Obama makes his case for Iran strategy

Speaking at Saban Forum, US president hails efficacy of sanctions on Iran but says diplomatic resolution of nuclear issue must be tested.

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December 7, 2013 21:41
2 minute read.
Obama at the Saban Forum, December 12, 2013

Obama at Saban 370. (photo credit: SHAHAR AZRAN)

 
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WASHINGTON – Diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear program can achieve greater peace for Israel and the United States than could military action, US President Barack Obama said on Saturday, putting chances for the success of his strategic effort to avoid confrontation at no more than a flip of a coin.

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“Israel cannot contract out its security,” Obama said. But “there are times where I, as president of the United States, am going to have different tactical perspectives than the prime minister of Israel.”

Speaking to the Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum, the US president explained some of the greatest gaps that still exist between himself and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who continues to chide the short-term deal reached between world powers and Iran last month that effectively halts the progress of Iran’s nuclear enrichment.

The White House does not trust the Iranian government any more than it did before, Obama said. But he also warned against “underestimating” the shift that occurred in Iranian politics upon the election of Hassan Rouhani last spring.

“The Iranian people responded by saying, we need a new direction,” Obama said. “That’s what brought President Rouhani to power. He was not necessarily the first choice among the hard-liners in Iran.” While “we have to assume that his ideology is one that is hostile to the United States and Israel,” he continued, “we should not underestimate, or entirely dismiss, a shift in how the Iranian people want to interact with the world.”

The fundamental difference in view between himself and Netanyahu, Obama said, was that the Israeli leader believes that the constant mounting of pressure will ultimately lead the Iranians to cave. But no party in the political spectrum in Tehran will tolerate anything but a “dignified solution” to the conflict, Obama said.

“One of the things we were always concerned about was, if we did not show good faith to resolve this diplomatically, then the sanctions regime would fray,” he said, explaining fears that international partners would buckle at the implementation of further financial penalties.

“We provide a small window,” he said.

And if the deal expires, “we could reverse them. And tighten them even further.”

Repeatedly, the president asked the audience to compare the deal that was cut in Geneva to alternative options. And yet when directly asked what it would take for him to order a strike, he declined to answer, only pointing to his willingness in the cases of Libya, Syria and against Osama bin Laden to order risky assaults.

“But that was yesterday. What have you done for me lately?” Obama quipped on the attitudes of his critics. He reiterated America’s commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring a weapon and said that he reserved the option of using military force.

“If, on the other hand, we’re able to get this deal done,” he added, “then what we can achieve through a diplomatic solution... is simply greater.”

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