President Obama Comments on Iran Nuclear Talks in Reuters Interview (Excerpts)

March 2, 2015

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear

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REUTERS - Let’s start right on Israel. Your administration has described Prime Minister Netanyahu’s plans to address Congress tomorrow on Iran as destructive. What damage has really been done?

OBAMA - Well, first of all, I think it’s important to realize the depth of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Under my administration, billions of dollars have gone to support Israel’s security, including the Iron Dome program that has protected them from missiles fired along their borders. The military intelligence cooperation is unprecedented and that’s not our estimation. That’s the estimation of the Netanyahu government. And that bond is unbreakable. So we need to make clear from the outset how strong our alliance with Israel is.

The second point is that we actually share a goal, which is making sure Iran does not have a nuclear weapon. That’s something that I committed to when I was still a senator. It is a solemn pledge I made before I was elected president and everything that I’ve done over the course of the last several years in relation to Iran has been in pursuit of that policy. There is a substantial disagreement in terms of how to achieve that. And what it boils down to is what’s the best way to ensure that Iran is not developing a nuclear weapon.

Prime Minister Netanyahu thinks that the best way to do that is either through doubling down on more sanctions or through military action, ensuring that Iran has absolutely no enrichment capabilities whatsoever. And there’s no expert on Iran or nuclear proliferation around the world that seriously thinks that Iran is going to respond to additional sanctions by eliminating its nuclear program.

What we’ve said from the start is by organizing a strong sanctions regime, what we can do is bring Iran to the table. And by bringing Iran to the table, force them to have a serious negotiation in which a) we are able to see exactly what’s going on inside of Iran b) we’re able to create what we call a breakout period, a timeline where we know if they were to try to get a nuclear weapon it would take them a certain amount of time.

And the deal that we’re trying to negotiate is to make sure that there’s at least a year between us seeing them try to get a nuclear weapon and them actually being able to obtain one.

And as long as we’ve got that one-year breakout capacity, that ensures us that we can take military action to stop them if they were stop it.

Now, we’re still in the midst of negotiations. What I’ve said consistently is, we should let these negotiations play out. If, in fact, Iran is agree, willing to agree to double-digit years of keeping their program where it is right now and, in fact, rolling back elements of it that currently exist …

REUTERS - Double digit years?

OBAMA - Double digit years. If we’ve got that and we’ve got a way of verifying that, there’s no other steps we can take that would give us such assurance that they don’t have a nuclear weapon.

Now, Iran may not agree to the rigorous inspection demands that we’re insisting on. They may not agree to the low levels of enrichment capabilities they would have to maintain to ensure that their breakout is at least a year. But if they do agree to it, it would be far more effective in controlling their nuclear program than any military action we could take, any military action Israel could take and far more effective than sanctions will be.

And we know that because during the period in which we applied sanctions for over a decade, Iran went from about 300 or a couple of hundred centrifuges to tens of thousands of centrifuges in response to sanctions.

REUTERS - Let’s talk a little bit specifically about the prime minister. Susan Rice said that what he has done by accepting the invitation to speak was destructive to the fabric of the relationship. Would you agree that it’s destructive? And if so, will there be any consequences for him or for Israel?

OBAMA - You know, I think that Prime Minister Netanyahu is sincere about his concerns with respect to Iran. And given Iran’s record and given the extraordinarily disruptive and dangerous activities of this regime in the region, it’s understandable why Israel is very concerned about Iran. We are too. But what we’ve consistently said is we have to stay focused on our ultimate goal, which is preventing Iran from having a nuclear weapon.

Now, as a matter of policy, we think it’s a mistake for the prime minister of any country to come to speak before Congress a few weeks before they are about to have an election. It makes it look like we are taking sides.

REUTERS - But aside from that, what about that is destructive?

OBAMA - I’m answering your question, Jeff. And the concern is, not only does it look like it politicizes the relationship but what’s also a problem is when the topic of the prime minister’s speech is an area where the executive branch – the U.S. president and his team – have a disagreement with the other side.

I think those who offered the invitation and some of the commentators who have said this is the right thing to do, it’s worth asking them whether, when George W. Bush had initiated the war in Iraq and Democrats were controlling Congress, if they had invited let’s say the president of France to appear before Congress to criticize or to air those disagreements, I think most people would say, well, that wouldn’t be the right thing to do. I guarantee you that some of the same commentators who are cheerleading now would have suggested that it was the wrong thing to do.

