Obama to Israel Hayom: 50% chance of deal with Iran
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the 10th annual Saban Forum on Saturday, defending the interim nuclear deal with Iran • Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz: Iran must not have any capability to enrich uranium or to produce plutonium.
Boaz Bismuth, Shlomo Cesana, Hezi Sternlicht, Reuters and Israel Hayom Staff
U.S. President Barack Obama at the Saban Forum
Photo credit: AFP
Haim Saban with U.S. President Barack Obama on Saturday
Photo credit: Shahar Ezran
U.S. President Barack Obama at the 10th annual Saban Forum on Saturday defended an interim deal with Iran to curb its nuclear program and, seeking to reassure Israel, pledged to step up sanctions or prepare for a potential military strike if Tehran fails to abide by the pact.
U.S. relations with Israel have been strained by the interim agreement, reached between Iran and major world powers including the United States, which was designed to halt advances in Iran's nuclear program and buy time for negotiations on a final settlement.
The United States says the agreement will give the international community time to see if Tehran is serious about curbing its nuclear ambitions, while providing some relief from sanctions that have crippled its economy.
Israel believes any sanctions relief is a dangerous gift to a country that threatens its very existence, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called the deal reached in Geneva a "historic mistake."
"Ultimately, my goal as President of the United States, something I've said privately and publicly, is to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon," Obama said, speaking with close friend and forum host Haim Saban, and adding that "the best way [to do that] ... is a diplomatic solution."
Obama faced a tough audience of Israelis, who, as a poll showed two weeks ago, have little faith in the American president's negotiations with Iran, with 76.4 percent saying they do not believe the Islamic republic will halt its nuclear program. Saban included this statistic in his first question to Obama. The U.S. President assured him that he, like any other president --Republican or Democrat -- is committed to Israel's security.
Israel Hayom correspondent Boaz Bismuth posed a question to Obama, asking how, while professing loyalty to Israel's security, could the U.S. hold secret talks with Iran without informing Israel.
"The truth is -- without going into details -- is that there weren't a lot of secret negotiations," Obama responded. "Essentially what happened, and we were very clear and transparent about this, is that from the time I took office I said we would reach out to Iran and we would let them know we're prepared to open up a diplomatic channel."
Obama added that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is still a part of the Iranian establishment, and so not trustworthy, but noted that "after Rouhani was elected, there was some acceleration leading up to the U.N. General Assembly. You’ll recall that Rouhani was engaging in what was termed a charm offensive, right, and he was going around talking to folks. And at that point, it made sense for us to see, all right, how serious are you potentially about having these conversations.
"I will say this: The fact of Rhouhani's election -- it's been said that there's no difference between him and Ahmadinejad except that he's more charming. I think that understates the shift in politics that took place in this election. Obviously, Rouhani is part of the Iranian establishment and I think we have to assume that his ideology is one that is hostile to the United States and to Israel. But what he also represents is the desire on the part of the Iranian people for a change of direction. And we should not underestimate or entirely dismiss a shift in how the Iranian people want to interact with the world," Obama said.
"They did not get highly substantive in the first several meetings but were much more exploring how much room, in fact, did they have to get something done. And then as soon as they began to get more technical, at that point, they converged with the P5+1 discussions.
"And we have to be vigilant about maintaining our security postures, not be naive about the dangers that an Iranian regime pose, fight them wherever they’re engaging in terrorism or actions that are hostile to us or our allies," he said. "But we have to not constantly assume that it’s not possible for Iran, like any country, to change over time. It may not be likely. If you asked me what is the likelihood that we’re able to arrive at the end state that I was just describing earlier, I wouldn’t say that it’s more than 50/50. But we have to try."
"If we cannot get the kind of comprehensive end state that satisfies us and the world community ... then the pressure that we've been applying on them and the options that I have made clear I can avail myself of, including a military option, is one that we would consider and prepare for," he said.
Obama said it was unrealistic to believe that Iran would halt and dismantle its nuclear program if the sanctions regime were strengthened and talks were not given a chance to succeed.
Known as a president who ends wars, rather than sending troops to new fronts, Obama proved this stance in Syria and in Libya, where he chose not to get involved until he was left with no other option. In Iran, he is also hoping for a diplomatic solution, even after stressing on Saturday that the Iran deal was "not based on trust," a fact unlikely to calm the Israeli public.
Obama said that "what we can achieve through a diplomatic resolution of this situation is, frankly, greater than what we could achieve with the other options that are available to us." He has never believed in the military option, despite its ability to achieve results.
"Presuming that it's going to be a bad deal and, as a consequence, not even trying for a deal I think would be a dire mistake," Obama said, again directing his comments at a skeptical Israeli government.
"There are times where I, as president of the United States, am going to have different tactical perspectives than the prime minister of Israel -- and that is understandable, because Israel cannot contract out its security. In light of the history that the people of Israel understand all too well, they have to make sure that they are making their own assessments about what they need to do to protect themselves," he said, adding that "ultimately, it is my view, from a tactical perspective, that we have to test out this proposition."
