Hoping to bathe himself in some of the glow of JFK, Obama framed the deal as another critical step forward in the march toward world peace. In 1963, Kennedy had offered the same sense of hope.
“Some say that it is useless to speak of world peace or world law or world disarmament — and that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude,” Kennedy said. “I hope they do. I believe we can help them do it. But I also believe that we must re-examine our own attitude — as individuals and as a nation — for our attitude is as essential as theirs.”
After giving his American University speech, Obama met with a handful of foreign policy reporters and columnists, this reporter among them, for a 90-minute roundtable on Iran policy and whatever else those in the room ― The New Yorker’s Robin Wright, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, The New York Times’ Carol Giacomo and several others ― wanted to bring up.
Unlike similar sessions he has held over the years, this one was fully on the record. Interestingly, though, there was very little noticeable difference in the substance of Obama’s comments, his body language or his tone as compared to the off-record sessions. (The only contrast I could notice was the lack of any profanity in the on-record conversation.)
Much of what the president said during that briefing quickly made it into articles referencing the discussion. Looking back on it, though, the entire session is revealing not for the news that it made in the moment, but as a window into how Obama thinks about foreign policy and policy in general, as well as how he engages in long conversations with reporters that go deep into the weeds.
How well Obama’s foreign policy deliberations translate into effective policy will be debated for years ― large swaths of the Middle East, after all, are on fire, while the European Union groans under the weight of the resulting refugee crisis.
But at least it’s an ethos. On Tuesday, President-elect Donald Trump met with reporters and editors at The New York Times for a briefing that was on the record, as well as a separate one that was off. In his public remarks, Trump flipped his positions on everything from torture to climate change to prosecuting Hillary Clinton.
Following the Obama interview in 2015, the White House sent around a transcript of that conversation, which was never published. But to give readers a sense of what Obama is like in a relaxed atmosphere, we’re publishing it below.
August 5, 2015
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
IN ROUNDTABLE WITH REPORTERS
2:55 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: So I’ve been talking a lot. (Laughter.) And as a result, I’m not going to give you a big windup. I would say I laid out a pretty comprehensive outline of my views on this whole issue. I’ll just reiterate a couple of things.
Number one, before I even came into office, I said that preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon was a priority. Number two, I said that our commitment to Israel’s security was unbreakable. Number three, I said that I would not hesitate to use force where necessary, but part of my mandate was to change how we think about decisions to go to war, and to make sure that we engage in serious diplomacy and, where possible, create international coalitions in order for us to advance our interests around the world. This deal, I think, represents a convergence of all these principles.
On the merits, it addresses a central security concern of the United States, of our allies, and of the world. It is the most detailed, most rigorous, most comprehensive nonproliferation agreement ever negotiated. It cuts off the pathways for Iran to get a nuclear weapon. It does so in a way that is verifiable. It preserves space for us over at least the first 15 years to not just monitor what they do, but also to, as a practical matter, slow down even their peaceful nuclear program, and unifies the world around the principle that they can never have a nuclear weapon.
The arguments that have been made on the other side, as I said in the speech, don’t hold up. The argument that somehow we’d be better off if Iran is in a position to break out six months from now rather than 15 years from now defies logic. The argument that Iran will cheat ignores the fact that this is not your routine IAEA inspection program, but this is something that has been shaped by the U.N. Security Council and our partners and provides us the ability to terminate the agreement and snap back sanctions if we think that they are not being cooperative.
The argument that the money Iran receives will potentially turbocharge their nefarious activities in the region has some element of truth because, as I said in the speech, it’s inconceivable that the RGC and the Quds Force and others don’t get some either relief from fiscal pressure that they’re feeling or additional resources to carry forward various strategies that they have. But as I pointed out, Iran has enormous economic obligations that they have to meet. Rouhani was elected in part to deliver on those commitments. And the biggest problems with Iran in the region are not due to the size of their resources, but due to the fact that they’ve been more effective in supporting proxies and stirring up dissension and conflict in the region than we or our allies have been in stopping those activities.
And if that is our primary concern, then ― and it should be one Iran is not getting a nuclear weapon ― then the more direct way to address those is through some of the steps that I outlined ― partnering with the Gulf countries, partnering with Israel, looking at ways that we can be more effective in interdiction of arms shipments to Hezbollah, addressing some of the intelligence gaps that currently exist.
The notion that somehow we are going to be more effective in dealing with those issues with the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran looming on the horizon doesn’t make sense.
So of all the foreign policy issues that I’ve addressed since I’ve been President, I’ve never been more certain that this is sound policy, that it’s the right thing to do for the United States, that it’s the right thing to do for our allies.
The fact that there is a robust debate in Congress is good. The fact that the debate sometimes seems unanchored to facts is not so good. My expectation is, is that I will be able to maintain sufficient congressional support to move forward on the deal. But I think the purpose of today’s speech was to put these decisions in context, because I do think that there are some larger issues at stake in terms of how we approach foreign policy debates in this country, and the need for us to return to some semblance of bipartisanship and soberness when we approach these problems.
Q What does it say about ― I’m sorry.
THE PRESIDENT: No, no, I’m done. Go ahead. (Laughter.)
