Goldberg: So in 2012 you told me, when we were talking about Iran, “It is almost certain that other players in the region would feel it necessary to get their own nuclear weapons if Iran got them.” Now we’re in this kind of weird situation in which there’s talk that Saudi Arabia, maybe Turkey, maybe Egypt would go build nuclear infrastructures come the finalization of this deal to match the infrastructure that your deal is going to leave in place in Iran. So my question to you is: Have you asked the Saudis not to go down any kind of nuclear path? What have they told you about this? And what are the consequences if other countries in the region say, “Well you know what, they have 5,000 centrifuges? We’re going to have 5,000 centrifuges.”
Obama: There’s been talk in the media, unsourced—
Goldberg: Well, [Saudi Arabia’s] Prince Turki said it publicly—
Obama: Well, he’s not in the government. There has been no indication from the Saudis or any other [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries that they have an intention to pursue their own nuclear program. Part of the reason why they would not pursue their own nuclear program—assuming that we have been successful in preventing Iran from continuing down the path of obtaining a nuclear weapon—is that the protection that we provide as their partner is a far greater deterrent than they could ever hope to achieve by developing their own nuclear stockpile or trying to achieve breakout capacity when it comes to nuclear weapons, and they understand that.
What we saw at the GCC summit was, I think, legitimate skepticism and concern, not simply about the Iranian nuclear program itself but also the consequences of sanctions coming down. We walked through the four pathways that would be shut off in any agreement that I would be signing off on. Technically, we showed them how it would be accomplished—what the verification mechanisms will be, how the UN snapback provisions [for sanctions] might work. They were satisfied that if in fact the agreement meant the benchmarks that we’ve set forth, that it would prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and given that, they understand that ultimately their own security and defense is much better served by working with us. Their covert—presumably—pursuit of a nuclear program would greatly strain the relationship they’ve got with the United States.
Goldberg: Stay with Iran for one more moment. I just want you to help me square something. So you’ve argued, quite eloquently in fact, that the Iranian regime has at its highest levels been infected by a kind of anti-Semitic worldview. You talked about that with Tom [Friedman]. “Venomous anti-Semitism” I think is the term that you used. You have argued—not that it even needs arguing—but you’ve argued that people who subscribe to an anti-Semitic worldview, who explain the world through the prism of anti-Semitic ideology, are not rational, are not built for success, are not grounded in a reality that you and I might understand. And yet, you’ve also argued that the regime in Tehran—a regime you’ve described as anti-Semitic, among other problems that they have—is practical, and is responsive to incentive, and shows signs of rationality. So I don’t understand how these things fit together in your mind.
Obama: Well the fact that you are anti-Semitic, or racist, doesn’t preclude you from being interested in survival. It doesn’t preclude you from being rational about the need to keep your economy afloat; it doesn’t preclude you from making strategic decisions about how you stay in power; and so the fact that the supreme leader is anti-Semitic doesn’t mean that this overrides all of his other considerations. You know, if you look at the history of anti-Semitism, Jeff, there were a whole lot of European leaders—and there were deep strains of anti-Semitism in this country—
Goldberg: And they make irrational decisions—
Obama: They may make irrational decisions with respect to discrimination, with respect to trying to use anti-Semitic rhetoric as an organizing tool. At the margins, where the costs are low, they may pursue policies based on hatred as opposed to self-interest. But the costs here are not low, and what we’ve been very clear [about] to the Iranian regime over the past six years is that we will continue to ratchet up the costs, not simply for their anti-Semitism, but also for whatever expansionist ambitions they may have. That’s what the sanctions represent. That’s what the military option I’ve made clear I preserve represents. And so I think it is not at all contradictory to say that there are deep strains of anti-Semitism in the core regime, but that they also are interested in maintaining power, having some semblance of legitimacy inside their own country, which requires that they get themselves out of what is a deep economic rut that we’ve put them in, and on that basis they are then willing and prepared potentially to strike an agreement on their nuclear program.
