STEVE INSKEEP: So many of the concerns and questions about the Iran deal seem to me to focus on what kind of a country you think Iran is.
People are asking, “what will happen in 10 or 15 years as the deal starts to expire,” or they’re asking “what will Iran do in the region during the period of the deal?”
All of those concerns seem to get down to the nature of the government itself, which makes me begin this by asking: Do you believe that Iran’s government is a government that is capable of changing its ways?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Let me flip the question, Steve: I would argue that this deal is the right thing to do for the United States, for our allies in the region and for world peace regardless of the nature of the Iranian regime.
So — so I would actually argue you’re right. People are focused on that.
But this is a good deal if you think Iran’s open to change; it’s also a good deal if you think that Iran is implacably opposed to the United States and the West and our values … and the reason is this:
My goal, when I came into office, was to make sure that Iran did not get a nuclear weapon and thereby trigger a nuclear arms race in the most volatile part of the world. And prior to me coming into office, we had seen Iran’s program go very quickly and have a whole bunch of centrifuges reduce the timeline in which they could break out and obtain a nuclear weapon if they so chose.
And because of the hard diplomatic work that we did internationally, as well as help from Congress, we were able to impose some really significant sanctions, brought them to the table.
We’re now in a position where Iran has agreed to unprecedented inspections and verifications of its program, providing assurances that it is peaceful in nature. You have them rolling back a number of pathways that they currently have available to break out and get a nuclear weapon. You have assurances that their stockpile of highly enriched uranium remains in a place where they cannot create a nuclear weapon.
And that lasts not only for the first 10 years, but the inspections and verifications that are unprecedented go for another decade after that.
Now, ideally, we would see a situation in which Iran, seeing sanctions reduced, would start focusing on its economy, on training its people, on reentering the world community, to lessening its provocative activities in the region.
But if it doesn’t change, we are so much better if we have this deal in place than if we don’t.
And so I’m not trying to avoid your question. I — I think that there are different trends inside of Iran.
I think there are hard-liners inside of Iran that think it is the right thing to do to oppose us, to seek to destroy Israel, to cause havoc in places like Syria or Yemen or Lebanon. And then I think there are others inside Iran who think that this is counterproductive. And it is possible that if we sign this nuclear deal, we strengthen the hand of those more moderate forces inside of Iran.
But the key point I want to make is, the deal is not dependent on anticipating those changes. If they don’t change at all, we’re still better off having the deal.
But you raise a very interesting point there when you’re talking about Iran’s enriched uranium.
Most of its enriched uranium is supposed to be set off to the side and diluted; it may, however, remain inside Iran. Eventually, the deal expires. Perhaps the uranium is still there, which is why…
… where the regime changes is a significant question.
Actually, that’s not how it works, Steve, because once you’ve diluted a process or…
It can’t be…
… stockpiles have — have maintained at 300 kilograms or below, they’re not going to have been able to horde a bunch of uranium that somehow they then convert to weapons-grade uranium.
What is a more relevant fear would be that in year 13, 14, 15, they have advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero.
Keep in mind, though, currently, the breakout times are only about two to three months by our intelligence estimates. So essentially, we’re purchasing for 13, 14, 15 years assurances that the breakout is at least a year … that — that if they decided to break the deal, kick out all the inspectors, break the seals and go for a bomb, we’d have over a year to respond. And we have those assurances for at least well over a decade.
And then in years 13 and 14, it is possible that those breakout times would have been much shorter, but at that point we have much better ideas about what it is that their program involves. We have much more insight into their capabilities. And the option of a future president to take action if in fact they try to obtain a nuclear weapon is undiminished.
So, it’s a hard argument to make that we’re better off right now having almost no breakout period, no insight, and letting them rush towards a bomb, than saying, over the course of 15 years, we have very clear assurances that they’re not going to do anything.
And at that, at the end of that period, maybe they’ve changed, maybe they haven’t. If they haven’t changed, we still have the options available to me — or available to a future president that I have available to me right now.
Obviously, the tradeoff for the concessions on the nuclear program is the lifting of many sanctions against Iran.
This is widely anticipated to cause a lot of economic growth in Iran. Iranian business people are already banking on this. That could very well be good for Iran in the world, but it also raises another question in the minds of many skeptics. How, if at all, can you prevent Iran from using its new wealth over the next several years to support Bashar al-Assad of Syria, to support Hezbollah, adventures in Yemen or elsewhere?
Well, you know, those are relevant issues. And it is true that Iran would not be entering into any deal, I assume, if in fact their economy was not under significant pressure. But that doesn’t mean that if we just apply more pressure, then somehow we get a better deal, which is the logic that’s been put forth by Prime Minister Netanyahu.
I think that, if in fact the Rouhani administration — the forces that are more moderating, even if, let’s acknowledge, that they don’t share our values and they still consider us an enemy — if they are shown to have delivered for their people, presumably it strengthens their hand vis-a-vis some of the hardliners inside of Iran.
