Obama defends Iran deal, tells Israelis if anybody messes with you US will be there

In New York Times interview, Obama says it has been "personally difficult" for him to hear expressions that his administration has not done everything it could to look out for Israel’s interest.

April 6, 2015 01:16
Barack Obama

U.S. President Barack Obama. (photo credit: REUTERS)

America would stand by Israel if it’s attacked by any state, including Iran, US President Barack Obama pledged in an extensive 46-minute interview with The New York Times in which he advocated for the framework deal to curb Tehran’s nuclear program.

“What we will be doing, even as we enter this deal, is sending a clear message to the Iranians and to the entire region that if anyone messes with Israel, America will be there,” Obama told Times reporter Thomas Friedman.

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His interview with Obama, which was taped on Saturday and published on Sunday, was unusual both in its digital format and length.

It gave Obama an extended forum to defend the framework deal, which was agreed upon last week by Iran and the six world powers, including the US. A binding document is to be finalized only in June.

In a calm and measured voice Obama explained that this deal is the best diplomatic option to halt Iran’s nuclear threat.

It would, he said, provide an almost foolproof monitoring system to ensure that Tehran will not produce any nuclear weapons for at least 20 years.

“I have been very clear that Iran will not get a nuclear weapon on my watch,” Obama said.

“They should understand that we mean it.”

Only hours earlier, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to the American people on three major networks – CNN, NBC and ABC. He warned that the deal is dangerous and advocated for increased sanctions instead.

The deal will leave Iran with a capacity to produce material for many nuclear bombs, and “does so by lifting the sanctions pretty much up front,” Netanyahu told NBC.

Obama spent about a quarter of interview attempting to assure Netanyahu and Israelis in general that this deal makes their country and the region safer, particularly since it extends Iran’s breakout time for a nuclear bomb to a year.

Outside of the Iranian leaders, Netanyahu was the only head of state Obama mentioned by name during his discussion with Friedman.

Israel’s safety and the US relationship with Israel, Obama said, are a personal issue for him.

“I have been consistent in saying that our defense of Israel is unshakable,” Obama said.

“I would consider it a failure on my part, a fundamental failure of my presidency, if on my watch, or as a consequence of work I have done, Israel was rendered more vulnerable. That is not just a strategic failure, that would be a moral failure,” Obama said.

“This [the policy disagreement over Israel] has been as hard as anything I do, because of the deep affinities that I feel for the Israeli people and for the Jewish people.

“It has been personally difficult for me to hear expressions that somehow this administration has not done everything it could to look out for Israel’s interests,” Obama said.

It was upsetting as well, Obama said, to hear “suggestions that when we have very serious policy differences, that is not in the context of a deep and abiding friendship and concern and understanding of the threats that the Jewish people have faced historically and continue to face. That is something that I feel deeply and personally.”

Israel has a right to defend itself, Obama said, and added that the US has supported that right, particularly by providing the Iron Dome system that shot down Hamas rockets during last summer’s Gaza war.

“We do not have a greater ally than Israel in the Middle East.

I have instructed my team to work with the Israelis to build on the already unprecedented military intelligence cooperation that is in place,” Obama said.

America’s core interests in the Middle East are not based on oil or territorial strategic concerns, Obama said. “Our core interests are that everyone is living in peace, that it is orderly, that our allies are not being attacked, that children are not having barrel bombs dropped on them and that massive displacements are not taking place. Our interests are just making sure that the region is working,” Obama said.

“If it’s working well, we will do fine,” he said.

Preventing Iran from producing nuclear weapons will help stabilize the region, Obama said. The US is strong enough, he said, that it can afford the risks associated with the diplomatic deal that was worked out last week.

But he understands, he said, that it leaves Israel feeling vulnerable.

“This is a regime that at the highest levels has expressed a desire to destroy Israel, that has denied the Holocaust, that has expressed venomous anti-Semitic ideas and is a big country, with a big population and has a sophisticated military,” Obama said.

“So Israel is right to be concerned about Iran. They should be absolutely concerned that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon,” Obama said.

“What I would say to the Israeli people, however, is that there is no formula, there is no option to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon that will be more effective than the diplomatic initiative and framework that we have put forward.

That is demonstrable,” Obama said.

“We know that a military strike or a series of military strikes can set back Iran’s nuclear program for a period of time, but almost certainly will prompt Iran to rush toward a bomb, will provide an excuse for hard-liners inside Iran to say, ‘This is what happens when you do not have a nuclear bomb: America attacks,’” Obama said.