Q What does it say, though, if you get this by the skin of your teeth? I mean, that’s ― to my experience anyway, it is unprecedented for such a serious foreign policy issue to manage to squeak by. Is that what we’re looking at ― a squeak by ―
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, Carol, you may be a better historian than I am, but my suspicion is, in the past, there have been a range of treaties that divided Congress and every administration was able to get them through.
The second point is that everything in this Congress squeaks by. The degree of polarization that currently exists in Washington is such where I think it’s fair to say if I presented a cure for cancer ― (laughter) ― getting legislation passed to move that forward would be a nail-biter. So my main concern is simply to be able to implement the deal, and then make sure that, globally, we, put in place the structure to make it stick.
One other point that I emphasized throughout the speech, but I’m going to underline it and highlight it ― in past agreements of this sort, of this magnitude, at least, we typically had to give something up. We were having to constrain ourselves in significant ways. In that sense, there was greater risk. In this situation, we do not surrender our capabilities to break the glass and respond if, in fact, Iran proves unable or unwilling to meet its commitments.
And that’s part of the reason why the argument about some of the limitations phasing out in 15 years is particularly troubling. The logic of that I do not fully grasp. You can make an argument that in years 13, 14, 15, because of advance centrifuges, they are now spinning at a much faster rate and the breakout times shrink almost to zero. But if, in fact, we have a history of 15 years of monitoring, and they have observed the deal, even if the character of the regime does not change, it is not as if those centrifuges that are deployed for peaceful purposes can suddenly, willy-nilly, be transformed into 10 or 20 nuclear missiles that deter our action.
We will be in a position to take action and we will be better informed, we will be on stronger footing when it comes to international law. We will have the ability to move far faster than we would right now if, in fact, Iran decided to break out.
Q You talked a little bit in the speech about ― and you referred to it here ― on a mindset. In a way, it sounded in the speech and what you said at the top here that you’re not only arguing against the criticism of the deal, but you’re arguing against what you referred to in the speech as a mindset that said essentially the first reaction ought to be using U.S. military force in a lot of situations. I’m curious, could you expand on that a little bit? Why do you think that mindset is exactly and where do you think it came from, and how prevalent do you think it is?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, this is not entirely ― look at the responses on issues by two of the Presidents that I cited in the speech. Both President Kennedy and President Reagan were roundly criticized by parts of the foreign policy establishment that felt they were being weak by engaging our adversaries. So some of it is built into a political lexicon that makes you sound tougher if you don’t talk to somebody, and rather, very loudly, wield a big stick.
I also think that there is a particular mindset that was on display in the run-up to the Iraq war that continues to this day. Some of the folks who were involved in that decision either don’t remember what they said or are entirely unapologetic about the results, but that views the Middle East as a place where force and intimidation will deliver on the security interests that we have, and that it is not possible for us to at least test the possibility of diplomacy.
And I’ll leave it to you guys to do the political analysis of why those views are most prominent now in the Republican Party. I’ll leave it at that.
Q Can you talk to us a little bit about how this plays out? The vote has to happen by the 17th; you’re supposed to speak at the U.N. on the 28th, the same day as President Rouhani speaks.
THE PRESIDENT: It would be good to have it done.
Q Do you anticipate that it can ―
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I anticipate, given the importance of what is a international initiative that we led, that Congress does its job on time. I am comfortable with the structure that Senators Cardin and Corker set out. After the 60 days have passed, I expect a vote to be called, and I expect to win that vote.
Q The first time around?
THE PRESIDENT: Eventually.
THE PRESIDENT: As I said before, I’m less concerned about the point spread. I’m more concerned about getting it done.
Q Let me follow up. If it is done by the 28th, can you envision that the famous “handshake that’s never happened” might happen at the U.N.?
THE PRESIDENT: I won’t speculate on that, Robin, because that’s not just a decision we make. Obviously, Tehran has its own hardliners and its own politics. And one of the interesting things throughout this debate, before we announced that an agreement had finally been reached, was the degree to which some of our critics here who said the Iranian regime is unreliable, sneaky, and can’t be negotiated with, would consistently point to statements made by the Supreme Leader or whatever character in the Iranian parliament, and take that as gospel, not thinking about the fact that they may be politicians, have their own political imperatives. And that will continue to be the case even after the deal is signed.
Q Mr. President, you referred to John Kennedy in the speech you pointedly delivered at American University, his speech in 1963. When Kennedy made that speech, he’d gone through a lot of personal political transformations in his presidency. He discovered crisis after crisis that his advisors weren’t ― that they were wrong about a lot of things. He had just come through the Cuban Missile Crisis when, on the last day of that crisis, everybody around the table was in favor of bombing the missile sites, not just the hawks; it was the hawks and the doves. He was only one who decided to take the deal.
To put this in your own historical context ― I mean, this speech reads to me like a lot of your speeches, going back to your Nobel speech.
THE PRESIDENT: I’m pretty consistent. (Laughter.)
Q Yes. But are there lessons that you’ve learned from deliberations with your advisors? Are there decisions you’ve regretted making that if you knew now what you knew what would happen then that you might have acted ― are you speaking from a different place now than you were when you delivered that speech in ’09? And if so, what are the elements of that?
