Only hours after the conclusion of an agreement with Iran to lift oil and financial sanctions in return for curbs on Iran’s nuclear capabilities, President Barack Obama is a man who evinces no second thoughts whatsoever about the deal he struck.
In a 45-minute interview in the Cabinet room, the president kept stressing one argument: Don’t judge me on whether this deal transforms Iran, ends Iran’s aggressive behavior toward some of its Arab neighbors or leads to détente between Shiites and Sunnis. Judge me on one thing: Does this deal prevent Iran from breaking out with a nuclear weapon for the next 10 years and is that a better outcome for America, Israel and our Arab allies than any other alternative on the table?
The president made clear to me that he did not agree with my assessment in a column two weeks ago that we had not used all the leverage in our arsenal, or alliances, to prevent Iran from becoming a threshold nuclear power, by acquiring a complete independent enrichment infrastructure that has the potential to undermine the global nuclear nonproliferation regime.
Personally, I want more time to study the deal, hear from the nonpartisan experts, listen to what the Iranian leaders tell their own people and hear what credible alternative strategies the critics have to offer. But the president certainly argued his case with a conviction and internal logic with which his critics and Congress will have to seriously contend.
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“We are not measuring this deal by whether it is changing the regime inside of Iran,” said the president. “We’re not measuring this deal by whether we are solving every problem that can be traced back to Iran, whether we are eliminating all their nefarious activities around the globe. We are measuring this deal - and that was the original premise of this conversation, including by Prime Minister Netanyahu - Iran could not get a nuclear weapon. That was always the discussion. And what I’m going to be able to say, and I think we will be able to prove, is that this by a wide margin is the most definitive path by which Iran will not get a nuclear weapon, and we will be able to achieve that with the full cooperation of the world community and without having to engage in another war in the Middle East.”
To sell this deal to a skeptical Congress, Obama clearly has to keep his argument tight. But I suspect his legacy on this issue will ultimately be determined by whether the deal does, in the long run, help transform Iran, defuse the U.S.-Iran cold war and curtail the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East - not foster their proliferation. That, though, will be a long time in determining. For the near term, the deal’s merit will be judged on whether Iran implements the rollback of its nuclear enrichment capabilities to which it has agreed and whether the deeply intrusive international inspection system it has accepted can detect - and thereby deter - any cheating.
Here are some highlights from the interview:
Asked about whether we failed to use all of our leverage, including a credible threat of force, the president said: “I think that criticism is misguided. Let’s see exactly what we obtained. We have cut off every pathway for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. The reason we were able to unify the world community around the most effective sanctions regime we’ve ever set up, a sanction regime that crippled the Iranian economy and ultimately brought them to the table, was because the world agreed with us, that it would be a great danger to the region, to our allies, to the world, if Iran possessed a nuclear weapon. We did not have that kind of global consensus around the notion that Iran can’t enjoy any nuclear power whatsoever. And as a member of the nonproliferation treaty, the NPT, their argument was, ‘We’re entitled to have a peaceful nuclear program.’
”And what we were able to do,” the president continued, “is to say to them, ‘Given your past behavior, given our strong suspicion and evidence that you made attempts to weaponize your nuclear program, given the destabilizing activities that you’ve engaged in in the region and support for terrorism, it’s not enough for us to trust when you say that you are only creating a peaceful nuclear program. You have to prove it to us.’ And so this whole system that we built is not based on trust, it’s based on a verifiable mechanism, whereby every pathway that they have is shut off.”
The president argued that his approach grew out of the same strategic logic that Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan used to approach the Soviet Union and China.
“You know, I have a lot of differences with Ronald Reagan, but where I completely admire him was his recognition that if you were able to verify an agreement that (was negotiated) with the evil empire that was hellbent on our destruction and was a far greater existential threat to us than Iran will ever be,” then it would be worth doing, Obama said. “I had a lot of disagreements with Richard Nixon, but he understood there was the prospect, the possibility, that China could take a different path. You test these things, and as long as we are preserving our security capacity - as long as we are not giving away our ability to respond forcefully, militarily, where necessary to protect our friends and our allies - that is a risk we have to take. It is a practical, common-sense position. It’s not naive; it’s a recognition that if we can in fact resolve some of these differences, without resort to force, that will be a lot better for us and the people of that region.”
