In a lengthy news conference on Wednesday, President Obama defended the nuclear deal between Iran and the 5+1 Powers. He also handled questions about the regional effects of the agreement, including Iran’s support of Syria, the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq, and Tehran’s military links with Hezbollah.
OBAMA: Good afternoon, everybody. Yesterday was a historic day.
The comprehensive long-term deal that we achieved with our allies and partners to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon represents a powerful display of American leadership and diplomacy. It shows what we can accomplish when we lead from a position of strength and a position of principle when we unite the international community around a shared vision and we resolve to solve problems peacefully.
As I said yesterday, it’s important for the American people and Congress to get a full opportunity to review this deal. That process is now underway. I’ve already reached out to leaders in Congress on both sides of the aisle. My national security team has begun offering extensive briefings.
I expect the debate to be robust and that’s how it should be. This is an important issue. Our national security policies are stronger and more effective when they are subject to the scrutiny and transparency that democracy demands.
And as I said yesterday, the details of this deal matter very much. That’s why our team worked so hard for so long to get the details right. At the same time, as this debate unfolds, I hope we don’t lose sight of the larger picture, the opportunity that this agreement represents.
As we go forward, it’s important for everybody to remember the alternative, and the fundamental choice that this moment represents. With this deal, we cut off every single one of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear program, a nuclear weapons program.
And Iran’s nuclear program will be under severe limits for many years. Without a deal, those pathways remain open. There would be no limits to Iran’s nuclear program, and Iran could move closer to a nuclear bomb. With this deal, we gain unprecedented around the clock monitoring of Iran’s key nuclear facilities in the most comprehensive and intrusive inspection and verification regime ever negotiated.
Without a deal, those inspections go away and we’d lose the ability to closely monitor Iran’s program and detect any covert nuclear weapons program. With this deal, if Iran violates its commitments, there will be real consequences, nuclear-related sanctions that have helped to cripple the Iranian economy will snap back into place.
Without a deal, the international sanctions regime will unravel with little ability to reimpose them. With this deal, we have the possibility of peacefully resolving a major threat to regional and international security. Without a deal, we risk even more war in the Middle East and other countries in the region would feel compelled to pursue their own nuclear programs, threatening a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region in the world.
As I said yesterday, even with this deal, we will continue to have profound differences with Iran: its support of terrorism, its use of proxies to destabilize parts of the Middle East. Therefore, the multilateral arms embargo on Iran will remain in place for an additional five years, and restrictions on ballistic missile technology will remain for eight years.
In addition, the United States will maintain our own sanctions related to Iran’s support for terrorism, its ballistic missile program, its human rights violations, and we’ll continue our unprecedented security cooperation with Israel and continue to deepen our partnerships with the Gulf states.
But the bottom line is this. This nuclear deal meets the national security interests of the United States and our allies. It prevents the most serious threat, Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon, which would only make the other problems that Iran may cause even worse.
OBAMA: That’s why this deal makes our country and the world safer and more secure. It’s why the alternative, no limits on Iran’s nuclear program, no inspections, an Iran that’s closer to a nuclear weapon, the risk of regional nuclear arms race, and the greater risk of war — all that would endanger our security. That’s the choice that we face. If we don’t choose wisely, I believe future generations will judge us harshly for letting this moment slip away.
And no one suggests that this deal resolves all the threats that Iran poses to its neighbors or the world. Moreover, realizing the promise of this deal will require many years of implementation and hard work. It will require vigilance and execution. But this deal is our best means of assuring that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon. And from the start, that has been my number one priority, our number one priority.
We’ve got a historic chance to pursue a safer and more secure world, an opportunity that may not come again in our lifetimes. And as president and as commander in chief, I am determined to seize that opportunity.
So with that, I’m going to take some questions….Andrew Beatty, AFP.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. Yesterday, you said the deal offered a chance, a new direction in relations with Iran. What steps will you take to enable a more moderate Iran, and does this deal allow you to more forcefully counter Iran’s destabilizing actions in the region, quite aside from the nuclear question? Thank you.
