President Obama's Remarks on Nuclear Talks in Joint Press Conference with Italian Prime Minister (Excerpts)

April 17, 2015

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear

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President Obama: I updated Prime Minister Renzi on the framework that we reached with Iran, our progress towards a comprehensive deal that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and we agreed that until any final deal is reached, sanctions on Iran must continue to be fully and strictly enforced.

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Q.: The Cardin-Corker compromise this week really was a pretty significant concession from you.  And what I'm wondering is, do you believe that you’ve now weathered any more congressional sort of bids to derail this?  Or are you concerned that because Israel and Iran have now become deeply polarized issues, there’s going to be more to fend off? 
 
And you have suggested, but you have not said explicitly, that there must be a phase-out rather than the immediate lifting of sanctions in order for you to agree to a final deal.  Can you be definitive on that?  In exchange, might you be willing to release part or all of that $100 billion or so in frozen oil assets that Iran has in offshore accounts? 
 
And you seem to be floating the idea that you might want to say something about Russia lifting its ban on the sale of missiles to Iran, so I will throw that your way.
 
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PRESIDENT OBAMA:  All right.  I wrote them down.  (Laughter.)   
 
On Iran, I thought Bob Corker and Ben Cardin came to a reasonable compromise.  I had two concerns from the start with respect to any steps taken by Congress.  The first was to make sure that their actions did not derail or prevent us being able to get the best deal possible and John Kerry, when he is in those negotiations, not being hobbled or his life being made more complicated by congressional actions until we actually have a deal done.  My basic argument was, let us show you if there’s a deal or not.  If there is, you’ll have ample opportunity to review it and opine on it.  But right now we’re still negotiating, so have some patience. 
 
And I think the final product that emerged out of the Corker-Cardin negotiations we believe will not derail the negotiations.  So that checked off one box.
 
The second concern I had was just an issue of presidential prerogatives.  There were a number of people who were supporting Corker’s legislation suggesting that, as a routine matter, a President needs to get sign-off from Congress to negotiate political agreements.  That is not the case.  That has never been the case.  This is not a formal treaty that is being envisioned.  And the President of the United States, whether Democrat or Republican, traditionally has been able to enter into political agreements that are binding with other countries without congressional approval. 
 
And I still have some concerns about the suggestion that that tradition was in some ways changing.  But there was language in the legislation that spoke to this being directly related to congressional sanctions.  And that, I think, at least allows me to interpret the legislation in such a way that it not sending a signal to future Presidents that each and every time they’re negotiating a political agreement that they have to get a congressional authorization.
 
So the final thing I’ll say about the Corker legislation is that both Senator Corker and Senator Cardin, at least in my understanding, agreed that there is not going to be a whole bunch of poison pills or additional provisions or amendments added to it, and that they will be protective of this being a straightforward, fair process for Congress to be able to evaluate any deal that we may come up with, and then register its views, but that it’s not going to be tilted in the direction of trying to kill the deal.  I take them at their word on that.  We’ll continue to monitor that. 
 
But assuming that what lands on my desk is what Senators Corker and Cardin agreed to, I will sign it.  And that will then give Congress an opportunity to see, do we have a deal that reflects the political agreement that I talked about earlier?  I expect that it will.
 
With respect to the issue of sanctions coming down, I don’t want to get out ahead of John Kerry and my negotiators in terms of how to craft this.  I would just make a general observation, and that is that how sanctions are lessened, how we snap back sanctions if there’s a violation, there are a lot of different mechanisms and ways to do that.  Part of John’s job and part of the Iranian negotiators’ job, and part of the P5+1’s job is to sometimes find formulas that get to our main concerns while allowing the other side to make a presentation to their body politic that is more acceptable.
 
Our main concern here is making sure that if Iran doesn’t abide by its agreement that we don’t have to jump through a whole bunch of hoops in order to reinstate sanctions.  That’s our main concern.  And I think that goal of having in reserve the possibility of putting back and applying forceful sanctions in the event of a violation, that goal can be met.  And it will require some creative negotiations by John Kerry and others, and I’m confident it will be successful.  And I very much appreciate, by the way, the support that has been provided by Prime Minister Renzi as well as his former foreign minister, who now is the EU representative in many of these discussions.
 
And with respect to the Russian sales, I will tell you this is actually a sale that was slated to happen in 2009.  When I first met with then-Prime Minister Putin, they actually stopped the sale, paused or suspended the sale at our request.  And I’m, frankly, surprised that it held this long, given that they were not prohibited by sanctions from selling these defensive weapons.  When I say I’m not surprised -- given some of the deterioration in the relationship between Russia and the United States, and the fact that their economy is under strain and this was a substantial sale. 
 
I do think that it sends a message about how important it is for us to look like we are credible in negotiations if, in fact, a deal fails and we are needing to maintain sanctions.  Because I’ve heard some in Congress who are opposed to this deal say either let’s just slap on even more sanctions or we’ll do sanctions unilaterally regardless of what other countries are willing to do. 
 
The reason that the sanctions regime has worked is because painstakingly we built an international coalition that has held this long.  And if it is perceived that we walked away from a fair deal that gives us assurances Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon, then those international sanctions will fray.  And it won’t just be Russia or China; it will be some of our close allies who will start questioning our capacity or the wisdom of maintaining these.
 
We don’t want to put ourselves in that position.  We want to make sure that if there’s no deal around the Iran nuclear program, it’s because the Iranians were not willing to accept what the international community considered to be an appropriate and fair approach to this problem.

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