Asked if he believed that, given the depth of Iran’s civil society, which in 2009 launched a “green revolution” challenging clerical rule, the forces there for greater integration with the world would be empowered by this deal, the president said:
”With respect to Iran, it is a great civilization, but it also has an authoritarian theocracy in charge that is anti-American, anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic, sponsors terrorism, and there are a whole host of real profound differences that we (have with) them,” said the president. “And so, initially, we have a much more modest goal here, which is to make sure Iran does not have a nuclear weapon. . What’s interesting, if you look at what’s happened over the last several months, is the (Iranian) opponents of this deal are the hard-liners and those who are most invested in Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism, most invested in destabilizing Iran’s neighbors, most virulently anti-American and anti-Israeli. And that should tell us something, because those hard-liners are invested in the status quo in which Iran is isolated, and they are empowered. They become the only game in town. Not just militarily they call the shots, but economically, they’re able to exploit the workarounds from sanctions in order to fatten themselves in a situation in which you have a different base of business people and commerce inside of Iran that may change how they think about the cost and benefits of these destabilizing activities.
“But we’re not counting on that,” the president stressed, “and that’s the thing I want to emphasize, because even over the last several weeks and today, as we announce the deal, what’s been striking to me is that, increasingly, the critics are shifting off the nuclear issue, and they’re moving into, ‘Well, even if the nuclear issue is dealt with, they’re still going to be sponsoring terrorism, and they’re going to get this sanctions relief. And so they’re going to have more money to engage in these bad activities.’ That is a possibility, and we are going to have to systematically guard against that and work with our allies - the Gulf countries, Israel - to stop the work that they are doing outside of the nuclear program. But the central premise here is that if they got a nuclear weapon, that would be different, and on that score, we have achieved our objective.”
Asked if Russian President Vladimir Putin was a help or a hindrance in concluding this deal, Obama said: “Russia was a help on this. I'll be honest with you. I was not sure given the strong differences we are having with Russia right now around Ukraine, whether this would sustain itself. Putin and the Russian government compartmentalized on this in a way that surprised me, and we would have not achieved this agreement had it not been for Russia’s willingness to stick with us and the other P5-Plus members in insisting on a strong deal. I was encouraged by the fact that Mr. Putin called me a couple of weeks ago and initiated the call to talk about Syria. I think they get a sense that the Assad regime is losing a grip over greater and greater swaths of territory inside of Syria (to Sunni jihadi militias) and that the prospects for a (Sunni jihadi) takeover or rout of the Syrian regime is not imminent but becomes a greater and greater threat by the day. That offers us an opportunity to have a serious conversation with them.”
My biggest concern and that of many serious critics who would actually like to see a deal work is that Iran is just not afraid of a serious U.S. military retaliation if it cheats. I asked the president, Why should the Iranians be afraid of us?
”Because we could knock out their military in speed and dispatch if we chose to,” said the president, “and I think they have seen my willingness to take military action where I thought it was important for U.S. interests. Now, I actually believe that they are interested in trying to operate on parallel levels to be able to obtain the benefits of international legitimacy, commerce, reduction of sanctions while still operating through proxies in destructive ways around the region. That’s been their pattern, and I think it is very important to us to make sure that we are surfacing what they do through their proxies and calling them into account. That is part of the conversation we have to have with the Gulf countries.”
With such a crowded pool of Republican presidential candidates competing over the right-wing base, it seems unlikely the president will get much support for this deal from GOP members of Congress.
“I think it’s doubtful that we get a lot of current Republican elected officials supporting this deal,” Obama said. “I think there’s a certain party line that has to be toed, within their primaries and among many sitting members of Congress. But that’s not across the board. It'll be interesting to see what somebody like a Rand Paul has to say about this. But I think that if I were succeeded by a Republican president - and I'll be doing everything that I can to prevent that from happening - but if I were, that Republican president would be in a much stronger position than I was when I came into office, in terms of constraining Iran’s nuclear program.
