sanctions regime that helped bring Iran to the negotiating table. Before that, the sanctions that the U.S. already had in place for decades had failed to achieve that result. And, it wasn’t easy—many of our international partners lost billions of dollars because of their decision to cooperate with the U.S. But we successfully built an international coalition. Iran’s economy contracted severely, and, after nearly two years of negotiations, Iran agreed to a diplomatic resolution that blocks every pathway it could possibly use to obtain a nuclear weapon.
Our allies stand with the U.S. and this agreement. But, they have been clear: If we walk away from this deal, we walk away alone. Time and again, our allies have stated that the idea of a “better deal” is a false one, and that they will not join with the U.S. to increase multilateral sanctions because they believe we have the good deal we sought today. Without international support or the unprecedented inspections regime, Iran will be able to continue accelerating its nuclear program unimpeded.
In that scenario—where diplomacy fails because we chose to walk away—any president who is dedicated to America’s national security and that of our allies like Israel will ultimately be left with only one option—military action—to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And every estimate suggests military action would only set back Iran’s program by a few years at best—a fraction of the time we gain with this deal.
We can either prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon through diplomacy, or be left with a form of war. Those are the options. As commander-in-chief, I have not shied away from using force when necessary, but I cannot in good conscience place the burden of war on our men and women in uniform without testing a diplomatic agreement that achieves a better result. That is the lesson that I hope we’ve learned from more than a decade of war and the weight of its consequences. Diplomacy is not easy, but it is a better choice.
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