OBAMA: Andrew, if you don’t mind, just because I suspect that there’s going to be a common set of questions that are touched on — I promise I will get to your question, but I want to start off just by stepping back and reminding folks of what is at stake here. And I already did in my opening statement, but I just want to reiterate it because I’ve heard already some of the objections to the deal.
The starting premise of our strategy with respect to Iran has been that it would be a grave threat to the United States and to our allies if they obtained a nuclear weapon. And so everything that we’ve done over the last six-and-a-half years has been designed to make sure that we address that number one priority. That’s what the sanctions regime was all about. That’s how we were able to mobilize the international community, including some folks that we are not particularly close to, to abide by these sanctions. That’s how these crippling sanctions came about, was because we were able to gain global consensus that Iran having a nuclear weapon would be a problem for everybody.
That’s the reason that Iran’s accounts got frozen and they were not able to get money for the oil sales that they’ve made. That’s the reason that they had problems operating with respect to international commerce, because we built that international consensus around this very specific narrow, but profound, issue — the possibility of Iran getting a nuclear weapon.
And by the way, that was not simply my priority. If you look back at all the debates that have taken place over the last five, six years, this has been a Democratic priority, this has been a Republican priority, this has been Prime Minister Netanyahu’s priority. It has been our Gulf allies’ priority, is making sure Iran does not get a nuclear weapon.
The deal negotiated by John Kerry, Wendy Sherman, Ernie Moniz, our allies, our partners, the P5+1, achieves that goal. It achieves our top priority, making sure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapons. But we have always recognized that even if Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon, Iran still poses challenges to our interests and our values both in the region and around the world.
So when this deal gets implemented, we know that we will have dismantled the immediate concerns around Iran’s nuclear program. We will have brought their stockpiles down to 98 percent. We will have significantly reduced the number of centrifuges that they operate. We will have installed an unprecedented inspections regime. And that will remain in place not just for 10 years, but for example on the stockpiles, will continue to 15 years.
Iran will have pledged to the international community that it will not develop a nuclear weapon, and now will be subject to an additional protocol, a more vigorous inspection and monitoring regime that lasts in perpetuity.
We will have disabled a facility like Arak, the Arak facility, from allowing Iran to develop plutonium that could be used for a bomb. We will have greatly reduced the stockpile of uranium that’s enriched, and we will have put in place inspections along the entire supply chain so that if uranium was diverted into a covert program, we would catch it.
So, I can say with confidence, but more importantly nuclear experts can say with confidence that Iran will not be in a position to develop a nuclear bomb. We will have met our number one priority.
Now, we’ll still have problems with Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism: its funding of proxies like Hezbollah that threaten Israel and threaten the region, the destabilizing activities that they’re engaging in, including in places like Yemen.
And my hope is that building on this deal, we can continue to have conversations with Iran that incentivize them to behave differently in the region, to be less aggressive, less hostile, more cooperative, to operate the way we expect nations in the international community to behave. But we’re not counting on it.
So this deal is not contingent on Iran changing its behavior. It’s not contingent on Iran suddenly operating like a liberal democracy. It solves one particular problem, which is making sure they don’t have a bomb. And the point I’ve repeatedly made and I believe is hard to dispute is that it’ll be a lot easier for us to check Iran’s nefarious activities, to push back against the other areas where they operate contrary to our interests or our allies’ interests if they don’t have the bomb.
And — and so will they change their behavior? Will we seek to gain more cooperation from them in resolving issues like Syria or what’s happening in Iraq, to stop encouraging Houthis in Yemen, we’ll continue to engage with them.
Although keep in mind that unlike the Cuba situation, we’re not normalizing diplomatic relations here. So the contacts will continue to be limited, but will we try to encourage them to take a more constructive path? Of course. But we’re not betting on it. And in fact, having resolved the nuclear issue, we will be in a stronger position to work with Israel, work with the Gulf countries, work with our other partners, work with the Europeans to bring additional pressure to bear on Iran around those issues that remain of concern.
