President Barack Obama defended a framework nuclear agreement with Iran as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to prevent development of a bomb and bring longer-term stability to the Middle East. He insisted the U.S. would stand by Israel if it were to come under attack, but acknowledged that his pursuit of diplomacy with Tehran has caused strain with the close ally.
“It's been a hard period,” Obama said in an interview with Thomas Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times published Sunday night. He added that it is “personally difficult” for him to hear his administration accused of not looking out for Israel's interests.
Now in his seventh year in office, Obama cast the Iran talks as part of a broader foreign policy doctrine that sees American power as a safeguard that gives him the ability to take calculated risks.
“We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk,” he said, citing his overtures to Cuba and Myanmar as other examples of his approach.
The framework agreement
The president's comments come days after the U.S. and other world powers reached a tentative agreement to curb Iran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. The framework cleared the way for negotiators to hammer out details ahead of a June 30 deadline for a final deal.
Obama argued that successful negotiations presented the most effective way to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, but insisted he would keep all options on the table if Tehran were to violate the terms.
“I've been very clear that Iran will not get a nuclear weapon on my watch, and I think they should understand that we mean it,” Obama said in the interview published Sunday. “But I say that hoping that we can conclude this diplomatic arrangement — and that it ushers a new era in U.S.-Iranian relations — and, just as importantly, over time, a new era in Iranian relations with its neighbors.”
The president said there are many details that still need to be worked out with the Iranians and cautioned that there would be “real political difficulties” in implementing an agreement in both countries. He reiterated his opposition to a legislation that would give the U.S. Congress final say in approving or rejecting a deal, but said he hoped to find a path to allow Congress to “express itself.”
On the substance of the Iran framework agreement, Obama outlined how the U.S. would seek to verify that Tehran wasn't cheating. He said there would be an “international mechanism” that would assess whether there needed to be an inspection at a suspicious site and could overrule Iranian objections.
The nuclear talks have been a remarkable shift in the frozen relationship between the U.S. and Iran. It has become normal for officials from both countries to communicate and hold face-to-face meetings. Obama is yet to meet with Iranian President Hasan Rouhani, though they did speak on the phone. He has also exchanged letters with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Obama said the letters include “a lot of reminders of what he perceives as past grievances against Iran.” But he said the concessions Khamenei allowed his negotiators to make in the nuclear talks suggests that “he does realize that the sanctions regime that we put together was weakening Iran over the long term, and that if in fact he wanted to see Iran re-enter the community of nations, then there were going to have to be changes.”
Selling the deal
The White House plans an aggressive campaign to sell the deal to Congress, as well as to skeptical Arab allies who worry about Iran's destabilizing activity in the region. The president has invited leaders of six Gulf nations to Washington this spring and said he wanted to “formalize” U.S. assistance.
Obama said last week he would meet the leaders of the six Gulf Cooperation Council states this spring at his Camp David retreat, partly to discuss their concerns about the emerging nuclear agreement with Iran.
The GCC is Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Oman and Bahrain. Saudi Arabia, which sees Iran as its main regional rival, has repeatedly hinted that it would seek its own atomic weapons if Tehran ever did the same.
Obama said he wanted to discuss with the Gulf allies how to build more effective defense capabilities and assure them of U.S. support against outside attack. “That perhaps will ease some of their concerns and allow them to have a more fruitful conversation with the Iranians,” he said.
But the president said their biggest danger came not from a possible attack from Iran but from dissatisfaction inside their own countries, including from alienated, unemployed youth and a sense that there was no political outlet for grievances.
So as well as giving military support, the United States must ask: “How can we strengthen the body politic in these countries, so that Sunni youth feel that they've got something other than (the Islamic State) to choose from,” Obama said.
‘Committed’ to Israel
Obama also said that the U.S. will make sure the deal does not threaten Israel's own military advantage.
The notion that Iran is undeterrable is “simply not the case,” Obama told The Times.
“And so for us to say, ‘Let's try’ — understanding that we're preserving all our options, that we're not naive — but if in fact we can resolve these issues diplomatically, we are more likely to be safe, more likely to be secure, in a better position to protect our allies.”
Obama added that he was “absolutely committed” to making sure Israel maintains “their qualitative military edge” and was willing to make clear that “if Israel were to be attacked by any state, that we would stand by them.”
Obama expressed concern about how the talks have strained US-Israel relations, indicating how he takes it personally when he's accused of being anti-Israel.
“Part of what has always made the US-Israeli relationship so special is that it has transcended party, and I think that has to be preserved. There has to be the ability for me to disagree with a policy on settlements, for example, without being viewed as ... opposing ”
Obama's comments came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the U.S. on Sunday to seek a better deal to curb Iran's nuclear program and Senate Republicans pressed their demand that Congress be allowed to vote on the agreement.
Netanyahu has been strongly critical of the deal struck on Thursday in Switzerland, saying it threatens the survival of Israel.
In television appearances on Sunday, Netanyahu did not repeat his assertion made on Friday that any final agreement should include a commitment by Iran recognizing Israel's right to exist.
But, speaking on CNN's “State of the Union” he said of the deal, “This is not a partisan issue. This is not solely an Israeli issue. This is a world issue because everyone is going to be threatened by the pre-eminent terrorist state of our time, keeping the infrastructure to produce not one nuclear bomb but many, many nuclear bombs down the line.”