“We know that if we do nothing other than maintain sanctions, that they will continue with the building of their nuclear infrastructure and we’ll have less insight into what exactly is happening,” Obama said.

“In a perfect world, Iran would say, ‘We won’t have any nuclear infrastructure at all,’ but what we know is that this has become a matter of pride and nationalism for Iran. Even those who we consider moderates and reformers are supportive of some nuclear program inside of Iran, and given that they will not capitulate completely, given that they can’t meet the threshold that Prime Minister Netanyahu sets forth, there are no Iranian leaders who will do that. And given the fact that this is a country that withstood an eight-year war and a million people dead, they’ve shown themselves willing, I think, to endure hardship when they considered a point of national pride or, in some cases, national survival.”

“For us to examine those options and say to ourselves, ‘You know what, if we can have vigorous inspections, unprecedented, and we know at every point along their nuclear chain exactly what they’re doing and that lasts for 20 years, and for the first 10 years their program is not just frozen but effectively rolled back to a larger degree, and we know that even if they wanted to cheat we would have at least a year, which is about three times longer than we’d have right now, and we would have insights into their programs that we’ve never had before,’ in that circumstance, the notion that we wouldn’t take that deal right now and that that would not be in Israel’s interest is simply incorrect,” the president said.

“Now, what you might hear from Prime Minister Netanyahu, which I respect, is the notion, ‘Look, Israel is more vulnerable. We don’t have the luxury of testing these propositions the way you do,’ and I completely understand that.

And further, I completely understand Israel’s belief that given the tragic history of the Jewish people, they can’t be dependent solely on us for their own security,” Obama said.

“But what I would say to them is that not only am I absolutely committed to making sure that they maintain their qualitative military edge, and that they can deter any potential future attacks, but what I’m willing to do is to make the kinds of commitments that would give everybody in the neighborhood, including Iran, a clarity that if Israel were to be attacked by any state, that we would stand by them. And that, I think, should be... sufficient to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see whether or not we can at least take the nuclear issue off the table,” Obama said.

On Israel being a “wedge issue” between the Democratic and Republican parties in US politics, Obama said it is important for Israel to remain above partisan politics.

“Israel is a robust, rowdy democracy just like ours, and there are very few countries in the world where we share so much. We share blood, family, the cultural ties that are unequaled. And 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,” Obama said.

“There has to be the ability for me to disagree with a policy on settlements, for example, without being viewed in some fashion as opposing Israel.

There has to be a way for Prime Minister Netanyahu to disagree with me on policy without being viewed as anti-Democrat,” Obama said.

“I think the right way to do it is to recognize that as many commonalities as we have, there are going to be strategic differences here. I think that it is important for each side to respect the debate that takes place in the other country and not just work with one side,” Obama said.

Friedman asked the president if there is an “Obama doctrine” with regard to the president’s decision to “break free from long-standing US policies isolating Burma, Cuba, and Iran.”

Asked whether there is a common denominator between his approaches to these countries, Obama said his view is that engagement combined with meeting core strategic needs could serve American interests for these three countries far better than endless sanctions and isolation. But Obama added that as a part of this approach, the US, “with its overwhelming power, needs to have the self-confidence to take some calculated risks to open important new possibilities.”

“We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk. And that’s the thing...

people don’t seem to understand,” the president said. “You take a country like Cuba. For us to test the possibility that engagement leads to a better outcome for the Cuban people, there aren’t that many risks for us. It’s a tiny little country.

It’s not one that threatens our core security interests, and so [there’s no reason not] to test the proposition. And if it turns out that it doesn’t lead to better outcomes, we can adjust our policies. The same is true with respect to Iran, a larger country, a dangerous country, one that has engaged in activities that resulted in the death of US citizens, but the truth of the matter is: Iran’s defense budget is $30 billion. Our defense budget is closer to $600b. Iran understands that they cannot fight us.”

“You asked about an Obama doctrine. The doctrine is: We will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities,” Obama told Friedman.

Obama said that Iran may change, and if it doesn’t, “our military superiority stays in place.... We’re not relinquishing our capacity to defend ourselves or our allies.”

The president said because of the US’s military superiority, “why wouldn’t we test” resolving the Iranian nuclear issue diplomatically?

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