Remarks by President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron of the United Kingdom in Joint Press Conference (Excerpts)

January 16, 2015

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With regard to security, American-British unity is enabling us to meet challenges in Europe and beyond.  We agree on the need to maintain strong sanctions against Russia until it ends its aggression in Ukraine, and on the need to support Ukraine as it implements important economic and democratic reforms.  We agree that the international community needs to remain united as we seek a comprehensive diplomatic solution to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  And I’d add that additional sanctions on Iran at this time would undermine that international unity and set back our chances for a diplomatic solution. 

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On Iran, we remain absolutely committed to ensuring that Iran cannot develop a nuclear weapon.  The best way to achieve that now is to create the space for negotiations to succeed.  We should not impose further sanctions now; that would be counterproductive and it could put at risk the valuable international unity that has been so crucial to our approach.

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PRESIDENT OBAMA:   Thank you, David.  We’re going to take a few questions.  We’re going to start with Jonathan Karl of ABC.

Q    Thank you, Mr. President.  You mentioned your opposition to the sanctions bill on Iran, and this is obviously a bipartisan bill supported by some very senior top members of your own party in Congress.  Why do you oppose a bill that would only impose sanctions if you fail to reach an agreement?  And if the Iranians fail to agree to take steps to curtail their nuclear program, would you go so far as to veto a bill supported by top Democrats in Congress on this issue?

And to Mr. Prime Minister, I understand you’ve been making phone calls to senators on this issue of the Iran sanctions bill, is that correct?  Are you actually lobbying the U.S. Congress on this?

And if I may, Mr. President, I’d really like to hear your reaction to the news that Mitt Romney is thinking about running for President again.  (Laughter.)       

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  On your last question -- (laughter) -- I have no comment.  (Laughter.)

Q    None at all?

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  On your first question, when I came into office, I made a commitment that Iran would not obtain a nuclear weapon, that we would do everything we could to prevent that.  And that is important for our security and it’s important for the world’s security.  If Iran obtained a nuclear weapon, then it would trigger an arms race in the Middle East, make our job in terms of preventing the proliferation of nuclear materials much more difficult.  Given their missile capabilities, it would threaten directly our closest allies, including Israel, and ultimately could threaten us.

And so what we did was systematically, with the help of Congress, construct the most forceful, most effective sanctions regime in modern history.  And what was remarkable was that when I came into office, the world was divided around this issue, and Iran was united.  And through some very strong diplomatic work, we united the world and isolated Iran.  And it’s because of that work that we brought them to the negotiating table -- not for posturing, not for meetings that lead nowhere, but to a very hard-nosed, nuts-and-bolt discussion of their nuclear program.

Now, the interim deal that we entered into also froze progress on their nuclear program, rolled back in some cases the stockpiles of material that they had already accumulated, and provided us insight into their program that was unprecedented.  We have people on the ground who are able to verify and inspect and tell us what exactly is going on.  That's not just our assessment, that's the assessment of intelligence services around the world, including the Israelis.

So the agreement has held, and the negotiations have been serious.  We have not lost ground.  Iran has not accelerated its program during the time these negotiations have taken place.  In fact, Iran’s program has not only been in abeyance, but we’ve actually made gains in rolling back some of the stockpiles that they had.

Now, we have on the table currently a series of negotiations over the next several months to determine whether or not Iran can get to yes.  And what’s been remarkable is the unity that we have maintained with the world in isolating Iran and forcing them to negotiate in a serious way.  The P5-plus-1 includes not only China, but also includes Russia.  And they have continued to cooperate with us in setting forth positions that would give us assurances that Iran was not developing a nuclear weapon.

Now, I’ve always said that the chances that we can actually get a diplomatic deal are probably less than 50/50.  Iran is a regime that is deeply suspicious of the West, deeply suspicious of us.  In the past, they have surreptitiously and secretly advanced aspects of this program.  We have huge differences with them on a whole range of issues.  But if, in fact, we still have an opportunity to get a diplomatic deal that provides us verifiable assurances that they are not developing a nuclear weapon, that is the best possible outcome that we can arrive at right now.

And the question I had for members of Congress, including those folks in my own party is:  Why is it that we would have to take actions that might jeopardize the possibility of getting a deal over the next 60 to 90 days?  What is it precisely that is going to be accomplished?