But the argument that I’ve been already hearing and this was foreshadowed even before the deal was announced, that because this deal does not solve all those other problems, that’s an argument for rejecting this deal, defies logic: it makes no sense and it loses sight of what was our original number one priority, which is making sure that they don’t have a bomb.
QUESTION: Mr. President, does it give you any pause to see this deal praised by Syrian Dictator Assad as a great victory for Iran, praised by those in Tehran who still shout “death to America,” and yet our closest ally in the Middle East calls it a mistake of historic proportions?
And here in Congress, it looks like a large majority will vote to reject this deal. I know you can veto that rejection, but do you have a concerns about seeing a majority of the people’s representatives in Congress saying that this is a bad deal?
OBAMA: It does not give me pause that Mr. Assad or others in Tehran may be trying to spin the deal in a way that they think is favorable to what their constituencies want to hear. That’s what politicians do, and that’s been the case throughout.
I mean, you will recall that during the course of these negotiations over the last couple of months, every time the supreme leader or somebody tweeted something out, for some reason, we all bought into the notion, “Well, the Obama administration must be giving this or capitulating that.”
Well, now we have a document. So you can see what the deal is. We don’t have to speculate. We don’t have to engage in spin. You can just read what it says and what is required. And nobody has disputed that as a consequence of this agreement, Iran has to drastically reduce its stockpiles of uranium, is cut off from plutonium, the Fordow facility that is underground is converted, that we have an unprecedented inspections regime, that we have snap- back provisions if they cheat.
You know, the facts are the facts, and I’m not concerned about what others say about it.
Now, with respect to Congress, my hope — I won’t prejudge this — my hope is — is that everyone in Congress also evaluates this agreement based on the facts, not on politics, not on posturing, not on the fact this is a deal I bring to Congress as opposed a Republican president, not based on lobbying but based on what’s in the national interest of the United States of America.
And I think that if Congress does that, then in fact, based on the facts, the majority of Congress should approve of this deal.
But we live in Washington, and politics do intrude. And as I said in an interview yesterday, I am not betting on the Republican Party rallying behind this agreement.
I do expect the debate to be based on facts and not speculation or misinformation, and — and — and that, I welcome, in part because, look, there are — there are legitimate, real concerns here. We’ve already talked about it. We have huge differences with Iran.
Israel has legitimate concerns about its security relative to Iran. I mean, you have a large country with a significant military that has proclaimed that Israel shouldn’t exist, that has denied the Holocaust, that has financed Hezbollah, and as a consequence, there are missiles that are pointed towards Tel Aviv.
And so I think there are very good reasons why Israelis are nervous about Iran’s position in the world generally. And I’ve said this to Prime Minister — I’ve said it directly to the Israeli people.
But what I’ve also said is that all those threats are compounded if Iran gets a nuclear weapon. And for all the objections of Prime Minister Netanyahu or, for that matter, some of the Republican leadership that’s already spoken, none of them have presented to me or the American people a better alternative.
I’m hearing a lot of talking points being repeated about “This is a bad deal. This is a historically bad deal. This is a historically bad deal. This will threaten Israel and threaten the world and threaten the United States.” I mean, there’s been a lot of that.
What I haven’t heard is what is your preferred alternative?
If 99 percent of the world’s community and the majority of nuclear experts look at this thing and they say “this will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb,” and you are arguing either that it does not or that even if it does, it’s temporary, or that because they’re going to get a windfall of their accounts being unfrozen that they’ll cause more problems, then you should have some alternative to present. And I haven’t heard that.
And the reason is because there really are only two alternatives here. Either the issue of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is resolved diplomatically through a negotiation or it’s resolved through force, through war. Those are — those are the options.
Now, you’ll hear some critics say, “well, we could have negotiated a better deal.” OK. What does that mean? I think the suggestion among a lot of the critics has been that a — a better deal, an acceptable deal would be one in which Iran has no nuclear capacity at all, peaceful or otherwise. The problem with that position is that there is nobody who thinks that Iran would or could ever accept that, and the international community does not take the view that Iran can’t have a peaceful nuclear program. They agree with us that Iran cannot have a nuclear weapon.
