In a wide-ranging talk with Haim Saban, the entertainment mogul who funds the annual Saban Forum in Washington, Obama took aim at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claims that increased pressure during the interim talks would extract greater concessions from Iran, and anticipated a final deal that would grant Iran some uranium enrichment capabilities.
Alluding to the view of Netanyahu and a number of lawmakers in Congress, Obama said, “what this comes up down to is the perception that if we kept churning up the pressure, new sanctions, more sanctions, more military threats etc, that eventually Iran would cave.”
Instead, Obama said, that would likely drive away allies who have helped keep up the pressure on Iran through U.S.-led sanctions.
Obama outlined U.S. red lines in a final agreement, including the dismantling of the plutonium reactor at Arak and the underground nuclear reactor at Fordow, as well as advanced centrifuges.
However, he made clear an enrichment program would remain in place that would ensure that “as a practical matter, they don’t have a breakout capacity.”
That, Obama acknowledged, contradicted Netanyahu’s objective that “we can’t accept any enrichment on Iranian soil, full stop.”
Israel’s government believes that Iran has been allowed to advance its nuclear capability to the point where even a modest enrichment capability positions it dangerously close to weapons breakout capacity.
Demanding no enrichment, Obama said, was unrealistic, likening it to his believing Congress would pass every one of his legislative initiatives.
The Iranians needed to come to a deal that would afford them some “dignity,” he said, and alluded to broad popular support for some enrichment capacity.
Obama said that he did not trust Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s newly elected president, but noted that he was elected on a platform of reaching out to the West.
Again alluding to a Netanyahu claim, he said that those who say Rouhani is not different from his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadeinjad, a Holocaust denier and anti-Israel maximalist, “understate the shift in politics” in Iran.
Obama twice said that he would reassert the military option should talks fail with Iran.
“I’ve made clear I can avail myself of including a military option, is one we can consider and prepare for,” he said.
He emphatically rejected hard lines in dealing with other countries. “Wherever we see the impulses of a people to move away from conflict and violence and toward a diplomatic resolution of conflict we should be ready to engage them,” he said. “We have to not constantly assume that it’s not possible for Iran like any country to change over time.”
Obama said he had a good, open relationship with Netanyahu. “There are occasionally significant tactical differences, but there is a constancy in trying to reach the same goal,” he said of the relationship.
Addressing renewed Israeli-Palestinian talk,s Obama said mediation is currently focused on addressing Israeli security needs, and appeared to back away from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s insistence that the sides achieve a final status agreement next year.
An agreement, he said, need not address “every detail” but is one that “gets us to a moment that gets us to move forward than move backward.”
10th Anniversary Saban Forum
Watch a live webcast of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (via videoconference) tomorrow morning at 10:15am
Power Shifts: U.S.-Israel Relations in a Dynamic Middle East
Video Archive, December 7: Keynote Address by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry:
On December 6-8, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings is hosting its 10th annual Saban Forum, titled “Power Shifts: U.S.-Israel Relations in a Dynamic Middle East.” This year’s event features remarks by U.S. President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, all of which are being webcast.
Over the past 10 years, the Forum has served as a venue for unparalleled dialogue on U.S.-Israel relations between American and Israeli officials, business executives, policymakers and thought leaders from across the political and social spectrum. As a result, the Saban Forum has become a seminal event, generating creative new ideas to address the issues confronting the United States and Israel in the Middle East.
The Saban Forum has hosted many distinguished leaders, including President William J. Clinton, President George W. Bush, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, HM King Abdullah of Jordan, President Shimon Peres, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, former British Prime Minister and Middle East Envoy Tony Blair, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice and Henry Kissinger.