They’re not going to be able to suddenly access all the funding that has been frozen all these years. Their economy has been severely weakened. It would slowly and gradually improve. But a lot of that would have to be devoted to improving the lives of the people inside of Iran.
And they have actually cordoned off and been willing to finance their war operations even in the midst of sanctions. I mean, there’s been no lessening of their support of Hezbollah or Assad during the course of the last four or five years, at a time when their economy has been doing terribly.
So, I think that it’s important for us to recognize that, if in fact they’re engaged in international business, and there are foreign investors, and their economy becomes more integrated with the world economy, then in many ways it makes it harder for them to engage in behaviors that are contrary to international norms.
You know, the country that is most isolated in the world is North Korea. I think it would be hard to argue that, by virtue of the fact that they can’t feed their people, and that they are almost entirely cut off from global trade, that that somehow has lessened their capacity for mischief and trouble-making.
You raise a valuable point when you say that if Iranians are doing more business with the world, there will be Iranian business people who will not want sanctions to snap back.
And you have insisted that, in the U.S. version of this agreement, that sanctions would snap back if Iran violates them.
But if there is a disagreement about whether Iran violates them, aren’t you going to face the same problem? There will be American business people and European business people who will be doing business with Iran, who will be making a lot of money, who will be very reluctant to have that happen.
Well, that was true when we first imposed sanctions. But the fact of the matter is that we have been able to build an international consensus that Iran building a nuclear weapon would be extraordinarily dangerous to the region and the world.
And you can do that again?
And — we are absolutely convinced we can do it again, in part because the way we are trying to design the snap-back provisions is that they’re not dependent on absolutely consensus in the Security Council, for example — but that they are triggered by an IAEA identification of a very real problem there, and that a majority of the countries who are concerned, who are involved, have identified this as a real problem.
I want to make sure that…
Now, the details…
… I understand this. Nuclear experts at the International Atomic Energy Agency would make this judgment. It would not be the U.N. Security Council having to vote, with Russia having a veto and so forth.
Well, the — right. We’re not going to make this subject to the typical Security Council where one country can hold out and you can’t get this done.
But these are details that still have to work out — be worked out, Steve. So I don’t want to give the false impression that we have all this resolved.
This is why I have said this is an important first step that we’ve taken. We have a political framework and an understanding, but the devil is in the details, and over the next two to three months we are going to be in a very tough series of negotiations to make sure that the mechanisms we’ve set in place actually work. And, you know, we have experts who have been working on this for decades now who have a pretty clear sense of what would work and what would not.
Undoubtedly, the Iranians are going to have some differences in terms of how we implement all the things that have been discussed in the political framework, and this drafting process is going to be really, really tough.
The analogy I used is it’s sort of like you’ve signed a contract to purchase a home, but you’ve still got the, you know, the appraisal, the inspector, you’ve got to make sure that there isn’t some kind of environmental disaster on the land. And until you actually sign, you know, that mortgage and that document, the deal is not closed.
And so we’ve got this period in which we’ve got to see if we can button down all these issues, whether it’s the issue around sanctions, the issue around advanced centrifuges and how and when they’re deployed, and the kind of research and development that are still being done. Those are the areas where there’s probably been the most contention and where we have to, you know, work very hard in order to complete a deal.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, who you mentioned, has added a demand in recent days. He said that as part of this deal when it’s finalized, Iran should recognize the state of Israel. You’re smiling as I, as I say that.
Diplomats might see that as an obviously inappropriate demand to make in this negotiation, but it sounds reasonable on its face. Many people will find that to be a reasonable. Why not do that?
Well, let me say this — it’s not that the idea of Iran recognizing Israel is unreasonable. It’s completely reasonable and that’s U.S. policy.
And I’ve been very forceful in saying that our differences with Iran don’t change if we make sure that they don’t have a nuclear weapon — they’re still going to be financing Hezbollah, they’re still supporting Assad dropping barrel bombs on children, they are still sending arms to the Houthis in Yemen that have helped destabilize the country. There are obvious differences in how we are approaching fighting ISIL in Iraq, despite the fact that there’s a common enemy there.
So there’s still going to be a whole host of differences between us and Iran, and one of the most profound ones is the vile, anti-Semitic statements that have often come out of the highest levels of the Iranian regime. But the notion that we would condition Iran not getting nuclear weapons, in a verifiable deal, on Iran recognizing Israel is really akin to saying that we won’t sign a deal unless the nature of the Iranian regime completely transforms. And that is, I think, a fundamental misjudgment.
The — I want to return to this point. We want Iran not to have nuclear weapons precisely because we can’t bank on the nature of the regime changing. That’s exactly why we don’t want to have nuclear weapons. If suddenly Iran transformed itself into Germany or Sweden or France, there would be a different set of conversations about their nuclear infrastructure.
