Obama: Military strike could lead Iran to 'pursue nukes more vigorously'

US President urges Congress to hold off on new sanctions, but still "leaving all options on the table."

Obama at White House 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
Obama at White House 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama said Thursday that no matter how powerful the American military, a strike against nuclear facilities in Iran could lead the Islamic Republic to “pursue even more vigorously nuclear weapons in the future.”
“No matter how good our military is, military options are always messy,” Obama said. “Any armed conflict has cost to it.”
At a press conference in the West Wing of the White House, Obama, speaking primarily about changes to his signature health care law, said he hoped Congress would hold off on new sanctions against Iran as negotiations proceeded in Geneva – “if, in fact, we’re serious about trying to resolve this diplomatically.”
“Our policy is, Iran cannot have nuclear weapons,” he said, “and I’m leaving all options on the table.”
The new sanctions bill, currently being considered by the Senate Banking Committee, could see a markup this week – the last procedural motion before reaching the chamber floor for a vote.
“I know a little bit about sanctions, because we set them up,” Obama said, noting that his administration had “mobilized the entire international community” to enforce punishing financial restrictions on Iran since 2010.
Obama said he hopes the deal being forged in Geneva – which will offer Iran modest sanctions relief “at the margins” of the core sanctions regimen – will challenge Iran to agree to a final-status commitment without a fixed time period.
“What that gives us is the opportunity to test how serious are they,” he said, adding: “If it turns out six months from now that they’re not serious, we can crank those sanctions right back up.”
At about the same time Obama was speaking in Washington, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu urged again in Jerusalem for the sanctions pressure to continue.
Netanyahu, speaking to Masa participants, said he was not impressed by an International Atomic Energy Agency report issued Thursday saying the Iranians have slammed the brakes on their nuclear program since the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in June.
“I am not impressed with reports that we hear that Iran has not expanded its nuclear facilities and the reason for that is they don’t need to,” Netanyahu said. “They’ve got enough facilities, enough centrifuges to develop and to complete the fissile material which is at the core of an atomic bomb.”
According to the report, Iran has only installed four new centrifuges in the past three months, compared to 1,800 centrifuges in the three months prior to Rouhani’s election.
Netanyahu said the question was not whether the Iranians are expanding their program, but rather how to stop it entirely.
To achieve this, he said, there is a need to continue the sanctions pressure on Iran.
The IAEA report said the Iranians, with 196 kilograms of high-grade uranium, were still a good distance from the 250 kilograms of 20% enriched uranium that Netanyahu stipulated in the UN in 2012 would constitute his red line.
In a television interview on Thursday morning, US Secretary of State John Kerry directly addressed concerns aired by Netanyahu that the proposed interim deal – backed by France, the UK, Russia, China as well as the US – is a “very, very bad deal.”
“I respect completely [Netanyahu’s] deep concerns, as a prime minister should have about the existential nature of this threat to Israel,” Kerry said. “We believe that you need to take the first step, and that you will not get Iran to simply surrender and believe you’re dealing in good faith if, after two years of negotiating, you don’t follow through with what’s on the table.”
The secretary’s comments echoed part of the president’s statement later in the day, in which he said that resolving “the entire problem all at once... has never been realistic.”
“Mr. Netanyahu believes that you can increase the sanctions, put the pressure on even further, and that somehow this is going to force them to do what they haven’t been willing to do any time previously,” Kerry added.
Despite the aggressive push from the White House, leadership in the US Senate remained unconvinced Thursday of the need to hold off on the new sanctions legislation.
After briefing the Senate Banking Committee in a closed door session with Vice President Joseph Biden, Kerry said that an attempt to move forward with sanctions at this time could lead Iran to drop out of the negotiations.
Nevertheless, one senator, Mark Kirk, is threatening to attach an amendment to the must-pass, omnibus National Defense Authorization Act – set for a floor vote next week – if the chairman of the Banking Committee fails to order a markup of the new sanctions bill before that time.
“It was a very unsatisfying briefing,” said Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Whether the sanctions bill in the Senate is treated as an independent resolution or an amendment to NDAA, the language will not see a vote without Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a close ally of the president, choosing to give it one. Only then will it go through a months-long committee process to merge with a different version of the bill in the House of Representatives.
And even at that point, the president retains veto power over any bill.
The last time an NDAA was vetoed was by President George W. Bush, after a Democratic senator attached a controversial bill to the package concerning the US prison facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Israeli ministers, meanwhile, did not shy away Thursday from continuing to criticize the US – especially Kerry – for its policy on negotiations with Iran.
Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan said he was “astounded” to hear Kerry slam Netanyahu earlier this week for his criticism of the negotiations.
“I was astounded to hear Kerry’s remarks about why the prime minister is criticizing the agreement being formulated in Geneva without waiting for it to be signed,” he said during a speech at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “I have not heard such a claim for many years; this is a country that wants to destroy Israel and [get the] conditions that will enable it to carry out its wishes. What do they expect from an Israeli prime minister? Not to cry out when the knife is in the hand, but only when it is across our throat?”
Erdan said it was the public discussion about the terms of the deal being worked out behind closed doors in Geneva that led to a by the failure of the P5+1 and Iran to sign an agreement Saturday night, giving Israel “an additional delay of several days and perhaps even an improvement in the terms of the agreement.”
“Iranian Foreign Minister [Javad] Zarif and his cohorts are going around Geneva and it is impossible to wipe the smiles off their faces,” he said.
“Even they cannot really believe the ease with which they have succeeded in wrecking the sanctions regime.
“We must not be mistaken – an interim agreement will be a permanent agreement,” he continued. “All those involved in the agreement must understand that the moment Iran becomes a nuclear threshold state an arms race will begin in the Middle East and regional uncertainty will increase.”
Erdan’s criticism came a day after Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz publicly challenged US claims that the sanctions relief offered to Tehran for freezing its nuclear program for six months was “modest,” saying instead that the relief would be worth between $20 billion to $40 billion a year.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki dismissed these numbers Wednesday as “inaccurate, exaggerated, and not based in reality.”