“He will be in a position to know that 98 percent of their nuclear material has been shipped out. He would know that the majority of the centrifuges had been removed. He would know that there is no heavy reactor there. He’d know that the international community had signed on to this. He would know everything that we’ve learned from the inspection regime. And he’d still be in possession of the entire arsenal of our armed forces, and our diplomatic and intelligence services, to deal with the possibility that Iran was cheating. …
“They’re not going to admit that now. And that’s entirely hypothetical, because I feel good about having a Democratic successor. But I think that this builds on bipartisan ideas, bipartisan efforts. We could not have succeeded without the strong support of Congress on a bipartisan basis to impose the sanctions we did on Iran. They deserve enormous credit for that. And as we implement this I think it will prove to be not just good for us but good for the world.”
The president spoke to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel by phone just before the start of the interview. Obama did not try to sugarcoat their differences, but he hinted that his administration has in the works some significant strategic upgrades for both Israel and America’s Gulf allies.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to discuss specific details about security agreements or work that we may be doing,” said the president. “What I can tell you is that that process is in train. Now, with respect to the Israelis, I think it’s fair to say that under my administration, we’ve done more to facilitate Israeli capabilities. And I’ve also said that I’m prepared to go further than any other administration’s gone before in terms of providing them additional security assurances from the United States. The thing I want to emphasize is that people’s concerns here are legitimate. Hezbollah has tens of thousands of missiles that are pointed toward Israel. They are becoming more sophisticated. The interdiction of those weapon flows has not been as successful as it needs to be. There are legitimate concerns on the part of the Gulf countries about Iran trying to stir up and prompt destabilizing events inside their countries. So they’re not just being paranoid. Iran is acting in an unconstructive way, in a dangerous way in these circumstances. What I’ve simply said is that we have to keep our eye on the ball here, which is that Iran with a nuclear weapon will do more damage, and we will be in a much worse position to prevent it.”
The president argues that preventing Iran from having any enrichment capacity is simply impossible. The key, he insists, is how well you curb it and verify its limitations: “Now, Prime Minister Netanyahu would prefer, and many of the critics would prefer, that they don’t even have any nuclear capacity. But really, what that involves is eliminating the presence of knowledge inside of Iran. Nuclear technology is not that complicated today, and so the notion that the yardstick for success was now whether they ever had the capacity possibly to obtain nuclear weapons - that can’t be the yardstick. The question is: Do we have the kind of inspection regime and safeguards and international consensus whereby it’s not worth it for them to do it? We have accomplished that.”
The president said he knows he is going to have a fight on his hands with Netanyahu and those in Congress who share the prime minister’s views, but he seemed confident that in the end he would prevail.
Netanyahu, Obama said, “perhaps thinks he can further influence the congressional debate, and I’m confident we’re going to be able to uphold this deal and implement it without Congress preventing that. But after that’s done, if that’s what he thinks is appropriate, then I will sit down, as we have consistently throughout my administration, and then ask some very practical questions: How do we prevent Hezbollah from acquiring more sophisticated weapons? How do we build on the success of Iron Dome, which the United States worked with Israel to develop and has saved Israeli lives? In the same way I’m having conversation with the Gulf countries about how do we have a more effective interdiction policy, how do we build more effective governance structures and military structures in Sunni areas that have essentially become a void that (the Islamic State) has filled or that, in some cases, Iranian activities can exploit?”
The president added: “And what I’ve also tried to explain to people, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, is that in the absence of a deal, our ability to sustain these sanctions was not in the cards. Keep in mind it’s not just Iran that paid a price for sanctions. China. Japan. South Korea. India - pretty much any oil importer around the world that had previous import arrangements from Iran - found themselves in a situation where this was costing them billions of dollars to sustain these sanctions.