I can tell you what the risks are, and I think David shares my assessment here.  Under the interim deal that brought Iran to the table, we were not supposed to initiate new sanctions.  Now, you’ll hear arguments -- well, these technically aren’t new sanctions, they're simply laws putting in place the possibility of additional sanctions.  I assure that is not how Iran would interpret it or our partners would interpret it.

So the likelihood of the entire negotiations collapsing is very high.  And if that happens, there is no constraint on Iran at that point going back and doing exactly what it had been doing before they came to the table:  Developing a heavy water reactor that, once built, is extraordinarily difficult to dismantle and very difficult to hit military; going back at underground facilities that are very hard to reach militarily; accelerating advanced centrifuges that shorten the time span in which they can achieve breakout capacity.

And they would be able to maintain that the reason that they ended negotiations was because the United States was operating in bad faith and blew up the deal, and there would be some sympathy to that view around the world -- which means that the sanctions that we have in place now would potentially fray, because imposing these sanctions are a hardship on a number of countries around the world.  They would love to be able to buy Iranian oil.  And the reason that they’ve hung in there, despite it being against their economic interest, is because we have shown that we are credibly trying to solve this problem and avert some sort of military showdown.

Now, in that context, there is no good argument for us to try to undercut, undermine the negotiations until they’ve played themselves out.  Now, if Iran ends up ultimately not being able to say yes, if they cannot provide us the kind of assurances that would lead myself and David Cameron and others to conclude that they are not obtaining a nuclear weapon, then we’re going to have to explore other options.  And I will be the first one to come to Congress and say we need to tighten the screws.

And, by the way, that’s not the only options that are going to be available.  I’ve consistently said we leave all options on the table.  But Congress should be aware that if this diplomatic solution fails, then the risks and likelihood that this ends up being at some point a military confrontation is heightened, and Congress will have to own that as well, and that will have to be debated by the American people.  And we may not be able to rebuild the kind of coalition we need in that context if the world believes that we were not serious about negotiations.

So I take this very seriously.  And I don’t question the good faith of some folks who think this might be helpful.  But it’s my team that’s at the table.  We are steeped in this stuff day in, day out.  We don’t make these judgments blindly.  We have been working on this for five, six, seven years.  We consult closely with allies like the United Kingdom in making these assessments.  And I am asking Congress to hold off, because our negotiators, our partners, those who are most intimately involved in this, assess that it will jeopardize the possibility of resolving -- providing a diplomatic solution to one of the most difficult and long-lasting national security problems that we’ve faced in a very long time.  And Congress needs to show patience.

So with respect to the veto, I said to my Democratic caucus colleagues yesterday that I will veto a bill that comes to my desk, and I will make this argument to the American people as to why I’m doing so.  And I respectfully request them to hold off for a few months to see if we have the possibility of solving a big problem without resorting potentially to war.  And I think that’s worth doing.  We’ll see how persuasive I am, but if I’m not persuading Congress, I promise you I’m going to be taking my case to the American people on this.

PRIME MINISTER CAMERON:  I think the big picture is very clear.  The sanctions that America and the European Union put in place have had an effect.  That has led to pressure.  That pressure has led to talks.  And those talks at least have a prospect of success.  And I would argue with the President, how much better is that than the other potential outcomes?  And that is what we should be focusing on.

But to answer you very directly, yes, I have contacted a couple of senators this morning and I may speak to one or two more this afternoon -- not in any way as British Prime Minister to tell the American Senate what it should or shouldn’t do; that wouldn’t be right -- but simply to make the point as a country that stands alongside America in these vital negotiations, that it’s the opinion of the United Kingdom that further sanctions or further threat of sanctions at this point won’t actually help to bring the talks to a successful conclusion and they could fracture the international unity that there’s been, which has been so valuable in presenting a united front to Iran.

And I say this as someone who played quite, I think, a strong role in getting Europe to sign up to the very tough sanctions, including oil sanctions, in the first place.  And I would just simply make this point:  Those sanctions have had an effect.  And to those who said, if you do an interim deal, if you even start discussing with the Iranians any of these things, the sanctions will fall apart, the pressure will dissipate, no one will be able to stick at it.  That has demonstrably been shown not to be true.

So the pressure is still there.  And as the President says, if the Iranians say no and there is no deal, then by all means let’s sit down and work out what extra sanctions to put in place.  Because I think we’re absolutely united in a simple thought, which is a deal that takes Iran away from a nuclear weapon is better than either Iran having a nuclear weapon or military action to prevent it.  In the end, it comes down to that simple choice.  And so will I do what I can to help as one of the country’s negotiating?  Sure I will.