THE PRESIDENT: Fred, I would say that I have been consistent in my broad view of how American power should be deployed, and the view that we underestimate our power when we restrict it to just our military power. We shortchange our influence and our ability to shape events when that’s the only tool we think we have in the toolbox.
There’s no doubt that after six and a half years, I am that much more confident in the assessments I make, and can probably see around the corners faster than I did when I first came into office. The map isn’t always the territory, and you have to kind of walk through it to get a feel for it.
In terms of decisions I make, I do think that I have a better sense of how military action can result in unintended consequences. And I am confirmed in my belief that much of the time, we are making judgments based on percentages, and no decision we make in foreign policy ― or for that matter, any policy ― is completely without hair, which is how we kind of describe it.
Q Without what?
THE PRESIDENT: Without hair on it. That’s how we describe it in the staff. I mean, there are always going to be some complications. But that’s why when I say that this to me is not a close call ― I say that based on having made a lot of tough calls.
So if you look at Libya, I was deeply concerned about what would happen after Qaddafi was gone. I was deeply concerned about the ability of some of our European partners who were forward-leaning on that issue to sustain their efforts. We organized the campaign in such a way that I could guarantee they had to step up, and it wasn’t just riding on our coattails to get it done, and that there was broad international support.
And to this day, I would say that, had we not gone after Qaddafi, you’d have some version of what happened in Syria in Libya, because he had already lost control of big chunks of the country. But even factoring all that stuff in, Libya is still a mess right now.
And so maybe at the same time as I’m more confident today, I’m also more humble. And that’s part of the reason why when I see a situation like this one, where we can achieve an objective with a unified world behind us, and we preserve our hedge against it not working out, I think it would be foolish ― even tragic ― for us to pass up on that opportunity.
Q Mr. President, you’ve made the case in the speech, powerfully, for diplomacy, working with international partners. And I want to ask you about the prospects for follow-on diplomacy in the region. You talked in a press conference two weeks about a phone call you received from President Putin exploring with you the possibility of a diplomatic track for Syria. Secretary Kerry met this week with Lavrov. Saudis appear to have come into this series of discussions.
And I just want to ask you where ― if you could give us a sense of where that diplomacy stands? Do you feel that there is opening up now a track toward real diplomatic discussions about some transition in Syria? And I have to ask you, if that track does seem to be opening, is there going to be a place for Iran in that process, and has Secretary Kerry talked about that with Zarif?
THE PRESIDENT: I do think the window has opened a crack for us to get a political resolution in Syria, partly because both Russia and Iran I think recognize that the trend lines are not good for Assad. Neither of those patrons are particularly sentimental; they don’t seem concerned about the humanitarian disaster that’s been wrought by Assad and this conflict over the last several years, but they are concerned about the potential collapse of the Syrian state. And that means I think the prospect of more serious discussions than we’ve had in the past.
I think a couple of years ago, they might have been feeling that time was on Assad’s side and they could wait this out. I don’t think they feel that way as much anymore.
How to execute an actual transition is very difficult. The strongest opposition forces on the ground are vicious terrorist organizations that are constantly merging and blending with people who just want to get the yolk of an oppressive regime off their backs. And being able to sort through what a representative government would look like ― one that would give Sunnis inside of Syria a sense of their rightful place at the table while preserving protections for Alawite and Druze and Christians after so much bloodshed is going to be tough. And just because Iran and Syria may recognize Assad’s weaknesses doesn’t necessarily mean that Assad recognizes his weaknesses.
So I don’t want to get carried away in suggesting that we’re on the brink of a significant breakthrough yet, but I think the conversations are more serious now than they might have been earlier. And yes, Iran is going to have to be involved. There’s no way to resolve Syria without Iran being involved, given its financing of Assad and the fact that Hezbollah is probably the most effective fighting force that Assad can count on.
Q And have there been additional conversations with Zarif, with the Iranians about how to think about ―
THE PRESIDENT: I won’t get into details yet, David, in terms of what might or might not be possible. I think it’s also important for us to have the Saudis involved. I think the Turks’ willingness to take seriously action on the borders to stop the flow of foreign fighters joining ISIL is significant. So I think there’s movement there, but it hasn’t gelled yet.
Q How concerned are you that they might use ― the Turks might use this as an excuse to go after the Kurds?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, we’ve discussed with the Turks our strong view that ISIL poses the largest threat to the region and we have to stay focused; that to the extent the PKK engages in attacks against Turkish targets, it is legitimate for the Turks to try to defend themselves. But the agreement that we are working on is carefully bound around how do we close off that border to foreign fighters entering into Syria. And everything we do will be based on that issue.
Q Related international question ― as you know, most of the coverage in the U.S. about differences and perspective between the U.S. and other countries is focused on Israel, which is not what I’m going to ask you about. I’m struck that five nations with whom we often have deep strategic disagreements ― including Russia and China ― were part of the front here. Were there any important fissures with the Russians and Chinese or within this bloc when it came to the last parts of the negotiation?
And the other question is Prime Minister Netanyahu said that if the U.S. asked for tougher sanctions, tougher terms, then the rest of the world would come around because our economy is so much bigger. How do you see that scenario?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, the Chinese and the Russians stuck with us pretty tough throughout the negotiations. In fact, I was surprised on the upside that Russia was able to compartmentalize the Iran issue in light of the severe tensions that we have over Ukraine. And that underscores Russia’s genuine concern about Iran getting a nuclear weapon, the dangers of proliferation, and the convergence that we do have with Russia in battling against violent extremism.
