President Obama sharply criticized as not viable several Israeli government postures on talks with Iran, but asserted that the military option remained on the table should those negotiations fail.
In a wide-ranging talk with Haim Saban, the entertainment mogul who funds the annual Saban Forum in Washington, Obama took aim at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claims that increased pressure during the interim talks would extract greater concessions from Iran, and anticipated a final deal that would grant Iran some uranium enrichment capabilities.
Alluding to the view of Netanyahu and a number of lawmakers in Congress that additional sanctions should be applied, Obama said, “what this comes down to is the perception that if we kept churning up the pressure, new sanctions, more sanctions, more military threats, etc., that eventually Iran would cave.”
Instead, Obama said, increased pressure would likely drive away allies who have helped keep up the existing pressure on Iran through U.S.-led sanctions.
Obama outlined U.S. red lines in a final agreement, including the dismantling of the plutonium reactor at Arak and the underground nuclear reactor at Fordow, as well as advanced centrifuges.
However, he suggested an enrichment program would remain in place with restrictions that would ensure that “as a practical matter, they don’t have a breakout capacity.”
That, Obama acknowledged, contradicted Netanyahu’s objective that “we can’t accept any enrichment on Iranian soil, full stop.”
Israel’s government believes that Iran has been allowed to advance its nuclear capability to the point where even a modest enrichment capability positions it dangerously close to weapons breakout capacity.
Demanding no enrichment, Obama said, was unrealistic, likening it to a president believing Congress would pass every one of his legislative initiatives.
The Iranians needed to come to a deal that would afford them some “dignity,” he said, and alluded to broad popular support in Iran for some enrichment capacity.
Obama said that he did not trust Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s newly elected president, but noted that he was elected on a platform of reaching out to the West.
Again alluding to a Netanyahu claim, he said that those who say Rouhani is not different from his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust denier and anti-Israel maximalist, “understate the shift in politics” in Iran. Obama twice said that he would reassert the military option should talks fail with Iran.
“I’ve made clear I can avail myself of including a military option, is one we can consider and prepare for,” he said.
He emphatically rejected hard lines in dealing with other countries. “Wherever we see the impulses of a people to move away from conflict and violence and toward a diplomatic resolution of conflict we should be ready to engage them,” he said. “We have to not constantly assume that it’s not possible for Iran like any country to change over time.”
Obama said he had a good, open relationship with Netanyahu. “There are occasionally significant tactical differences, but there is a constancy in trying to reach the same goal,” he said of the relationship.
Addressing renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks, Obama said mediation is currently focused on addressing Israeli security needs, and appeared to back away from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s insistence that the sides achieve a final status agreement next year.
An agreement coming out of the talks, he said, need not address “every detail” but is one that “gets us to a moment that gets us to move forward than move backward.”