And so we don’t have diplomatic leverage to eliminate every vestige of a peaceful nuclear program in Iran. What we do have the leverage to do is to make sure that they don’t have a weapon. That’s exactly what we’ve done. So to go back to Congress, I challenge those who are objecting to this agreement, number one to read the agreement before they comment on it, number two to explain specifically where it is that they think this agreement does not prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and why they’re right and people like Ernie Moniz, who is an MIT nuclear physicist and an expert in these issues is wrong, why the rest of the world is wrong, and then present an alternative.
And if the alternative is that we should bring Iran to heel through military force, then those critics should say so. And that will be an honest debate.
QUESTION: Prime Minister Netanyahu said that you know, you have a situation where Iran can delay 24 days before giving access to military facilities.
OBAMA: So, let’s take the issue of 24 days. This has been, I think, swirling today, the notion that this is insufficient in terms of inspections. Now, keep in mind first of all that we’ll have 24/7 inspections of declared nuclear facilities: Fordow, Natanz, Arak, their uranium mines, facilities that are known to produce centrifuges, parts. That entire infrastructure that we know about, we will have sophisticated 24/7 monitoring of those facilities.
So then the issue is what if they try to develop a covert program? Now, one of the advantages of having inspections across the entire production chain is that it makes it very difficult to set up a covert program.
OBAMA: You know, there are only so many uranium mines in Iran. And if in fact we’re counting the amount of uranium that’s being mined, and suddenly some is missing on the back end, they got some ‘splainin’ to do.
So we’re able to track what’s happening along the existing facilities to make sure that there is not diversion into a covert program. But let’s say that Iran is so determined that it now wants to operate covertly, the IAEA, the international organization charged with implementing the non-proliferation treaty and monitoring nuclear activities in countries around the world, the IAEA will have the ability to say that undeclared site, we’re concerned about. We see something suspicious. And they will be able to say to Iran, we want to go inspect that.
Now, if Iran objects, we can override it. In the agreement, we’ve set it up so we can override Iran’s objection, and we don’t need Russia or China in order for us to get that override. And if they continue to object, we’re in a position to snap back sanctions and declare that Iran’s in violation and is cheating.
As for the fact that it may take 24 days to finally get access to the site, the nature of nuclear programs and facilities is such — this is not something you hide in a closet. This is not something you put on a dolly and kind of wheel off somewhere. And by the way, if we identify an undeclared site that we’re suspicious about, we’re going to be keeping eyes on it. So we’re going to be monitoring what the activity is, and that’s going to be something that will be evidence if we think that some funny business was going on there, that we can then present to the international community.
So we’ll be monitoring it that entire time. And by the way, if there is nuclear material on that site, you know, your high school physics will remind us that that leaves a trace. And so we’ll know that, in fact, there was a violation of the agreement.
So the point is, Jonathan, that this is the most vigorous inspection and verification regime, by far, that has ever been negotiated. Is it possible that Iran decides to try to cheat despite having this entire inspection and verification mechanism? That’s possible. But if it does, first of all, we built in a one-year breakout time, which gives us a year to respond forcefully, and we’ve built in a snap-back provision so we don’t have to go through lengthy negotiations at the U.N. to put the sanctions right back in place.
And so really, the only argument you can make against the verification and inspection mechanism that we’ve put forward is that Iran is so intent on obtaining a nuclear weapon that no inspection regime and no verification mechanism would be sufficient because they’d find some way to get around it because they’re untrustworthy. And if that’s your view, then we go back to the choice that you have to make earlier.
That means, presumably, that you can’t negotiate, and what you’re really saying is that you’ve got to apply military to guarantee that they don’t have a nuclear program. And if somebody wants to make that debate, whether it’s the Republican leadership or Prime Minister Netanyahu or the Israeli ambassador or others, they’re free to make it, but it’s not persuasive.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. I want to ask you about the arms and ballistic missile embargo. Why did you decide — agree to lift those, even with the five-and eight-year durations?