The Chinese were consistent in their support of this effort because they understood that without a resolution, it could add even more chaos to a region on which they depend for their energy supplies. And throughout the negotiations, not many fissures developed in terms of the P5+1’s position. And that’s a testament to the work that John Kerry and Wendy Sherman, Ernie Moniz and the rest of our team did while they were there.
As far as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s claims, obviously I addressed those extensively in the speech. I will just reiterate that the effectiveness of our sanctions is, to a large degree, based on cooperation from other countries. These are secondary sanctions. So we are targeting companies, banks, institutions, individuals that are doing business with Iran. We don’t ― we haven’t done business in Iran since basically 1979.
So, yes, we have some leverage over other countries. But the flip side is other countries also have leverage over us. There are limits to which we are able to strong arm them into abiding by our policy judgments about what Iran should be required to do.
And as I pointed out in the speech, the buy-in from the world community, the consensus was around preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. The consensus was not around Iran never having any kind of nuclear program whatsoever, which is how Prime Minister Netanyahu has defined a “good deal”. And it was not around the need to initiate regime change inside of Iran, or to have them completely transform their ideological character.
And so if we had gone to the Chinese and the Russians and the Europeans and said, this is our bottom line, we would begin to see that coalition fray. And if we now had Congress reject an initiative that a U.S. President and a U.S. Secretary of State had led and that now has virtually universal approval, then it is inconceivable that President Xi or President Putin, or, for that matter, a number of our European partners would then say, we’ll just do what Tom Cotton has to say with respect to our geopolitical interests.
Q Mr. President, two similarly ― questions. The first is, in your speech, you said “The majority of the Iranian people have powerful incentives to urge their government to move in a different, less provocative direction.” You spoke of them as if they are participating in a democracy similar to ours, but their leadership is not elected. The Supreme Leader picks people to run for President. Do you feel that they’re moving in some sort of direction? How much power do you think the people have to move issues of national security?
THE PRESIDENT: Okay, I’ll give you a follow-up question. Let’s stop there so I don’t have to remember as much. I think you’re over-reading those lines, Jeff.
Q I read them very undramatically. (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: I wasn’t talking about your intonation. (Laughter.) Your diction was just fine.
Q I can do it ―
THE PRESIDENT: Yes. (Laughter.) I did not suggest that Iran is a democracy; just the opposite. I talked about it being a repressive theocracy. What I think is indisputable is that even within this repressive regime, the political leaders there ― including the Supreme Leader ― are sensitive to the concerns of the population within bounds. As we saw in the Green Revolution situation, they’re not going to be sufficiently sensitive that they allow public sentiments to threaten their own position. But the fact that a Rouhani is elevated to the presidency rather than other more hardline members of the ruling elite is in part a response to concerns that the Iranian people are getting restive because of the challenges that sanctions have posed to their economy.
And my simple point was that we do not weaken hardliners by taking an unyielding, antagonistic stance towards a President Rouhani or the negotiations that have taken place around the nuclear deal; that if a deal is in place, and sanctions relief results in ordinary Iranians feeling some additional prosperity and they’re involved in more international commerce and travel, that it is possible for those elements inside of Iranian society to gain a greater foothold and a stronger voice.
What I also said in the speech, directly after the paragraph you read, is I’m not counting on that. And so I want to be very clear: There is nothing in this deal that is dependent on a transformation of the character of the Iranian regime. This does not represent a strategic rapprochement between the United States and Iran. This is a hard-headed, clear-eyed, calculated decision to take ― to seize our best opportunity to lock down the possibility of Iran getting a nuclear weapon.
If byproducts occur out of that, that’s all the better. But I have no doubt that if Congress were to reject this deal, the biggest winners inside of Tehran would be the most hardline factions. And that I think was the primary point that I was making.
Q The question has to do with ― the next question has to do with hardliners. I interviewed Secretary Kerry on Friday and I asked him if he believes that the Iranian leadership actually seeks the physical elimination of the state of Israel. And his answer was interesting. He said he did not know. He suggested that Iran has had opportunities to wreak havoc on Israel and hasn’t. And he sort of wanted to just leave that question aside.
I wanted to just get you on the record talking about your analysis of that chain of threats, and if you believe that the Iranian leadership does ― or does seek the actually elimination of Israel and if this came up in your meeting yesterday with Jewish leaders, how that frames out in the ―
THE PRESIDENT: Well, we’ve discussed this before, Jeffrey. I take what the Supreme Leader says seriously. I think his ideology is steeped with anti-Semitism, and if he could, without catastrophic costs, inflict great harm on Israel, I’m confident that he would. But as I said I think the last time we spoke, it is possible for leaders or regimes to be cruel, bigoted, twisted in their world views and still make rational calculations with respect to their limits and their self-preservation.
And what we’ve seen at least since 1979 is Iran making constant, calculated decisions that allow it to preserve the regime, to expand their influence where they can, to be opportunistic, to create what they view as hedges against potential Israeli attack in the form of Hezbollah and other proxies in the region.
