US president says framework is ‘once-in-lifetime’ chance to prevent Iran getting nuclear weapon and pledges to support Israel’s defences.
Barack Obama has answered continuing Israeli criticism of the framework agreement over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, telling the New York Times the deal is a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see whether or not we can at least take the nuclear issue off the table”.
The US president added: “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 put forward – and that’s demonstrable.”
Two days after the announcement of the deal between Iran and the major world powers – achieved in Switzerland after 18 months of talks and which must be finalised by the end of June – Obama spoke to the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman at the White House for an interview that was published online on Sunday.
Earlier in the day the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, who has consistently warned against international accommodation with Iran over its nuclear ambitions, appeared on three US news shows to say the agreement was “a very bad deal”.
“A better deal would roll back Iran’s vast nuclear infrastructure, and require Iran to stop its aggression in the region, its terror worldwide and its calls and actions to annihilate the state of Israel,” Netanyahu said on CNN.
“That’s a better deal. It’s achievable.”
Obama, however, said the Iran deal was part of a broader strategy of engagement, as pursued by his administration with regards to Burma and Cuba.
“If it turns out that it doesn’t lead to better outcomes,” Obama said, “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 defence budget is $30bn. Our defence budget is closer to $600bn.
“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.”
On CNN, Netanyahu said the deal should have included a provision to curtail Iranian efforts to develop an international ballistic missile. “Those missiles are only used for you,” he said, referring to the US. “No one is asking Iran in this deal to stop its aggression in the region.”
In his long and wide-ranging conversation with Friedman, which also touched on other foreign policy concerns such as the rise of Islamic State, Obama repeated that the US remained committed to defending Israel.
“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,’” he said.
“But what I would say to [Israel] is that not only am I absolutely committed to making sure that they maintain their qualitative military edge … but what I’m willing to do is to make the kinds of commitments that would give everybody in the neighbourhood, including Iran, a clarity that if Israel were to be attacked by any state, that we would stand by them.”
Obama repeated the analysis of US options over Iran’s nuclear ambitions that he had given in the Rose Garden of the White House on Thursday and in his weekly address to the nation on Saturday: that military action or doing nothing would not have worked as well as a diplomatic solution.
“We know that a military strike or a series of military strikes can set back Iran’s nuclear programme for a period of time,” he said, “but almost certainly will prompt Iran to rush towards a bomb, will provide an excuse for hardliners inside of Iran to say, ‘This is what happens when you don’t have a nuclear weapon: America attacks.’
“We know that if we do nothing, other than just maintain sanctions, that they will continue with the building of their nuclear infrastructure and we’ll have less insight into what exactly is happening.”
The president also discussed the impact of the Iran deal on domestic US politics, an arena in which Netanyahu made an impact with a controversial speech to Congress last month and in which Republicans are pursuing an extremely hard line.
“There has to be the ability for me to disagree with a policy on settlements, for example, without being viewed as … opposing Israel,” Obama said. “There has to be a way for Prime Minister Netanyahu to disagree with me on policy without being viewed as anti-Democrat.”
Asked about Republican attempts to secure congressional approval of the framework agreement with Iran, and thus potentially to sabotage it, Obama said he was intent on preserving the presidential prerogative to negotiate with foreign powers unfettered by Congress. But he was conciliatory towards Senator Bob Corker, the chair of the intelligence committee who has sponsored legislation on the issue.
Also on Sunday, talking to Fox News Sunday, Corker – who was not among the 47 Republican senators who signed a controversial open letter to Iran last month – said the deal with Iran simply needed to be scrutinised.
“I don’t know how anyone could ascertain at this point whether this is good or bad for the American citizenry,” he said. “On behalf of the American people, Congress needs to be playing a role.”
Obama told the New York Times his hope was “that we can find something that allows Congress to express itself but does not encroach on traditional presidential prerogatives”.
Recourse: The Guardian, April 6, 2015