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Dear Mr. President: Hopes for Obama’s address to the American Jewish community

Editors’ note: Shadi Hamid contributes to an August 28 experts’ discussion published in Tablet on what he hopes President Obama will say about the Iran nuclear deal in a speech to the American Jewish community. Hamid argues Obama has oversold the Iran deal in a way that has alienated fence-sitters and pushed away skeptics. He urges Obama to focus on what the deal means for U.S. strategy in the Middle East going forward and to connect the deal to American democratic values.


Tablet Staff: Our readers—both supporters and detractors of the Iran nuclear deal—want answers from Barack Obama. Here are the points they hope he addresses in his speech to the American Jewish community today.


Shadi Hamid: President Barack Obama has continuously oversold the Iran deal in a way that has alienated fence-sitters and pushed away skeptics. It might be a solid deal, but it sounds like a stretch when Obama uses superlative language (“strongest non-proliferation agreement ever negotiated”) while failing to take on board the concerns of not just opponents but also reluctant supporters (I’m one of the latter).

I hope Obama avoids the dismissive tone of his American University speech. The administration’s “deal-or-war” line smacks of bad faith. By saying the alternative is war, Obama is implying that he would have attacked Iran if talks collapsed (which is hard to believe). And, as my colleague Ken Pollack laid out in his book Unthinkable, there was always a third option, which, however bad, was an option nonetheless: containing a nuclear Iran. Meanwhile, suggesting that the deal is great for Israel isn’t likely to be a winning argument. How, Israelis might wonder, do Obama and Kerry presume to know what’s in Israel’s interests more than Israeli politicians?

Let’s be honest. For most people, the technical details of the deal matter little. Your position on the Iran deal likely depends on how you view Iran and America’s role in the Middle East more broadly. So I hope the President focuses on what the deal means for U.S. strategy in the region going forward. If the Iran deal is blocked by congress, we will spend the next one-and-a half years re-running the debate over Iran’s nuclear program, which has already monopolized national attention for far too long. It’s time to move on, build on the momentum of the deal, and focus on neglected but just as pressing issues, like the Syrian civil war. (This would be as good a time as any to announce more aggressive measures against the Syrian regime, Iran’s leading Arab ally.)

Lastly, instead of making this about centrifuges and breakout times, Obama should connect the deal to our democratic values. Everything’s usually about us, but presumably a deal with Iran is also about Iranians. In one survey of 22 Iranian human rights activists, support for negotiations was “unanimous,” while over half believed that a deal would lead to a significant improvement in human rights in Iran. If Iranian democracy advocates think a deal might buoy their cause, we owe it to ourselves to take them seriously.

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