I think what Iran has been doing in Yemen is a perfect illustration of this. It’s a little off topic because it doesn’t relate to Israel, but when the Houthis started moving, that wasn’t on orders from Soleimani, that wasn’t on an order from the IRGC. That was an expression of the traditional Houthi antagonism towards Sanaa, and some of the machinations of the former president, Saleh, who was making common cause out of expediency with the Houthis.
And we watched as this proceeded. There were moments where Iran was actually urging potential restraint. Now, once the Houthis march in and there’s no there there, are they interested in getting arms to the Houthis and causing problems for the Saudis? Yes. But they weren’t proceeding on the basis of, come hell or high water, we’re moving on a holy war here. And it’s on that basis that we entered into the interim agreement.
If you look at how the interim agreement proceeded, they actually executed systematically. There were a couple of times where, by the way, during that interim agreement, they fell short of their obligations. We identified that quickly, insisted that if they didn’t fix it they weren’t getting the sanction relief that was promised, and it was fixed. And that actually, interestingly, gives us more confidence about our ability to manage the implementation of the larger deal.
Q Can I follow on that about the “death to America”? And this is something that comes up on the Hill constantly. I’ve been in Tehran three times in the last 18 months and you can hear it in the obvious places ― I went to an American embassy. What does that evoke from you when you hear this? How has it influenced your thinking or your ability to sell this deal?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, as I said before, it’s not appealing to deal with countries that express hatred towards us. It wasn’t easy to negotiate arms agreements with a near military peer that could blow up every American city. But when it comes to arms-control agreements or nonproliferation agreements of any magnitude, by definition you’re generally dealing with those folks. I don’t have to negotiate an arms agreement with Great Britain or with France.
James spent a lot of time in China. If you’re reading the party paper or watching state TV, you’re going to be quite offended on an ongoing basis. But nobody suggests that that’s not a relationship in which we have to talk and try to resolve conflicts. The same is true, obviously, with Russia ― particularly now, under Putin.
I think part of the underlying premise of why people don’t feel we should have to put up with that stuff is we’re bigger; if we launch a military strike, we can wipe them out. There is a little bit of that schoolyard attitude of, it’s one thing for a guy your own size to mouth off to you, but if there’s a little guy, you should just smack him around. And it’s probably bad advice in the schoolyard. It’s certainly not a good way to run a foreign policy because, as I said, even when you are dealing with a non-peer, militarily, war is complicated. And we should have learned that from the Iraq war. We swept in there, looked as if ― maybe this is true, this is only going to take three months, and then 13 years later, we’re still dealing with the aftermath of it.
Matt hasn’t had a chance yet. And his cough has settled down. Those are some good cough drops.
Q Thanks to Shailagh and all her team for helping me out. (Laughter.) You mentioned General Soleimani a moment ― I’m not the policy expert on this stuff that some people here are ― I’ve probably been in Columbus three times in the last year rather than Tehran. (Laughter.) But I did note some confusion on this issue and read about it in that he appears to actually be on the list for those targeted sanctions.
THE PRESIDENT: I’ll let Ben clarify but there are essentially two Soleimanis. It’s sort of like Jim Robinson and Jim Robinson. So that was the problem.
RHODES: So there are two issues. One is there are two Soleimanis. And in the first phase of sanctions relief, on implementation day, there are a number of Iranian officials who are removed from the designation list under the U.N. One of them is named Qasem Soleimani. He is a scientist. And given his involvement is purely with the nuclear program, that person ― the sanctions are suspended at the beginning. Then at the conclusion of the U.N. Security Council Resolution imposed sanctions, all of the people on the entities list expire. One of those people is the Qasem Soleimani. The key point here is, however ―
Q Can you tell them apart?
RHODES: We spent a lot of money on our intelligence community to be able to do that, but the key point here is, our sanctions on Qasem Soleimani are such that secondary sanctions ― so anybody who does business with Qasem Soleimani is cut off from the U.S. financial system. So there’s no practical effect from him being taken off a U.N. list, because we will still be enforcing sanctions.
THE PRESIDENT: But I do want to build on that point. This is an example of where some targeted, selective applications of unilateral sanctions can make a difference. Because it’s one thing for us to say to the Chinese, you do business with Qasem Soleimani and we will sanction your bank, because this guy is responsible for the death of Americans, the death of Israelis, and a lot of bad stuff around the region. And the Chinese can look at that and make a calculation and say, we’ll leave that alone. It’s very different for us to say to the Chinese, you have gone along with us for the last three or four years in not purchasing Iranian oil at the same levels and essentially freezing investments that were entrain into the Iranian oil industry in order to advance your economy. And now we want you to continue to do that same thing for the next five years, or for an indefinite period, pending Iran submitting to our maximalist demands on a nuclear program.
So I just wanted to I think be clear. We can preserve our unilateral sanctions with respect to terrorism, human rights, and so forth. Some of those remain in place at the U.N. level, some of those are ours, we will continue to be able to add to those, to refine those based on evidence of activities in the region.
But that is very different from us thinking that in wholesale fashion we can strong-arm the entire world to go along with our position on what Iran needs to do to satisfy us.
Q Could I ask you about a plan B?