“In some ways, the United States paid the lowest price for maintenance of sanctions, because we didn’t do business with Iran in the first place. They made a significant sacrifice. The reason they did was because my administration, our diplomats, and oftentimes me personally, were able to persuade them that the only way to resolve this nuclear problem was to make these sanctions bite. And if they saw us walking away from what technical experts believe is a legitimate mechanism to ensure that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon - if they saw that our diplomatic efforts were not sincere, or were trying to encompass not just the nuclear program, but every policy disagreement that we might have with Iran, then frankly, those sanctions would start falling apart very rapidly. And so, maybe Iran wouldn’t get $150 billion, but they’d get a big chunk of that, because we would not be able to sustain that support.”
It strikes me that the one party that we have heard the least from, but in the end could count the most, is the Iranian people and how they ultimately react to this opening of Iran to the world as a result of this deal. What would Obama say to them?
”What I’d say to them is this offers a historic opportunity,” the president said. “Their economy has been cratering as a consequence of the sanctions. They have the ability now to take some decisive steps to move toward a more constructive relationship with the world community. . They need to seize that opportunity, their leaders need to seize that opportunity. And the truth of the matter is that Iran will be and should be a regional power. They are a big country and a sophisticated country in the region. They don’t need to invite the hostility and the opposition of their neighbors by their behavior. It’s not necessary for them to be great to denigrate Israel or threaten Israel or engage in Holocaust denial or anti-Semitic activity. Now that’s what I would say to the Iranian people. Whether the Iranian people have sufficient influence to fundamentally shift how their leaders think about these issues, time will tell.”
Maybe, I suggested, it was time for the U.S. to launch a new peace process - between Sunni Arab Saudi Arabia and Shiite Persian Iran. After all, without some lowering of tensions between the two any empowerment of Iran is only going to increase tensions between these two historic rivals, whose internecine war is tearing the region apart.
“I have long believed that we have to encourage at least a lessening of the hostilities that currently exist between Shia and Sunni factions in the region,” Obama responded. “Now, I think when I talked to my Gulf allies when we were at Camp David, they’d be very clear in saying that ‘We view ourselves as Arab nations, not Sunni and Shia,' and I think they mean that sincerely. And many of them would say that our Shia citizens are full citizens and are treated fairly, but what I think is undeniable is that the sectarian forces that have been unleashed are adding to the viciousness and destructiveness of what’s happening in a place like Syria, what’s happening in a place like Yemen, what’s happening certainly in Iraq. And that our best chance at at least reducing the scope of those conflicts is for the Saudis and other Sunni states or Arab states to be at least in a practical conversation with Iran that says, ‘The conflict we are fanning right now could engulf us all in flames.’
”Nobody has an interest in seeing (the Islamic State) control huge swaths of territory between Damascus and Baghdad. That’s not good for Iran. It makes it very difficult for them to sustain a buffer, which has always been a significant motivator for them since the Iraq-Iran war. It’s not good for the Saudis. It leaves them vulnerable in all sorts of ways, and the truth of the matter is that, most importantly, it’s not good for the people there. You watch the news reports preceding the Arab Spring, but certainly since the Arab Spring started to turn into more an Arab Winter, and you weep for the children of this region, not just the ones who are being displaced in Syria, not just the ones who are currently suffering from humanitarian situations in Yemen, but just the ordinary Iranian youth or Saudi youth or Kuwaiti youth who are asking themselves, ‘Why is it that we don’t have the same prospects that some kid in Finland, Singapore, China, Indonesia, the United States? Why aren’t we seeing that same possibility, that same sense of hopefulness?' And I think that’s what the leaders have to really focus on.”
The president also said: “America has to listen to our Sunni Arab allies, but also not fall into the trap of letting them blame every problem on Iran. The citizens of more than a few Arab Gulf states have been big contributors to Sunni Jihadist movements that have been equally destabilizing.
