President Obama said Sunday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has failed to offer a better alternative to the administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, despite the Israeli leader’s vehement criticism that the accord won’t prevent Tehran from building nuclear weapons.
“I’ve repeatedly asked both Prime Minister Netanyahu and others to present me a reasonable, realistic plan that would achieve exactly what this deal achieves, and I have yet to get a response,” Mr. Obama said in an interview on CNN.
The president made the comments as opposition to the Iran agreement continues to mount in Israel and in Congress, where more Democrats are defecting from the administration. Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, one of the most prominent Jewish members of Congress, announced his opposition late last week.
A poll published in Israel shows that 71 percent of Israelis believe the deal brings Iran closer to a nuclear bomb, and 47 percent say they support a military strike against Iran.
The president told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that Mr. Netanyahu and the Israeli public should get behind the deal because it is “very good for Israel,” a consideration that he said has always driven the prime minister’s decisions.
“I completely understand why both he and the broad Israeli public would be suspicious, cautious about entering into any deal with Iran,” Mr. Obama said, but he added that the accord includes “all kinds of hedges if … Iran weren’t to abide by the deal.”
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“I’ve been very clear about the fact that if Israel were attacked by Iran, for example, there’s no doubt that not just me, but any U.S. administration, would do everything that we needed to do to make sure that Israel was protected,” he said.
The agreement reached by U.S. and other world powers with Iran would limit Tehran’s nuclear program in return for lifting economic sanctions. Congress will vote in September on a resolution disapproving of the deal.
Most Republicans are against the deal, and the administration took a blow Thursday night when Mr. Schumer, likely the next Senate Democratic leader, announced his opposition to the agreement as well.
Mr. Schumer cited “serious weaknesses” in the agreement, including delays in inspecting suspicious sites and difficulties in reinstating sanctions if Iran violates the accord.
“I believe Iran won’t change, and under this agreement it will be able to achieve its dual goals of eliminating sanctions while ultimately retaining its nuclear and non-nuclear power,” Mr. Schumer said.
The White House and its allies hit back at Mr. Schumer. Former Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer said the senator’s decision “will make it hard for him to lead the Dems in ‘16.”
“The base won’t support a leader who thought Obamacare was a mistake and wants war with Iran,” Mr. Pfeiffer wrote on Twitter.
Nonetheless, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said Friday that she did not know whether she would vote for the deal.
“This is not black and white. It’s not a no-brainer,” she said on CNN’s “New Day.”
“I know Chuck’s decision was based on what he personally concluded was the most likely way of preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” Ms. Wasserman Schultz said. “That’s the choice that I’m going to have to make after I go home and talk to my constituents as well.”
Still, she predicted that the deal ultimately would survive Congress because there would not be enough votes to override Mr. Obama’s veto of a resolution of disapproval.
Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri insisted Sunday that Mr. Schumer’s notable decision to oppose the deal hasn’t placed pressure on fellow Democrats to follow suit, as Congress prepares to weigh in on the pact when it reconvenes next month.
“I don’t think any of us feel pressure, either by Chuck Schumer’s rejection of this deal or the president’s full-throated support of this deal,” Ms. McCaskill told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, said Sunday that the Iran deal is the best hope to “give peace a chance.”
“Look, I’m not going to tell you that this is a perfect agreement. … It’s so easy to be critical of an agreement which is not perfect,” Mr. Sanders said on the CBS program “Face the Nation.”
“But the United States has to negotiate with other countries,” he said. “We have to negotiate with Iran. And the alternative of not reaching an agreement, you know, what it is? It’s war. Do we really want another war, a war with Iran? An asymmetrical warfare that will take place all over this world, threaten American troops?”
Mr. Sanders announced his support for the Iran deal after a phone conversation with Mr. Obama.
‘Politics of the issue’
The Islamic republic’s military chief also backed the landmark nuclear deal despite concerns, a major endorsement that could allow conservatives to back an accord that hard-liners oppose, the official IRNA news agency reported Saturday.
Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi, chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces and a close ally of the Islamic republic’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, spoke of 16 advantages of the deal in comments published by the news agency. While acknowledging the military’s concerns, Gen. Firouzabadi wrote that a recent U.N. vote on deal and the accord itself “have advantages that critics have ignored.”
Ayatollah Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters, has not publicly approved or disapproved of the deal. However, he repeatedly has offered words of support for his country’s nuclear negotiators.
Iran’s parliament and the Supreme National Security Council, the country’s highest security decision-making body, are to consider the agreement in coming days.
The July 14 deal between Iran and six world powers — the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany — is meant to curb Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions. Iranian hard-liners have accused moderate President Hassan Rouhani and the country’s nuclear negotiators of giving too many concessions in return for too little.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif rejected a report by the Institute for Science and International Security over the weekend that claimed satellite imagery showing crates, trucks and construction may be linked to a renewed attempt to clean up its Parchin military facility before an inspection by the U.N. nuclear monitor.
Mr. Zarif said work at Parchin was for a road-building project and called the report’s accusations baseless, according to comments published by IRNA.
Asked whether military force against Iran might be necessary if the deal collapses, Mr. Obama said: “I have a general policy on big issues like this not to anticipate failure. And I’m not going to anticipate failure now because I think we have the better argument.”
The president, who has compared Republican opponents to Iranian hard-liners, criticized these lawmakers for opposing the deal before reading the text of the agreement.
“That would indicate that they’re not interested in the substance of the issue; they’re interested in the politics of the issue,” Mr. Obama said.
Asked why most people in polls also disapprove of the deal, Mr. Obama replied, “because people haven’t been getting all the information.”
“It’s a complicated piece of business, and we are negotiating with a regime that chants ‘Death to America’ and doesn’t have a high approval rating here in the United States,” the president said. “But the people who know most about the central challenge that we’re trying to deal with, which is making sure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon, they are overwhelmingly in favor of it — experts in nuclear proliferation, nuclear scientists, former ambassadors, Democrat and Republican.”
⦁ S.A. Miller contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.