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Iran nuclear deal would be centerpiece of Obama foreign policy legacy

WASHINGTON — When then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was running for president in April 2008, he was asked about Iran during a debate with Hillary Clinton, his rival for the Democratic nomination.

“I have said I will do whatever is required to prevent the Iranians from obtaining nuclear weapons,” he said.

OPINION

On Thursday, Obama came the closest yet to keeping that promise, with the announcement of a framework agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The target date to complete the deal is June 30.

If a final accord is reached between Iran and the European Union, the U.S., Germany, Great Britain, China, France and Russia — known as the “P5+1” — the agreement will be a centerpiece of Obama’s foreign policy legacy. It will be a win for Obama’s brand of aggressive, multilateral diplomacy.

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A senior White House official said the president was updated about the final details of the plan during a late-night phone call he took in the family residence from National Security Adviser Susan Rice. Obama signed off on the final contours of the accord being negotiated in Lausanne, Switzerland, about 10 a.m. eastern time Thursday.

Speaking from the White House a few hours later, Obama called the plan “A good deal, a deal that meets our core objectives. This framework would cut off every pathway that Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon.”

When Obama came to Congress in 2005, he joined the Foreign Relations Committee and soon started to focus on limiting nuclear proliferation as one of his signature issues.

Obama took on as a mentor then-Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and in August of that first year, the two traveled to Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan to get an inside look at what the U.S. could do to reduce the threat of “loose nukes.”

Now, almost 10 years later — in year seven of his presidency — Obama has to close the legacy-making Iran deal on two fronts: not only with Tehran, but as difficult, with a Republican-led Congress.

Though Obama said he wants a discussion with Congress to determine how best to proceed, his team is cool to suggestions from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle that Congress needs to have an up-or-down vote on the deal. A vote would be needed to lift existing sanctions.

For some time now, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., has been crusading against the Iran deal, which he sees as naïve and unwilling to realistically assess the threat Iran poses to Israel.

Kirk and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., are the authors of a measure calling for keeping the pressure on Iran through the potential for tougher — not lesser — economic sanctions.

Obama does not want new sanctions legislation during the negotiations and said he would veto the Kirk/Menendez bill.

Under the framework agreement, Iran gets sanction relief if there is proof it is meeting its commitments, but Kirk — whose concerns are also voiced by other critics — doesn’t buy it.

Speaking in Chicago on Thursday, Kirk said of the pending deal, “It looks like they did a total cave from what I saw.”

Kirk likened the tentative plan to diminish Iran’s nuclear program to trying to appease Nazi Germany.

“I’m very worried that we’re repeating the mistakes of the late 1930s when the United States was very weak and unable to confront Hitler, and especially Mussolini, and we gave a signal to the dictators to just go as far as possible. That laid the groundwork,” Kirk said.

“. . . The 1938 analogy, I think, holds true for these days,” he said.

Obama warned Congress on Thursday not to mess up the deal. “Should negotiations collapse because we, the United States, rejected what the majority of the world considers a fair deal . . . it’s doubtful that we can even keep our current international sanctions in place.”

It would be ironic if the blockade between Obama and a legacy accomplishment would be Congress — and not the Iranians.

Contributing: Tina Sfondeles in Chicago.