QUESTION: It’s obviously emerging as a sticking point on the Hill. And are you concerned that arms to Iran will go to Hezbollah or Hamas? And is there anything that you or a future president can do to stop that?
And if you don’t mind, I mean, I wanted to see if you could step back a little bit and when you look at this Iran deal and all the other issues and unrest that’s happening in the Middle East, what kind of Middle East do you want to leave when you leave the White House in a year-and-a-half?
OBAMA: So the issue of the arms embargo and ballistic missiles is a real concern to us, has been of real concern to us, and it is in the national security interest of the United States to prevent Iran from sending weapons to Hezbollah, for example, or sending weapons to the Houthis in Yemen that accelerate a civil war there.
We have a number of mechanisms under international law that gives us authority to interdict arms shipments by Iran. One of those mechanisms is the U.N. security resolution related to Iran’s nuclear program.
Essentially, Iran was sanctioned because of what had happened at Fordow, its unwillingness to comply with previous U.N. security resolutions about their nuclear program, and as part of the package of sanctions that was slapped on them, the issue of arms and ballistic missiles were included.
Now, under the terms of the original U.N. resolution, the fact is that once a — an agreement — once an agreement was arrived at that gave the international community assurance Iran didn’t have a nuclear weapon, you could argue just looking at the text that those arms and ballistic missiles prohibition should immediately go away.
But what I said to our negotiators was, given that Iran has breached trust and the uncertainty of our allies in the region about Iran’s activities, let’s press for a longer extension of the arms embargo and the ballistic missile prohibitions. And we got that.
We got five years in which, under this new agreement, arms coming in and out of Iran are prohibited, and we got eight years for the respective ballistic missiles.
But part of the reason why we were willing to extend it only for five, let’s say, as opposed a longer period of time, is because we have other U.N. resolutions that prohibit arms sales by Iran to organizations like Hezbollah. We have other U.N. resolutions and multilateral agreements that give us authority to interdict arms shipments from Iran throughout the region.
And so we’ve had belts and suspenders and buttons, a whole bunch of different legal authorities. These legal authorities under the nuclear program may lapse after five or eight years, but we’ll still be in possession of other legal authorities that allow us to interdict those arms.
And — and — and truthfully, these prohibitions are not self- enforcing. It’s not like the U.N. has the capacity to police what — what Iran is doing. What is does is it gives us authority under international law to prevent arms — arms shipments from happening in concert with our allies and our partners.
And the real problem, if you look at how, for example, Hezbollah got a lot of missiles that are a grave threat to Israel and many of our friends in the region, it’s not because they were legal, it’s not because somehow that was authorized under international law; it was because there was insufficient intelligence or capacity to stop those shipments.
So the bottom line is, I share the concerns of Israel, Saudis, Gulf partners about Iran shipping arms and causing conflict and chaos in the region, and that’s why I’ve said to them, “Let’s double down and partner much more effectively to improve our intelligence capacity and our interdiction capacity so that fewer of those arms shipments are getting through the net.”
But the legal authorities will still possess, and obviously we’ve got our own unilateral prohibitions and sanctions in place around non- nuclear issues like support for Hezbollah, and those remain in place.
Now, in terms of the larger issues that the Middle East, obviously that’s a — that’s a longer discussion. I think my key goal when I turn over the keys to the president — the next president, is that we are on track to defeat ISIL, that they are much more contained and we’re moving in the right direction there, that we have jumpstarted a process to resolve the civil war in Syria, which is like an open sore in the region, and is giving refuge to terrorist organizations who are taking advantage of that chaos to make sure that in Iraq, not only have we pushed back ISIL, but we’ve also created an environment in which Sunni, Shia, and Kurd are starting to operate and function more effectively together, and to be in a conversation with all our partners in the region about how we have strengthened our security partnerships so that they feel they can address any potential threats that may come, including threats from Iran.