Goldberg: One of the other issues that’s troubling about this is—and I’m quoting [Treasury Secretary] Jack Lew here, who said a couple of weeks ago at the Washington Institute when talking about Iran’s various nefarious activities, he said, “Most of the money Iran receives from sanctions relief will not be used to support those activities.” To me that sounds like a little bit of wishful thinking—that [Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps] is going to want to get paid, Hezbollah is going to see, among other groups, might see a little bit of a windfall from these billions of dollars that might pour in. I’m not assuming something completely in the other direction either, but I just don’t know where your confidence comes from.
Obama: Well I don’t think Jack or anybody in this administration said that no money will go to the military as a consequence of sanctions relief. The question is, if Iran has $150 billion parked outside the country, does the IRGC automatically get $150 billion? Does that $150 billion then translate by orders of magnitude into their capacity to project power throughout the region? And that is what we contest, because when you look at the math, first of all they’re going to have to deliver on their obligations under any agreement, which would take a certain period of time. Then there are the mechanics of unwinding the existing restraints they have on getting that money, which takes a certain amount of time. Then [Iranian President] Rouhani and, by extension, the supreme leader have made a series of commitments to improve the Iranian economy, and the expectations are outsized. You saw the reaction of people in the streets of Tehran after the signing of the agreement. Their expectations are that [the economy is] going to improve significantly. You have Iranian elites who are champing at the bit to start moving business and getting out from under the restraints that they’ve been under.
And what is also true is that the IRGC right now, precisely because of sanctions, in some ways are able to exploit existing restrictions to have a monopoly on what comes in and out of the country, and they’ve got their own revenue sources that they’ve been able to develop, some of which may actually lessen as a consequence of sanctions relief. So I don’t think this is a science, and this is an issue that came up with the GCC countries during the summit. The point we simply make to them is: It is not a mathematical formula whereby [Iranian leaders] get a certain amount of sanctions relief and automatically they’re causing more problems in the neighborhood. What makes that particularly important is, in the discussion with the GCC countries, we pointed out that the biggest vulnerabilities that they have to Iran, and the most effective destabilizing activities of the IRGC and [Iran’s] Quds Force are actually low-cost. They are not a threat to the region because of their hardware. Ballistic missiles are a concern. They have a missile program. We have to think about missile-defense systems and how those are integrated and coordinated. But the big problems we have are weapons going in to Hezbollah, or them sending agents into Yemen, or other low-tech asymmetric threats that they’re very effective at exploiting, which they’re already doing—they’ve been doing despite sanctions. They will continue to do [this] unless we are developing greater capacity to prevent them from doing those things, which is part of what our discussion was in terms of the security assurances with the GCC countries.
You know, if you look at a situation like Yemen, part of the problem is the chronic, endemic weakness in a state like that, and the instability that Iran then seeks to exploit. If you had GCC countries who were more capable of maritime interdiction, effective intelligence, cutting off financing sources, and are more effective in terms of working and training with allied forces in a place like Yemen, so that Houthis can’t just march into Sana’a, well, if all those things are being done, Iran having some additional dollars from sanctions relief is not going to override those improvements and capabilities, and that’s really where we have to focus. Likewise with respect to Hezbollah. Hezbollah has a certain number of fighters who are hardened and effective. If Iran has some additional resources, then perhaps they’re less strained in trying to make payroll when it comes to Hezbollah, but it’s not as if they can suddenly train up and successfully deploy 10 times the number of Hezbollah fighters that are currently in Syria. That’s not something that they have automatic capacity to do. The reason that Hezbollah is effective is because they’ve got a core group of hardened folks that they’ve developed over the last 20-30 years, and—
Goldberg: You could buy more rockets and put them in south Lebanon.
Obama: Well, and the issue though with respect to rockets in south Lebanon is not whether [Iran has] enough money to do so. They’ve shown a commitment to doing that even when their economy is in the tank. The issue there is: Are we able to interdict those shipments more effectively than we do right now? And that’s the kind of thing that we have to continue to partner with Israel and other countries to stop.