THE PRESIDENT: I want to make sure folks who ― because I’m not going to be here forever, so I want to make sure folks ―
Q Thanks so much. I want to ask you a little bit more about when we were talking about the Iranian regime’s sensitivity to politics and public opinion. And, indeed, it does seem like Khamenei was able to do this and reach over the hardliners and “death to America” types in part because the public really supports this. But the public seems to premise their support on expectations for what this deal is going to do that aren’t from ― a little unrealistic, and Rouhani himself is talking about what this is going to do for Iran in a way that seems unrealistic. Do you worry about once those hopes are ― inevitably come crashing to reality, public opinion could shift in a way that could empower hardliners who oppose the deal and benefit personally from sanctions, especially since they have elections coming up next year?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes. But in six months’ time, assuming Congress has not rejected the deal, we will have seen Iran’s stockpiles moving out. We will have seen Fordow emptied out. We will have seen Iraq transformed. We will have seen three-quarters of ― or two-thirds of the centrifuges in Natanz carted away. We will have installed inspectors up and down the nuclear chain.
And if, in fact, there ends up being a shift inside of Iran, and the hardliners are ascendant, and they decide that they don’t like the deal or want to renegotiate deal or want to try to cheat in the deal, we’ll figure that out very quick. And we will have purchased additional time and space, because the break-out times will have become much longer, to be able to snapback sanctions, rally the world community and, if necessary, take other actions to prevent Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon.
So I have gotten out of the business of prognosticating American elections and political movements. I wouldn’t have expected Mr. Trump to be at center stage in a Republican primary debate, so I’m certainly not going to speculate on ―
Q But you’re looking forward to it? (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: ― what happens in the politics of Iran over the course of the next several years.
Q Could I ask about plan B ― as what I wanted to put it ― but it is possible that you won’t be able to get enough votes to prevent Congress from overriding your veto and that this deal ― if all the work, all the arguments you made on behalf of it will not be proved, I just want to ask you about ―
THE PRESIDENT: Let me stop you because I want you to save, to preserve potentially another question. (Laughter.) I make it a policy not to anticipate failure. And so ―
Q That sounds like a football coach. Just to take your speech ―
THE PRESIDENT: Well, let me just give you an example. I’ve got 16 million people with health care right now and I don’t recall providing extensive interviews on what we would do if the Supreme Court ruled adversely on King versus Burwell.
Q I just want to focus on one passage in the speech where you do address this and I just want to tease out the other part of this. So you say, a congressional rejection of this deal leaves any U.S. administration committed to preventing Iran from getting ― et cetera ― with one option, another war in the Middle East. I just want to ask whether that’s actually the way you look at it. Because if that’s ―
THE PRESIDENT: That’s a fair question because I think that there are those who think this is an unfair characterization or this is a straw man or so forth. I would point out, though, that some of those same people just a while back were arguing we should just go ahead and take a strike and it would be okay.
Q I just want to ask whether that’s actually the look at it.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, that’s a fair question, because I think there are those who think this is an unfair characterization, or this is a straw man, or so forth. I would point out, though, that some of those same people just a while back were arguing that we should just go ahead and take a strike and it would be okay. And now suddenly, because maybe that’s not the most popular position to garner votes from Democrats in Congress, they’re insisting no, no, no, no, no ― that’s not necessary; we can just apply more sanctions.
So there’s a little bit of this that’s not on the level. But as I said in the speech, I do not say that a military option is inevitable just to be provocative, just to win the argument. Those are the dictates of cold, hard logic. If, in fact, we do not implement this negotiated agreement, and if ― as I think I can show ― that doubling down on unilateral sanctions will not produce the results that the critics are looking for, and if ― as I am quite certain ― it is not possible for us to force our P5+1 partners or other countries, like India or South Korea or even Japan, to abide by our views of what ― or at least Congress’s views of what is required to give Iran relief, then, David, we’ve sort of run out of options at that point.
No one has described to me what remaining leverage that we have. Now, at minimum, what we’ve done is we’ve put Iran in the driver’s seat. And Iran could make various decisions here, none of which are good for us, and all of which are good for them. They could decide to pull out of the comprehensive deal or the interim deal, put the entire blame on the United States, and proceed with their R&D, their research, the installation of more advanced centrifuges, claiming the entire time that these are all still peaceful. They would have been willing to defer on the installation of some of those centrifuges in exchange for sanctions relief, but since the U.S. Congress refused to be reasonable, they’re going to go ahead ― in which case, the scenario that everybody talks about happening 15 years from now happens six, nine, twelve months now.
Alternatively, they could say, we’re going to go ahead and abide by the deal, despite what the U.S. Congress says, and put our partners ― Russia, China, as well as the Europeans ― on notice that they’re ready to do business. And maybe it’s possible that for a certain period of time we can hang on to the Europeans ― not certain; maybe. Maybe we can twist some arms to have some of our Asian allies hang on.
It’s hard to conceive of Russia and China not taking full advantage of that ― not only because of commercial purposes, but because of the enormous propaganda boom that it provides them at a time when the entire story they’re telling around the world is that U.S. hegemony is over, that we need an entirely new set of global institutions that are more reflective of the balance of power. And in that scenario, then Iran is going to get some of that sanction relief anyway, and our credibility in terms of now being able to exercise any influence on how the Security Council thinks about this thing has been completely eroded.