And that includes providing additional security assurances and cooperation to Israel, building on the unprecedented cooperation that we have already put in place, and the support that we’ve already put in place. It includes the work that we’ve done with the GCC up at Camp David, making sure that we execute that.
If we have done those things, then the problems in the Middle East will not be solved. And ultimately, it’s not the job of the president of the United States to solve every problem in the Middle East.
The people in the Middle East are going to have to solve some of these problems themselves. But I think we can provide that next president at least a foundation for continued progress in these various areas.
The last thing I would say, and this is a longer-term issue, is we have to address the youth in the region with jobs and opportunity and a better vision for the future so that they are not tempted by the nihilistic, violent, dead-end that organizations like ISIL offer. Again, we can’t do that entirely by ourselves, but we can partner with well-intentioned organizations, states, NGOs, religious leaders in the region. We have to do a better job of that than we’ve been doing so far.
QUESTION: Thank you.
You alluded earlier to Iran’s role in Syria. Just to focus on that for a moment, many analysts and some former members of your administration believe that the kind of negotiated political settlement that you say is necessary in Syria will require working directly with Iran in giving Iran an important role.
Do you agree, and is that a dialog you will be actively seeking? And what about the fight against ISIS? What would it take for there to be explicit cooperation between the U.S. and Iran?
OBAMA: I do agree that we’re not going to solve the problems of Syria unless there’s buy-in from the Russians, the Iranians, the Turks, our Gulf partners.
It’s too chaotic. There are too many factions. There’s too much money and too many arms flooding into the zone.
It’s gotten caught up in both sectarian conflict and geopolitical jockeying, and in order for us to resolve it, there’s going to have to be agreement among the major powers that are interested in Syria that this is not going to be won on the battlefield.
So Iran is one of those players, and I think that it’s important for them to be part of that conversation.
I want to repeat what I said earlier. We have not, and I don’t anticipate anytime in the near future, restored normal diplomatic relations with Iran, and so I do not foresee a formal set of agreements with Iran in terms of how we’re conducting our counter-ISIL campaign.
But clearly, Iran has influence in Iraq. Iraq has a majority Shi’a population, they have relationships to Iran. Some are natural. We expect somebody like Prime Minister Abadi to meet with and negotiate and work with Iran as its neighbor. Some are less legitimate, where you see Iran financing Shi’a militias that in the past have killed American soldiers and in the future may carry out atrocities when they move into Sunni areas.
And so we’re working with our diplomats on the ground as well as our military teams on the ground to assess where can we appropriately at least de-conflict and where can we work with Prime Minister Abadi around a overall strategy for Iraq to regain its sovereignty.
And where do we tell Abadi, you know what? What Iran’s doing there is a problem. And we can cooperate in that area, for example, unless you get those folks out of there, because we’re not going to have our troops even in an advisory or training role looking over their shoulders because they’re not sure what might happen to them.
And those conversations have been ongoing. I think they will continue. The one thing you can count on is that any work that the U.S. government does or the U.S. military does in Iraq with other partners on the ground is premised on the idea that they are reporting to under the chain of command of the Iraqi government and Iraqi security forces. If we don’t have confidence that ultimately Abadi is directing those soldiers, then it’s tough for us to have any kind of direct relationship.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. As you well know, there are four Americans in Iran, three held on trumped-up charges that, according to your administration, one whereabouts unknown.
Can you tell the country, sir, why you are content, with all the fanfare around this deal, to leave the conscience of this nation, the strength of this nation, unaccounted for in relation to these four Americans?
And last week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said under no circumstances should there be any relief for Iran in terms of ballistic missiles or conventional weapons. It is perceived that was a last-minute capitulation in these negotiations.
Many in the Pentagon feel you’ve left the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff high out to dry. Could you comment?
OBAMA: I’ve got to give you credit, Major, for how you craft those questions.
