Obama's escalating heated rhetoric on Iran shows he might be worried about an unforeseen spoiler

Barack Obama IranREUTERS/Joshua RobertsObama doesn’t have much reason to be concerned about the Iran deal surviving Congress — but is still talking as if there’s a real chance it goes down.

Congress may end up voting against President Barack Obama’s landmark nuclear deal with Iran by passing a resolution of disapproval, putting the legislative branch on record as opposing perhaps the biggest foreign-policy initiative of Obama’s presidency.

But chances remain very low that deal opponents will be able to muster the votes needed to override a presidential veto, which would be likely in the event of a resolution of disapproval.

Opponents need support of two-thirds of both the House of Representatives and the Senate in order to override that potential veto and prevent the president from suspending US sanctions against Iran, something that would almost certainly scuttle the nuclear agreement signed last month.

It’s unlikely they can get to that point. Assuming every Senate Republican other than potential agreement supporter Jeff Flake votes against the deal, opponents will still need to recruit 13 Senate Democrats to their position.

That doesn’t seem likely, especially in light of Obama’s escalating rhetoric over a potential Congressional fight — something that hints at the potential political consequences of crossing him. During a Wednesday address at American University, Obama extensively compared deal opponents to supporters fo the Iraq war.

“Between now and the Congressional vote in September, you are going to hear a lot of arguments against this deal, backed by tens of millions of dollars in advertising,” Obama said. “And if the rhetoric in these ads and the accompanying commentary sounds familiar, it should, for many of the same people who argued for the war in Iraq are now making the case against the Iran nuclear deal. “

He also said that Iranian hardliners were in a de-facto alliance with deal opponents in the US. “It’s those hardliners chanting ‘Death to America’ who have been most opposed to the deal,” Obama said. “They’re making common cause with the Republican Caucus.”

Top-ranking Republicans quickly criticised the comment, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) calling on Obama to “retract his bizarre and preposterous comments.”

“Members of both parties have serious and heartfelt concerns about the Iran deal,” McConnell said in a statement. “These Democrats and Republicans deserved serious answers today, not some outrageous attempt to equate their search for answers with supporting chants of ‘Death to America.'”

One one level, the rhetorical escalation is puzzling: Obama is raising the stakes and risking additional ill-will around an issue that’s essentially been settled. The UN Security Council has already endorsed the Iran agreement and began the process of removing sanctions authorizations related to the Iranian nuclear program.

And the veto override was always a longshot. The current model of congressional review is on terms that even the administration realised were favourable to it: when the bipartisan-sponsored Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act was passed in May, Obama signed it partly in order to stave off other, far less certain congressional approval mechanisms.

But there is always the possibility that events intervene in a way that won’t favour the administration. From the administration’s perspective, the biggest danger of the Review Act is that it gives Congress a 60-day period to consider the agreement. And a lot can happen in 60 days.

Revolutionary Guard IRGC BasijReutersMembers of Iran’s Basij militia march during a parade to commemorate the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), in Tehran on September 22, 2010.

OnWednesday,CNN reportedthat in July, an Iranian warship had aimed its weapon at a US helicopter in the Gulf of Aden, near Yemen.

The event recalls other unexpected security incidents involving the US or neutral vessels in and around the Persian Gulf: In April, for instance, the Iranian Navy commandeered a Marshall Islands-flagged ship in the Strait of Hormuz, leading to the US Navy briefly having to escort vessels through the world’s most important oil chokepoint. Also in April, the US Navy helped blockade a Yemeni port in order to prevent a suspected Iranian weapons delivery.

The nuclear deal was signed by one segment of Iran’s political leadership. But president Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif are hardly the only center of power in a compartmentalized and often secretive Iranian regime. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps control significant aspects of the country’s economy and foreign policy. And perhaps inconveniently for the nuclear deal’s signatories, the IRGC oversees much of the Iranian nuclear program, and important facilities, including the Fordow enrichment site, are located inside of IRGC bases.

A surprise event involving US or allied vessels in the Straight of Hormuz or the Gulf of Aden — something that could expose Iran as erratic and untrustworthy, or cast additional doubt on the prudence of entering into this specific nuclear agreement with the country’s current leadership — represents just about the most realistic chance for deal opponents build up enough opposition to the agreement to override Obama’s veto.

Such an event remains unlikely. But it’s clear after today that Obama isn’t taking any chances with the passage of one of his presidency’s most significant legacy items. If outside events do intervene, he wants support to be solid — even if it still seems far from likely that the deal will be defeated in Congress.

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