So, you know, the key here is not to somehow expect that Iran changes — although it is something that may end up being an important byproduct of this deal — but rather it is to make sure that we have a verifiable deal that takes off the table what would be a game-changer for them if in fact they possess nuclear weapons.
The demand that’s being made there, of course, underlies a broader concern that Israelis have. You’re suggesting implying through this nuclear that Israel must live another 10 or 15 years and longer with a country that is fundamentally opposed to the existence of Israel.
How should Israelis think about Iran in the years to come?
Well look — I think it’s important to recognize that there are a whole host of countries in the Middle East that don’t yet recognize Israel. You know, Israel has peace treaties with Egypt, it has peace treaties with Jordan, but there are other countries where there are obvious tensions between Israel and the Arab world. Some of those are just outgrowths of anti-Semitic sentiment inside the Arab world, some of those are related to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and the lack of resolution there.
But the most important thing for Israelis is to know that they can defend themselves, and that they have America — the world’s most powerful country — there to protect them alongside their military and their intelligence operations.
And as I’ve indicated before, if you look at my track record since I’ve been in office, we have had as much or greater military cooperation and intelligence cooperation with Israel than any previous administration. We have been steadfast in the defense of Israel when it comes to them defending themselves, even when there have been periods of great international controversy.
So what I would say to the Israeli people is, you are right to be suspicious of Iran; there’s no reason why you should let your guard down with respect to Iran. We have to make sure that Israel has the capabilities to protect itself not only from Iran, but also proxies like Hezbollah. But ultimately, Iran is deterrable, and it is deterrable not just because of Israel’s superior military and intelligence capabilities but also because you got a really strong ally in the United States of America.
And if, over time, there’re opportunities in which we see changes in the Iranian regime, all the better. But we don’t have to count on that — we have to make sure that even if Iran doesn’t change, the Israeli people are safe.
Of the many Republican responses to this agreement — one of the most interesting — has come from Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin and possible presidential candidate, who has said in one interview and then expanded in another interview last week his view that, on day one of his administration — were he to be elected — he would revoke this deal. He would withdraw from this deal. He said he would do it even if U.S. allies wanted to remain in the deal.
If you conclude a deal and Congress has not formalized it, will that, as a practical matter, be within the power of the next president — to withdraw from the deal on day one?
Keep in mind, Steve, that there is long precedent for a whole host of international agreements in which there’s not a formal treaty ratified by Congress, by the Senate — in fact, the majority of agreements that we enter into around the world of that nature, including those in which we make sure that our men and women in uniform, when they’re overseas, aren’t subject to the criminal jurisdiction of those countries.
And, you know, I am confident that any president who gets elected will be knowledgeable enough about foreign policy and knowledgeable enough about the traditions and precedents of presidential power that they won’t start calling to question the capacity of the executive branch of the United States to enter into agreements with other countries. If that starts being questioned, that’s going to be a problem for our friends and that’s going to embolden our enemies.
And it would be a foolish approach to take, and, you know, perhaps Mr. Walker, after he’s taken some time to bone up on foreign policy, will feel the same way.
Last thing I want to ask you about, Mr. President.
You are preparing to travel to Central America for a meeting of Latin American nations. Obviously Cuba will come up. Cuba’s leaders will be in attendance.
The United States is close, we are told, to removing Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. I know you have a process to go through, but give me a sense of your inclinations.
Why would that make sense to do now, and what would — what has Cuba done to deserve it?
Well, I think there is a process, as you said, and the State Department will be reviewing it. And as soon as I get a recommendation I’ll be in a position to act on it.
Understand that the criteria is very straightforward: “Is this particular country considered a state sponsor of terrorism,” not, “do we agree with them on everything,” not whether they engage in repressive or authoritarian activities in their own country. And so those standards, those criteria are the ones that are going to be measured against the current activities of the Cuban government.
Overall, I think our goal here is what I discussed back in December, which is, do we have the ability to change the relationship of the United States and Cuba in such a way that it benefits the Cuban people over the long term?
I think there’s a real opportunity here, and we are going to continue to make — move forward on it. Our hope is to be in a position where we can open an embassy there — that we can start having more regular contacts and consultations around a whole host of issues, some of which we have interests in common.
There are areas where there are serious differences, and you know, I don’t expect immediate transformation in the Cuban-American relationship overnight. But I do see the possibility — a great hunger within Cuba — to begin a change — a process that ultimately, I think, can lead to more freedom and more opportunity.
Are you saying they haven’t necessarily done anything to deserve being removed from the list, but you want to take that chance and see what…
I’m — that’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is, I’m going to be taking a very close look at what the State Department recommends.
Mr. President, thanks very much.
I enjoyed it very much, Steve. Thank you.
This interview was conducted by NPR and published here.