The notion that I am content as I celebrate with American citizens languishing in Iranian jails, Major, that’s nonsense, and you should know better. I’ve met with the families of some of those folks. Nobody’s content. And our diplomats and our teams are working diligently to try to get them out.
Now, if the question is why we did not tie the negotiations to their release, think about the logic that that creates. Suddenly, Iran realizes you know what? Maybe we can get additional concessions out of the Americans by holding these individuals. Makes it much more difficult for us to walk away if Iran somehow thinks that a nuclear deal is dependent in some fashion on the nuclear.
And by the way, if we had walked away from the nuclear deal, we’d still be pushing them just as hard to get these folks out. That’s why those issues are not connected. But we are working every single day to try to get them out, and won’t stop until they’re out and rejoined with their families.
With respect to the chairman’s testimony, to some degree, I already answered. We are not taking the pressure off Iran with respect to arms and with respect to ballistic missiles.
As I just explained, not only do we keep in place for five years the arms embargo under this particular new U.N. resolution, not only do we maintain the eight years on the ballistic missiles under this particular U.N. resolution, but we have a host of other multilateral and unilateral authorities that allow us to take action where we see Iran engaged in those activities, whether it’s six years from now or 10 years from now.
So we have not lost those legal authorities, and in fact, part of my pitch to the GCC countries, as well as to Prime Minister Netanyahu, is we should do a better job making sure that Iran’s not engaged in sending arms to organizations like Hezbollah. And as I just indicated, that means improving our intelligence capacity and our interdiction capacity with our partners….
QUESTION: Thanks, Mr. President. I’ll be brief.
The argument has been made that Iran now has a cash windfall, billions to spend. Your people seem confident they’re going to spend it at home. Why are you confident they’re not going to spend it on arming Hezbollah, arming Bashr al-Assad, et cetera?
OBAMA: I — I think that’s a great question, and I’m — I’m glad you brought it up. I think it is a mistake to — to characterize our belief that they will just spend it on daycare centers and — and — and roads and — and paying down debt. We think that they have to do some of that, because Rouhani was elected specifically on the premise of improving the economic situation inside of Iran. That economy has tanked since we imposed sanctions.
So the notion that they’re just immediately going to turn over $100 billion to the IRGC or the Quds Force, I think runs contrary to all the intelligence that we’ve seen and the commitments that the Iranian government has made.
Do we think that with the sanctions coming down, that Iran will have some additional resources for its military and for some of the activities in the region that are a threat to us and a threat to our allies? I think that is a likelihood that they’ve got some additional resources.
Do I think it’s a game-changer for them? No.
They are currently supporting Hezbollah, and there is a ceiling, a pace at which they could support Hezbollah even more, particularly in the chaos that’s taking place in Syria.
So can they potentially try to get more assistance there? Yes.
Should we put more resources into blocking them from getting that assistance to Hezbollah? Yes.
Is the incremental additional money that they’ve got to try to destabilize the region or send to their proxies — is that more important than preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon? No. Alright?
So — so I think, again, this is a matter of us making a determination of what is our priority. The other problem with the argument that folks have been making about, “Oh, this is a windfall,” and suddenly Iran’s flushed with cash and they’re going to take over the world — and I say that not tongue in cheek, because if you look at some of the statements by some of our critics, you would think that Iran is, in fact, going to take over the world as a consequence of this deal, which I think would be news to the Iranians.
What — that — that argument is also premised on the notion that if there is no deal, if Congress votes down this deal, that we’re able to keep sanctions in place with the same vigor and effectiveness as we have right now, and that, I can promise you, is not true. That is absolutely not true. I want to repeat: we’re not writing Iran a check. This is Iran’s money that we’re able to block from them having access to. That required the cooperation of countries all around the world: many of whom really want to purchase oil from Iran. The imposition of sanctions, their cooperation with us has cost them billions of dollars, made it harder for them. They’ve been willing to do that because they believe we were sincere about trying to resolve the nuclear issue peacefully, and they consider that a priority, a high enough priority that they were willing to cooperate with us on sanctions.