I don’t think it’s permanently destructive. I think that it is a distraction from what should be our focus. And our focus should be,‘How do we stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon?’ Now keep in mind the prime minister, when we signed up for this interim deal that would essentially freeze Iran’s program, roll back its highly enriched uranium - its 20 percent highly enriched uranium - and so reduce the possibility that Iran might breakout while we were engaged in these negotiations, when we first announced this interim a deal, Prime Minister Netanyahu made all sorts of claims. This was going to be a terrible deal. This was going to result in Iran getting 50 billion dollars worth of relief. Iran would not abide by the agreement. None of that has come true.

It has turned out that, in fact, during this period we’ve seen Iran not advance its program. In many ways, it’s rolled back elements of its program. And we’ve got more insight into what they’re doing with more vigorous inspections than even the supporters of an interim deal suggested.

So the question is this: If in fact we are trying to finalize a deal, why not wait to see a) is there actually going to be a deal? Can Iran accept the terms that we’re laying out? If in fact Iran can accept terms that would ensure a one year breakout period for ten years or longer and during that period we know Iran is not developing a nuclear weapon - we have inspectors on the ground that give us assurances that they’re not creating a covert program - why would we not take that deal when we know the alternatives, whether through sanctions or military actions, will not result in as much assurance that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon?

There's no good reason for us not to let the negotiations play themselves out. Then we'll show, here - here's the deal that's been negotiated, does it make sense? And I am confident that if, in fact, a deal is arrived at, then it's going to be a deal that is most likely to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

REUTERS - You obviously disagree about that. If the prime minister wins reelection, would you be able to work with him?

OBAMA - Absolutely. We're working with him now on a whole range of issues.

REUTERS - Would you meet with him?

OBAMA - Of course. As I've said before, the only reason that we didn't meet with him this time is a general policy we don't meet with somebody two weeks before an election. I've met with Prime Minister Netanyahu more than any other world leader. And given the strong relationship between the United States and Israel, I would expect that to continue.

REUTERS - Is it fair to say you're angry with him?

OBAMA - This is not a personal issue. I think that it is important for every country in its relationship with the United States to recognize that the U.S. has a process of making policy. And although we have separation of powers, ultimately, the interaction with foreign governments runs through the executive branch. That's true whether it's a Democratic president or a Republican president. And that's true regardless of how close the ally is.

REUTERS - Have Israel's actions been disruptive to the ability to get this deal?

OBAMA - I think that it's been a distraction. I think that in the meantime negotiators are going full speed ahead. Ultimately, what's been remarkable is the international unity we've been able to maintain in saying to Iran, you have to show the world that you are not pursuing a nuclear weapon. You can have very modest enrichment capabilities for peaceful use, so long as there's a vigorous enough inspection process that we have assurances that you are not obtaining breakout capacity. And the biggest challenge right now to getting a deal is for Iran to recognize this is its path in order to ultimately re-enter into the community of nations.

REUTERS - Have your communications with the Supreme Leader helped in this?

OBAMA - You know, I would say that most of the work has been done directly between the negotiators and Secretary Kerry, Foreign Minister Zarif of Iran, the expert teams that have worked together along with our P5+1 partners. They've done the lion's share of the work.

REUTERS – But has that been useful?

OBAMA – I think it’s been important for us to send a clear signal to all parties inside of Iran that we are not the aggressors here. We are looking to resolve this diplomatically if we can. But given the history of Iran engaging in covert programs, given the history of Iranian sponsorship of terrorism in the region and around the world, given the rhetoric that's come out from the Iranian regime including anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements, it is important for them to understand that they have a high threshold that they have to meet in terms of proof and convincing the world that they're prepared to not pursue a nuclear program.

If they do that, and we have ways of measuring that, very concrete ways, if they do that, that's the best path for us to take. What we should not do is to try to jettison the talks, undermine the talks.

I'm less concerned, frankly, with Prime Minister Netanyahu's commentary than I am with Congress taking actions that might undermine the talks before they're complete. And what I've said to members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, is there will be plenty of time for us to reapply sanctions, strengthen sanctions, to take a whole range of other measures, if in fact we do not have a deal. But what we should not do is pre-judge the deal and initiate sanctions that might allow Iran to walk away and claim that the United States is the one that has eliminated the path to diplomacy.

REUTERS – How would you judge, what’s your assessment of the percentage likelihood now of this happening.

OBAMA - The likelihood of?

REUTERS - Of a deal coming through? You’ve said before less than 50 percent.

OBAMA - You know, I would say that it's probably still more likely than not that Iran doesn't get to yes. But I think in fairness to them, they have been serious negotiators. And they've got their own politics inside of Iran. It is more likely that we could get a deal now than perhaps three or five months ago. But there are still some big gaps that have to be filled.

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