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Obama pushes back against Iran deal critics

President Barack Obama speaks in the State Dining Room at the White House about the nuclear deal between six world powers and Iran that calls on Tehran to limit its nuclear activities in return for sanctions relief. For President Barack Obama, the deal to temporarily freeze Iran's nuclear program could pave the way for one of his biggest foreign policy victories and steady his flailing presidency. But the venture is rife with risk, including possibly miscalculating Iran’s intentions and straining already tense relationships with Congress and Middle Eastern allies. AP photo

President Barack Obama speaks in the State Dining Room at the White House about the nuclear deal between six world powers and Iran that calls on Tehran to limit its nuclear activities in return for sanctions relief. For President Barack Obama, the deal to temporarily freeze Iran's nuclear program could pave the way for one of his biggest foreign policy victories and steady his flailing presidency. But the venture is rife with risk, including possibly miscalculating Iran’s intentions and straining already tense relationships with Congress and Middle Eastern allies. AP photo

WASHINGTON — Pushing back hard, President Barack Obama forcefully defended the temporary agreement to freeze Iran’s disputed nuclear program on Monday, declaring that the United States “cannot close the door on diplomacy.”

The president’s remarks followed skepticism of the historic accord expressed by some U.S. allies abroad as well as by members of Congress at home, including fellow Democrats. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the fiercest opponents of the six-month deal, called it a “historic mistake” and announced he would be dispatching a top envoy to Washington to try to toughen the final agreement negotiators will soon begin hammering out.

Obama, without naming names, swiped at those who have questioned the wisdom of engaging with Iran.

“Tough talk and bluster may be the easy thing to do politically, but it’s not the right thing to do for our security,” he said during an event in San Francisco.

The weekend agreement between Iran and six world powers — the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany — is to temporarily halt parts of Tehran’s disputed nuclear program and allow for more intrusive international monitoring. In exchange, Iran gains some modest relief from stiff economic sanctions and a pledge from Obama that no new penalties will be levied during the six months.

The groundwork for the accord was laid during four clandestine meetings between U.S. and Iranian officials throughout the summer and fall. An earlier meeting took place in March, before Iranians elected President Hassan Rouhani, a cleric who has taken more moderate public stances than his predecessor. Details of the secret talks were confirmed to The Associated Press by three senior administration officials.

The U.S. and its allies contend Iran is seeking to produce a nuclear bomb — of particular concern to Israel, which fears an attack — while Tehran insists it is merely pursuing a peaceful nuclear program for energy and medical purposes.

Even with the criticism, for Obama the sudden shift to foreign policy presents an opportunity to steady his flailing second term and take some attention off the domestic troubles that have plagued the White House in recent weeks, especially the rollout of his signature health care law. Perhaps with his presidential standing — and the strength of the rest of his term — in mind, he made sure on Monday to draw a connection between the nuclear pact and his long-declared willingness to negotiate directly with Iran.

“When I first ran for president, I said it was time for a new era of American leadership in the world, one that turned the page on a decade of war and began a new era of engagement with the world,” he said. “As president and as commander in chief, I’ve done what I’ve said.”

If Obama has miscalculated Iran’s intentions, it will vindicate critics who say his willingness to negotiate with Tehran is naive and could inadvertently hasten the Islamic republic’s march toward a nuclear weapon. Obama also runs the risk of exacerbating tensions with key Middle Eastern allies, as well as members of Congress who want to deepen, not ease, economic penalties on Iran.

Even some members of Obama’s own party say they’re wary of the deal struck in Geneva.

“I am disappointed by the terms of the agreement between Iran and the P5+1 nations because it does not seem proportional,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a close ally of the White House. “Iran simply freezes its nuclear capabilities while we reduce the sanctions.”

On the positive side, Michael Desch, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame, compared Obama’s diplomatic overtures to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s secret outreach to China in the 1970s, which paved the way for the historic opening of U.S. relations with the Asian nation.

“Then, as now, critics complained that the U.S. was in danger of being hoodwinked by a radical and violent regime that was playing us for a sucker,” Desch said. “An opening to Iran could potentially not only contain its nuclear program but set the stage for broader changes there as well.”

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