I mean, I’d have to talk to the lawyers as to what standing we would even have ― since Congress would have rejected this deal ― for us to be a party to it, in which case we’re not in the room, potentially ― again, I haven’t even talked to the lawyers about this ― in terms of how the snapback provisions or the commission dealing with the disputes, or what have you, are managed, because Congress has just said we can’t be a party to this thing.
So in almost every scenario, our ability to monitor what’s happening in Iran, our ability to ensure that they are not breaking out, our ability to inspect their facilities, our ability to force them to abide by the deal has gone out the window. And as I said in the speech, everybody around this table knows that within six months or nine months ― I don’t know how long it would take ― of Iran having pulled out of this deal, or cheated on this deal, or interpreted the deal in a way that was deemed contrary to the spirit, if not the letter, of the deal, that some of the same voices who were opposed to the deal would insist that the only way to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon is to take strikes. And it will be framed as limited military strikes, and it will be suggested that Iran will not respond, but we will have entered into a war.
That doesn’t mean that Iran suddenly attacks us directly. It does mean that I’ve got a whole bunch of U.S. troops on the ground trying to help Baghdad fight ISIL, and they’re now looking over their shoulders with a host of Shia militia. It does mean that Hezbollah potentially makes use of some of those rockets into Israel, which then precipitates us having to take action. It does mean that the Strait of Hormuz suddenly becomes a live theater in which one member of the IRGC, or Quds Force, or Mr. Soleimani directs a suicide speedboat crashing into one of our naval ships, in which case I think it’s fair to say that the Commander-in-Chief of the United States will be called upon to respond.
Q Do you have a head count on the Hill?
THE PRESIDENT: So I just want to be very clear, for those who suggest that my presentation is unfair, I would simply ask them to explain the weakness in my logic here. I don’t think you’ll find one. The President of the United States ― and it may not be me, it may be the next President ― will be confronted with decisions that are far less effective than the decisions that are made under the umbrella of this negotiated agreement. And that’s why I’m confident that at least a sufficient portion of Congress will support it.
Q But do you have a head count?
THE PRESIDENT: We’re not going to get into ― come on, we’re having a big geopolitical conversation. (Laughter.) You work for The New Yorker, you don’t work for Roll Call.
Q All right, here’s a big geopolitical question. The Gulf States, and the Saudis in particular, where are they? Because they’re nervous, they haven’t been happy. On the other hand, there was a GCC meeting this week, and they said pretty positive things. There’s what you say, there’s what you really think. Can you sort it out?
THE PRESIDENT: The Gulf States are extraordinarily suspicious of Iran for good reason. They view Iran as meddling in their affairs. They have seen Iran level asymmetric attacks against their facilities or their interests. But I do think that the Camp David session that we had with the GCC leaders gave them confidence that we consider them valuable allies; that we are prepared to deepen, rather than reduce, our defense cooperation. And I do think they recognize that they are going to have to shift how they deploy their defense resources to be more effective in blunting some of the destabilizing activities that Iran engages in.
As I said in the speech, collectively they spend eight times more than Iran does, and clearly they’re getting less bang for the buck. And I think that the discussion we’ve had with them, and the consultations that are ongoing about how they can rethink not only their individual defense postures but also their collective efforts on something like missile defense, for example, is something that they appreciate. And I do believe they also recognize that an Iran with a nuclear weapon is a disaster for them.
Q Another geopolitical question. You say that this deal is a good deal, even if the Iranian regime doesn’t change at or the internal Iranian politics. But at the same time, you’ve said a little bit in here and you’ve said in the past that you recognize that there are certain dynamics that might be unleashed as a result of this. What do you think in terms of Iranian politics is the most likely thing that might happen? Or in terms of this more optimistic view of the hardliners being delegitimized, and the things that spring from that ― can you put a chance of what probability that might happen?
THE PRESIDENT: I just don’t know. When Nixon went to China, Mao was still in power. He had no idea how that was going to play out. He didn’t know that Deng Xiaoping suddenly comes in and decides that it doesn’t matter what color the cat is as long as it catches mice, and the next thing you know you’ve got this state capitalism on the march. You couldn’t anticipate that.
When the first arms control treaties were entered into with the Soviet Union, nobody was anticipating that at some point the entire system ― well, maybe (inaudible) was anticipating it ― but at some point, the system rots to the point where the Berlin Wall comes down; you have a more immediate objective, which is let’s make sure that we’re not triggering nuclear war.
More recently, with the help of Ben Rhodes and others, I was the first President to visit Burma ― after 40 years of as repressive a regime as there is. And we still don’t know yet how that experiment plays itself out. But what we do know is suddenly there’s this opening, this space, in which media is beginning to operate, and political prisoners have been released, and Aung San Suu Kyi is running for ― or her party is running for seats in the Parliament, and a new constitution is being slated. And we don’t know whether it’s going to get over the hump and suddenly Burma is completely transformed, or whether it retrenches as the generals in that country get scared about losing their privileges and prerogatives. But what we’ve done is we’ve created a possibility for change.