Q    Do you acknowledge a less than 50/50 --

PRIME MINISTER CAMERON:  I think the way the President put it, I wouldn’t disagree with.  It’s very hard to know what the Iranian thinking is about this.  I’m the first British Prime Minister in 35 years I think to meet with an Iranian President, and it’s very hard to know what their thinking is.

But there is a very clear offer there, which is to take Iran away from a nuclear weapon and to conclude an agreement with them which would be mutually beneficial.  That’s what should happen.

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Q    Thank you, Mr. President.  Good afternoon, Mr. Prime Minister.  Good afternoon to you, sir.

     Questions for all -- for both of you.  I want to make sure we heard what you were trying to say.  You clearly are directing a message to Congress in the context of Iranian negotiations.  Were you also sending a message -- both of you -- to Iran that if the sanctions talks fail, that war footing is the next most likely alternative for this country and those who are allied with us in this common pursuit?

And atrocities in Paris, raids and threats either in Belgium and Netherlands, I’d like to ask you both:  Do you believe Europe is at a turning point now in its recognition of what its threats are and its own mobilization in terms of new laws, security footing, larger budgets?  And you both talked about cybersecurity.  There is a crucial issue for both countries -- backdoors in encryption to protect people and also privacy.  I’d like your comments on that.  Thank you.

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  I am not -- repeat, not -- suggesting that we are in immediate war footing should negotiations with Iran fail.  But as David put it very simply -- if, in fact, our view is that we have to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, then we have to recognize the possibility that should diplomacy fail, we have to look at other options to achieve that goal.

And if you listen sometimes to the rhetoric surrounding this issue, I think there is sometimes the view that this regime cannot be trusted; that, effectively, negotiations with Iran are pointless.  And since these claims are being made by individuals who see Iran as a mortal threat and want as badly as we do to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon, the question then becomes:  Well, what other alternatives exactly are available?

That is part of what we have to consider as to why it’s so important for us to pursue every possible avenue to see if we can get a deal.  Now, it’s got to be good deal, not a bad deal.  I’ve already shown myself willing to walk away from a bad deal.  And the P5-plus-1 walked away with us.  And so nobody is interested in some document that undermines our sanctions and gives Iran the possibility of, whether covertly or gradually, building up its nuclear weapons capacity.  We're not going to allow that.  And anything that we do, any deal that we arrive at -- if we were to arrive at one -- would be subject to scrutiny across the board, not just by members of Congress, but more importantly, by people who actually know how the technical aspects of nuclear programs can advance and how we can effectively verify in the most rigorous way possible that the terms of the deal are being met.

So the bottom line is this:  We may not get there, but we have a chance to resolve the nuclear issue peacefully.  And I should point out also, by the way, that if -- even if we get a nuclear deal and we are assured that Iran doesn’t possess nuclear weapons, we’ve still got a whole bunch of problems with Iran on state-sponsored terrorism, their rhetoric towards Israel, their financing of Hezbollah.  We’ve got differences with respect to Syria.  It’s not as if suddenly we’ve got a great relationship with Iran.  It solves one particular problem that is urgent, and it solves it better than the other alternatives that might present themselves.

So my main message to Congress at this point is, just hold your fire.  Nobody around the world, least of all the Iranians, doubt my ability to get some additional sanctions passed should these negotiations fail.  That’s not a hard vote for me to get through Congress.  And so the notion that we need to have additional sanctions, or even the possibility of sanctions hanging over their head to force them to a better deal, I think the Iranians know that that is certainly in our back pocket if the negotiations fail.

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PRIME MINISTER CAMERON:  On the Iranian issue, I won’t add much to what the President said.  I’d just make this point, that I don’t think you can characterize it as, if there's a deal then the pressure is off Iran, and if there isn’t a deal, new pressure has to be applied to Iran.  I mean, even if there is a deal, the key to that deal will be transparency and verification and making sure that this country isn’t developing a nuclear weapon.  And that will mean repeated pressure, even after a deal is done.  I think that’s very important.

And I would absolutely back up what Barack says about recognizing that in so many other ways, we have some major disagreements with what the Iranians have been doing.  I mean, Britain has suffered particularly from the appalling way that our embassy and our staff were treated in that country.  So we approach this with a huge amount of skepticism and concern.  But the goal of an Iran without a nuclear weapon makes these talks worthwhile.

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