“In some cases, for example, the Houthis in Yemen, I think Iranian involvement has been initially overstated,” said Obama. “When we see our intelligence, we don’t get a sense that Iran was strategically thinking, ‘Let’s march the Houthis into Sanaa.’ It was more of an indicator of the weakness of the government in Yemen. They now seek to exploit it. Oftentimes, they’re opportunistic. That’s part of the reason why my argument has been to my allies in the region, let’s stop giving Iran opportunities for mischief. Strengthen your own societies. Be inclusive. Make sure that your Shia populations don’t feel as if they’re being left out. Think about the economic growth. Make sure that we’ve got better military capacity for things like interdiction. The more we do those things, that’s the level of deterrence that’s necessary because it is highly unlikely that you are going to see Iran launch a direct attack, state to state, against any of our allies in the region. They know that that would give us the rationale to go in full-bore, and as I said, we could knock out most of their military capacity pretty quickly.”
I noted to Obama that one of the issues most troubling nonpartisan critics of the deal is what happens if we suspect that Iran is operating a covert nuclear program at a military base not covered by this deal. There is a process in place that allows for inspections, but it could take more than three weeks for international inspectors to get access after raising a complaint. Couldn’t Iran use that time to just scrub clean any signs of cheating?
”Yeah, but here’s where having somebody like (Energy Secretary) Ernie Moniz is pretty helpful, because he assured us that if, in fact, we have good mechanisms to scoop up and sample earth, this stuff has got a long half-life. My high school physics probably isn’t equal to Ernie Moniz’s, but I do remember it’s not that easy to suddenly just hide potentially radioactive material that’s been developed. The same is true, by the way, for the possibility that Iran might import materials that could be used for nuclear programs but might have a dual use. We’ve set up unprecedented mechanisms to be able to look at each one of those imports and say, ‘You got to show us how this is being used to ensure that it’s not being converted.’”
The president added: “If you hear a critic say, ‘Well, this inspection regime is not 100 percent foolproof,' I guess theoretically, nothing is 100 percent foolproof. But if the standard is what is the best, most effective, most rigorous mechanism whereby it is very, very, very difficult for Iran to cheat, then this is the mechanism, and it goes far beyond anything that was done, for example, in North Korea.”
In conclusion, I noted to Obama that he was now the U.S. president who’d had the most contact with Iran’s leadership since the 1979 Islamic Revolution there and the onset of the U.S.-Iran cold war. What had he learned?
”Well, I haven’t learned yet to trust the Iranian leadership,” said Obama, “although I think that what John Kerry learned in his interactions with Foreign Minister Zarif - and that then traces back to President Rouhani - is that when you nail down an agreement, they do seem to follow it to the letter, perhaps thinking there may be a loophole here or there, which is why you have to button this stuff down. But the notion that once you put something down on paper that somehow they’re just going to ignore it and try to pocket what they’ve gained, that’s not what we saw during the last two years of the interim agreement. There is, I think, restraints that they feel when they have an agreement and they have a document, that they need to abide by it. So I think we’ve learned that.
“I think that we’ve also learned that there are different voices and different forces inside of Iran and that those may not be consistent with our values. The so-called moderate in Iran is not going to be suddenly somebody who we feel reflects universal issues like human rights, but there are better or worse approaches that Iran can take relative to our interests and the interests of our allies, and we should see where we can encourage that better approach.
“And then I think the last thing that - this is maybe not something I’ve learned but has been confirmed - even with your enemies, even with your adversaries, I do think that you have to have the capacity to put yourself occasionally in their shoes, and if you look at Iranian history, the fact is that we had some involvement with overthrowing a democratically elected regime in Iran. We have had in the past supported Saddam Hussein when we know he used chemical weapons in the war between Iran and Iraq, and so, as a consequence, they have their own security concerns, their own narrative. It may not be one we agree with. It in no way rationalizes the kinds of sponsorship from terrorism or destabilizing activities that they engage in, but I think that when we are able to see their country and their culture in specific terms, historical terms, as opposed to just applying a broad brush, that’s when you have the possibility at least of some movement.
“In the same way that when Ronald Reagan and others negotiated arms agreement with the Soviet Union, you had to recognize, yes, this is an evil, terrible system, but within it are people with specific historic ideas and memories, and we have to be able to understand those things and potentially try to make some connection. And the same was true with respect to Nixon and Kissinger going to China, which ended up being a very important strategic benefit to the United States.”
Thomas Friedman writes for The New York Times.