Obama also addressed the issue of sanctions on Iran, saying that "we put in place an unprecedented regime of sanctions that has crippled Iran's economy."
Obama very much wants to see a new Middle East. He also wants to believe in the deal Washington made with Moscow on the Syrian issue, which he cited as proof of the possibility to change things with Iran as well.
Obama reiterated that "it is in America's national security interests, not just Israel's national interests or the region's national security interests, to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon," adding that measures can be taken to tighten sanctions "if and when Iran shows itself not to be abiding by this agreement, not to be negotiating in good faith."
On the subject of Netanyahu's "red line" for Iranian uranium enrichment, Obama said that "he was referring to 20% enrichment, which the concern was if you get too much of that, you now have sufficient capacity to go ahead and create a nuclear weapon. We're taking that down to zero. We are stopping the advancement of the Arak facility, which would provide an additional pathway, a plutonium pathway for the development of nuclear weapons."
He added that "Prime Minister Netanyahu and I have had constant consultations on these issues throughout the last five years. And something that I think bears repeating: The United States military cooperation with Israel has never been stronger. Our intelligence cooperation with Israel has never been stronger. Our support of Israel's security has never been stronger."
Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, in reaction to Obama's remarks, said the two countries needed to resolve their differences on the issue.
"It must be made clear: In the final agreement, Iran must not have the capability to produce nuclear weapons. In order to ensure this, Iran must not have any capability to enrich uranium or to produce plutonium," Steinitz said.
Obama suggested any enrichment capacity left in Iran would be limited.
"It is my strong belief that we can envision an end state that gives us an assurance that even if they have some modest enrichment capability, it is so constrained and the inspections are so intrusive that they, as a practical matter, do not have breakout capacity," he said.
The United States says it will confer closely with Israel about crafting a permanent Iran agreement after the six-month confidence-building period laid out by the Geneva deal.
While pursuing that path, Washington has sought to reinforce its commitment to protecting Israel.
"We will not abide by any threats to our friends and allies in the region, and we've made that perfectly clear. And our commitment to Israel's security is sacrosanct," Obama said.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who spoke at the forum later in the day, said disagreements with Iran would continue on issues including Tehran's support for Lebanese Hezbollah, which the United States deems a "terrorist" group, and for Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"A comprehensive [nuclear] agreement wouldn't solve all our problems with Iran," Kerry said. "Whatever the outcome of the upcoming negotiations, Iran will still have much work to do."
Israeli Regional Development Minister Silvan Shalom, currently in Washington, told Israel Hayom after speaking with Obama that "it's necessary to understand that the Iranians will never abandon their program to acquire a nuclear bomb, which constitutes, from their perspective, insurance for the regime. We cannot forget that U.S. intelligence estimates from 2007 indicating that Iran had given up its nuclear program were incorrect. Israel cannot take any chances, though [Israel] could welcome what Obama said, that if Tehran does not fulfil its obligations, all options remain on the table."
Obama also touched on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, saying that "this is a challenge that we've been wrestling with for 60 years. And what I've consistently said is that the only way this is going to be resolved is if the people of Israel and the Palestinian people make a determination that their futures and the futures of their children and grandchildren will be better off with peace than with conflict. The United States can be an effective facilitator of that negotiation and dialogue; we can help to bridge differences and bridge gaps. But both sides have to want to get there."
Israeli and Palestinian officials resumed U.S.-brokered peace talks on July 29 after a nearly three-year hiatus. At the time, Kerry said the aim was to reach "a final status agreement over the course of the next nine months."
That in effect set the end of April 2014 as a deadline, although U.S. officials have said that was not hard and fast.
"I think it is possible over the next several months to arrive at a framework that does not address every single detail but gets us to a point where everybody recognizes [it's] better to move forward than move backwards," Obama said.
In their remarks, both Obama and Kerry made clear that if a framework agreement were reached next year, there would still be more work to do.
Noting that he returned from his eighth trip this year to Israel on Friday night, Kerry said wryly: "Now I am not a masochist. I am undertaking this because I believe in the possibilities."
Obama said the outlines of a potential peace agreement were clear and he left the door open for a pact that excluded the Gaza Strip, which is now controlled by Hamas Islamists opposed to peace moves by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who controls the West Bank.
Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz said, "With all due respect to the U.S. president, Israel must take care of itself and its security. Obama is talking about an agreement with [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] that won't include Gaza. Oh, come on! We make all the concessions and get rockets from Gaza? Friends, assistance and cooperation, yes. Making concessions over our interests and security, no and no."
Labor MK Omer Bar-Lev welcomed the U.S. president's statements at the Saban Forum in Washington over the weekend, saying, "Israel must accept [Obama's] statements both within the Iranian context and the Palestinian context, wholeheartedly."