Cuba is actually one where I am more optimistic because of the unique nature of Cuba ― 90 miles off our shore with a massive ex-patriot population, now Cuban-American population that still have deep links to the island. There I am more confident that over time that the winds of commerce and telecommunication and travel start shifting the nature of that regime. But that’s a small country which has almost a unique relationship to us.
Tehran is the latest ― or Iran is the latest expression of a deep, ancient, powerful culture that’s different than ours. And we don’t know how it’s going to play itself out. But as I said before, it’s not necessary for us to be optimistic in order for us to assess the value of this deal. If you believe that Tehran will not change, and the latest version of the current Supreme Leader is in charge 10, 15, years from now, and Soleimani is still running the show over at the IRGC, you’d still want this deal. In fact, you want this deal even more.
The fantasy, the naiveté, the optimism, is to think that we reject this deal and somehow it all solves itself with a couple of missile strikes ― that is not sound foreign policy.
Q Mr. President?
THE PRESIDENT: Last question.
Q You’ve spent a lot of time the last few days talking to American Jewish leaders, with Jewish organizations. AIPAC obviously is the (inaudible) of the effort to subvert this or ― I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about what you’ve learned from your encounters with these leaders ― many of whom are your supporters, actually, in other areas. What are you learning about their knowledge of this issue, their fears about what’s coming? Do you feel that you’ve made any progress in moving them to a less militant position?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, Jeff, as you know, there is a wide range of views within the Jewish community, so it’s not monolithic.
Q (Inaudible.) (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: Yes. The polls ― if they’re to be trusted ― would indicate that a majority of American Jews support the deal, but a sizeable minority oppose it. Among the organizations, I think that there are those who are fiercely opposed and there are those who are strongly supportive. And then there are a bunch of folks who are skeptical and anxious and still trying to figure it out.
As I said in the speech, the anxieties of the American Jewish community are entirely understandable. Those are amplified when there appears to be across-the-board opposition inside of Israel, not just within Likud, but among other parties. And some of that is emotional ― n a legitimate way. You don’t like dealing with somebody who denies horrible things happening to your people or threatens future horrible things to your people. Some of it is based on legitimate concerns about what a economically stronger Iran could do to further enhance their support of Hezbollah.
But I will say this: When I sit down with a group of Jewish leaders, just as when I sit down with members of Congress, just as when I sit down with policy analysts, I do not hear back credible arguments on the other side. I hear talking points that have been prepared. But if you dig deep into it, the anxieties are real, they’re legitimate, but arguments that would carry the day as to why we wouldn’t do this deal, I haven’t heard presented in a way that I think persuades the room, much less persuades me.
And some of that, Jeffrey, I do think has to do with the fact that the average layperson who is not steeped in this stuff and is just reading that Israel is opposed, and knows what the Supreme Leader said about Israel is naturally inclined to lean no more than yes. And if they’re not sitting down with me for an hour, or John Kerry or Ernie Moniz for an hour, it’s hard to absorb all that.
I will tell you an anecdote which I think you’re aware of and you can draw your own conclusions from ― when AIPAC did have a (inaudible) of 700 people, I instructed Ben to invite AIPAC to meet with Wendy Sherman and Adam Szubin, who has, since 2005, been in charge of applying sanctions. And my Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, accompanied them. And they made a half-hour presentation and were prepared to stay there as long as AIPAC wanted to answer every single question that might be presented in the crowd, and AIPAC declined the offer to ask questions.
And my working assumption is, is that a number of those people who had flown in and, rightly, feel passionate about this issue would have benefited from hearing directly from Wendy Sherman and that they would have, perhaps, had a different view of this deal. They would have benefited from hearing directly from Adam Szubin about how sanctions work and why it’s not credible to think that simply doubling down on unilateral sanctions would bring about a so-called better deal.
So part of our job is to just get information out. Part of the purpose of this speech today was to get information out. And I want everybody to just know the facts on this, as much as can penetrate our public in the middle of August, because if you know the facts, you should be for this deal.
Q One quick little follow-up to that?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, a little tiny one.
Q Little tiny one. AIPAC certainly has spent a lot of money on this issue, as have the Gulf States. There isn’t really any money getting spent on the other side. Iran obviously for obvious reasons can’t spend money in Washington.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, welcome to my world. (Laughter.) I went through six years of battles on health care because I didn’t have $100 million worth of advertising saying how it would never work. I’m about to embark on what may be as important as an initiative as anything I do as President, trying to nudge the world in the direction of doing something serious about climate change. I guarantee you we will be handily outspent there.
You’re now raising just a broader question, Ryan, of what’s happening in our political system and the degree to which super PACs and big media and ideologically-driven billionaires can shape the debate in unprecedented ways.
What we have to rely on are grassroots networks and me being able to get on the horn with a bunch or rabbis and hopefully they’re paying attention. Or me talking to folks in states that still have a reliance on coal and explaining to those workers why there is opportunity in the shift to clean energy. Or having stories get around after 16 million people get health care that I may not like Obama, but I know my cousin was able to have a tumor removed without losing their house. And you work with what you got. I don’t have an easy answer for that one.
Q A one-word question: Which is tougher ― Obamacare or the Iran deal?
THE PRESIDENT: Nothing is easy in this town. (Laughter.) But it’s all worthwhile.
Thank you, guys.
END 4:30 P.M. EDT
Author: Ryan Grim