If they saw us walking away, or more specifically, if they saw the U.S. Congress effectively vetoing the judgment of 99 percent of the world community, that this is a deal that resolves the Iranian weapons program, nuclear weapons program, in a equitable way, the sanctions system unravels.
And so we could still maintain some of our unilateral sanctions, but it would be far less effective, as it was before we were able to put together these multi-lateral sanctions.
So maybe they don’t get $100 billion dollars. Maybe they get $60 billion or $70 billion instead. The price for that, that we’ve paid, is that now Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon. We have no inspectors on the ground. We don’t know what’s going on. They’re still getting some cash windfall. We have lost credibility in the eyes of the world. We will have effectively united Iran and divided ourselves from our allies: a terrible position to be in.
QUESTION: At the end of the deal, they could go back…
OBAMA: Right. Well, so — so let’s address this issue of — because that’s the other big argument that’s been made. All right. Let’s assume that the deal holds for 10 years. Iran doesn’t cheat. Now, at the end of 10 years, some of the restrictions have been lifted, although remember, others stay in place for 15 years. So for example, they’ve still got to keep their stockpiles at a minimal level for 15 years.
The inspections don’t go away. Those are still in place 15, 20 years from now. Their commitment under the Non-Proliferation Treaty does not go away. That’s still in place. The additional protocol that they have to sign up for under this deal, which requires a more extensive inspection and verification mechanism, that stays in place.
So, there is no scenario in which a U.S. president is not in a stronger position 12, 13, 15 years from now, if in fact Iran decided at that point they still wanted to get a nuclear weapon.
Keep in mind, we will have maintained a one-year breakout time. We will have rolled back their program, frozen their facilities, kept them under severe restrictions, had observers. They will have made international commitments supported by countries around the world. And — and hold on a second.
And if at that point, they’ve finally decided, you know what, we’re going to cheat, or not even cheat, at that point they decide openly, “We’re now pursuing a nuclear weapon,” they’re still in violation of this deal and the commitments they’ve made internationally.
And so we are still in a position to mobilize the world’s community to say, “no, you can’t have a nuclear weapon.”
And they’re not in a stronger position to get a nuclear weapon at that point. They are in a weaker position than they are today.
And by the way, we haven’t given away any of our military capabilities. We’re not in a weaker position to respond. So — so even if everything the critics were saying was true, that at the end of 10 years or 12 years or 15 year Iran now is in a position to decide it wants a nuclear weapon, that they’re at a breakout point, they won’t be at a breakout point that is more dangerous than the breakout point they’re in right now. They won’t be at a breakout point that is shorter than the one that exists today.
And so why wouldn’t we at least make sure that for the next 10, 15 years they are not getting a nuclear weapon and we can verify it, and afterwards, if they decide — if they’ve changed their mind, we are then much more knowledgeable about what their capabilities are, much more knowledgeable about what their program is and still in a position to take whatever actions we would take today.
QUESTION: And none of this is holding out hope that they’ll change their behavior —
Look, I’m always hopeful that behavior may change for the sake of the Iranian people as well as people in the region. There are young people there who are not getting the opportunities they deserve because of conflict, because of sectarianism, because of poor governance, because of repression, because of terrorism, and I remain eternally hopeful that we can do something about that, and it should be part of U.S. foreign policy to do something about that.
But I’m not banking on that to say that this deal is the right thing to do. Again, it is incumbent on the critics of this deal to explain how an American president is in a worse position 12, 13, 14, 15 years from now, if at that point, Iran says we’re going to pull out of the MPT, kick out inspectors and go for a nuclear bomb. If that happens, that president will be in a better position than would happen if Iran, as a consequence of Congress rejecting this deal, decides that’s it. We’re done negotiating. We’re going after a bomb right now.
The choices would be tougher today than they would be for that president 15 years from now. And I have not yet heard logic that refutes that. All right?
I really have to go now. I think we’ve hit the big themes, but I — but I promise you I will — I will address this again, all right? I suspect this is not the last that we’ve heard of this debate.