President Obama told a national convention of military veterans in Pittsburgh that the deal to cage Iran’s nuclear weapons program makes another war in the Middle East less likely.
“With this deal, we have a chance to resolve the challenge of Iran trying to get a nuclear weapon peacefully. Without it, we risk yet another conflict in the Middle East,” Obama told the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown.
The White House and opponents of the deal — including Republicans running for president — are ramping up their public relations battle in advance of a congressional vote on the pact.
Obama says he’ll veto any attempt by Congress to scuttle the deal, in part because other countries are signing on to it, which undermines U.S. leverage.
The United Nations Security Council voted unanimously Monday to accept the deal’s terms, which include lifting economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for international oversight of its nuclear facilities.
“With this deal, if Iran cheats, sanctions snap back on. Without a deal, the sanctions unravel,” Obama said.
Critics contend that the oversight allows Iran too many opportunities to hide an illicit weapons program and that in 10 to 15 years, when many of the deal’s terms expire, Tehran will be better prepared to build a nuclear bomb.
Groups led by Democrats and Republicans have formed to organize opposition to the deal and pressure Congress to reject it. But Obama pointed out that many who oppose the deal “are the same folks who were so quick to go to war in Iraq and said it would take a few months.”
“Instead of rushing into another conflict, I believe that sending our sons and daughters into harm’s way must always be a last resort, and that before we put their lives on the line, we should exhaust every alternative,” Obama said in the biggest applause line of a 30-minute speech.
The address marked Obama’s 29th visit to Pennsylvania and his first public acknowledgment of a deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System. The outbreak killed at least six veterans and infected at least 16 others.
The VA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the outbreak began in February 2011 and ended in November 2012. But a Tribune-Review investigation uncovered water samples that showed alarmingly high levels of Legionella bacteria in the hospitals’ water systems dating to at least 2007. The investigation found several veterans who likely contracted the disease at the hospital before the outbreak’s ostensible beginning but were never told about it.
“That was a tragedy, and whenever there are any missteps, there is no excuse. So our hearts go out to the families of those who lost loved ones,” Obama said.
The VA fired former Pittsburgh director Terry Gerigk Wolf for her role in the outbreak, Obama noted. Investigations into the outbreak prompted a nationwide overhaul of VA regulations for Legionella prevention, as well as a federal law and VA policy change requiring hospitals to report disease outbreaks to state health authorities.
“The safety measures now in place are some of the strongest in the nation, and patient safety is a top priority at VA hospitals because we have to prevent anything like that from ever happening again,” Obama said.
Despite improvements, paid for with billions of taxpayer dollars, problems within the nation’s largest health care system remain, Obama acknowledged. A year since the previous VA secretary resigned over a nationwide scandal involving secret waiting lists for veterans, the system continues to struggle with an aging population of veterans from previous wars and a surge in new veterans who were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“You put it all together and, in some places, wait times are higher than they were last year,” Obama said. “So I want you to know I’m still not satisfied. (VA Secretary) Bob (McDonald) is not satisfied.”
Nor was Terry Guthrie, 42, of Orlando, an Army veteran of Iraq who said the system remains rife with problems.
“(Obama) is a politician; he lies. I don’t believe nothing he says,” Guthrie said.
But Steve Mason, 74, of Baltimore said the system is “faster now so you don’t have to wait like you used to.”
“So many veterans had given up on the VA, but I think the president and the new (VA) secretary are starting to turn it around,” said Mason, an Army Green Beret who served in Vietnam and has post-traumatic stress disorder.
Obama’s speech coincided with his order to lower flags to half-staff in honor of four Marines and one sailor killed Thursday in a shooting rampage in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Obama eulogized the victims — Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, Lance Cpl. Squire “Skip” Wells, Staff Sgt. David Wyatt, Sgt. Carson Holmquist and Petty Officer Randall Smith — at the close of his speech, quoting their families, friends and comrades.
“We endure because the freedoms and values you protected are now defended by a new generation, Americans just like our five patriots who gave their lives in Chattanooga,” he said. “As a grateful nation, we must stand up for them and honor them now and forever.”
Mike Wereschagin is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7900 or [email protected]. Staff writer Tom Fontaine contributed.