President Obama Speaks at the Saban Forum

The President:
Hello. Mr. Saban:
How are you doing? The President:
I’m good. Hello, everybody. Mr. Saban:
One of your staffers said
you are in a great mood this afternoon, so — The President:
I am. Mr. Saban:
— we’re doubly blessed here. So that’s terrific. I’d like to thank you very
much for being here today, Mr. President. The Forum, and I personally,
are honored to have you join us in this conversation. And I am personally
honored that you insisted that I have this
conversation with you, even though I never
set foot for any conversation for 10 years. So thank you. I’m very honored. Shall we start with Iran? The President:
We should. Mr. Saban:
Okay, good. [laughter] Mr. President, polls indicate
that 77 percent of Israelis don’t believe this first nuclear
deal will preclude Iran from having nuclear weapons, and
they perceive this fact as an existential
matter for them. What can you say to the Israeli
people to address their concern? The President:
Well, first, before
I answer the question, let me say to you, Haim, thank you so much for
the great work that you’ve done. I think the Saban Forum
and the Saban Center has done outstanding work, and it provides
us a mechanism where we don’t just scratch
the surface of these issues. Obviously the challenges in
the Middle East are enormous, and the work that’s being
done here is terrific. So I want to also thank Strobe
for hosting us here today, and all of you who are here,
including some outstanding members of the Israeli
government and some friends that I haven’t seen in a while. So thanks for having me. Let me start with
the basic premise that I’ve said repeatedly. It is in America’s national
security interests, not just Israel’s national
interests or the region’s national security interests, to prevent Iran from
getting a nuclear weapon. And let’s remember where we were
when I first came into office. Iran had gone from having
less than 200 centrifuges to having thousands
of centrifuges, in some cases more
advanced centrifuges. There was a program that
had advanced to the point where their breakout capacity had accelerated in ways
that we had been concerned about for quite some
time and, as a consequence, what I said to my
team and what I said to our international partners was that we are going to
have to be much more serious about how we change the
cost-benefit analysis for Iran. We put in place an unprecedented
regime of sanctions that has crippled
Iran’s economy, cut their oil revenues
by more than half, have put enormous pressure
on their currency — their economy contracted by
more than 5 percent last year. And it is precisely because
of the international sanctions and the coalition that we were
able to build internationally that the Iranian people
responded by saying, we need a new direction
in how we interact with the international
community and how we deal with this sanctions regime. And that’s what brought
President Rouhani to power. He was not necessarily
the first choice of the hardliners
inside of Iran. Now, that doesn’t mean
that we should trust him or anybody else inside of Iran. This is a regime that came
to power swearing opposition to the United States, to Israel, and to many of
the values that we hold dear. But what I’ve consistently
said is even as I don’t take any options off the table,
what we do have to test is the possibility
that we can resolve this issue diplomatically. And that is the deal
that, at the first stages, we have been able to
get done in Geneva, thanks to some extraordinary
work by John Kerry and his counterparts in the P5-plus-1. So let’s look at
exactly what we’ve done. For the first time
in over a decade, we have halted advances in
the Iranian nuclear program. We have not only made sure that
in Fordor and Natanz that they have to stop adding
additional centrifuges, we’ve also said that they’ve got
to roll back their 20 percent advanced enrichment. So we’re — Mr. Saban:
To how much? The President:
Down to zero. So you remember when Prime
Minister Netanyahu made his presentation before the
United Nations last year — Mr. Saban:
The cartoon with the red line? The President:
The picture of a bomb — he was referring to
20 percent enrichment, which the concern was if
you get too much of that, you now have sufficient
capacity to go ahead and create a nuclear weapon. We’re taking that down to zero. We are stopping the advancement
of the Arak facility, which would provide
an additional pathway, a plutonium pathway for the
development of nuclear weapons. We are going to have daily
inspectors in Fordor and Natanz. We’re going to have additional
inspections in Arak. And as a consequence,
during this six-month period, Iran cannot and will not advance
its program or add additional stockpiles of advanced
uranium — enriched uranium. Now, what we’ve done in exchange
is kept all these sanctions in place — the architecture
remains with respect to oil, with respect to finance,
with respect to banking. What we’ve done is we’ve
turned the spigot slightly and we’ve said,
here’s maximum $7 billion out of the over $100 billion of
revenue of theirs that is frozen as a consequence
of our sanctions, to give us the time and
the space to test whether they can move in
a direction, a comprehensive, permanent agreement that
would give us all assurances that they’re not
producing nuclear weapons. Mr. Saban:
I understand. A quick question as it relates
to the $7 billion, if I may. The President:
Please. Mr. Saban:
How do we prevent those
who work with us in Geneva, who have already descended
on Tehran looking for deals, to cause the seven to become 70? Because we can
control what we do, but what is the extent that
we can control the others? The President:
Well, Haim, this is precisely why the timing
of this was right. One of the things we
were always concerned about was that if we did not
show good faith in trying to resolve
this issue diplomatically, then the sanctions
regime would begin to fray. Keep in mind that this was
two years of extraordinary diplomatic work
on behalf of our team to actually get the
sanctions in place. They’re not just
the unilateral sanctions that are created
by the United States. These are sanctions that are
also participated in by Russia, by China, and some allies of
ours like South Korea and Japan that find these
sanctions very costly. But that’s precisely why
they’ve become so effective. And so what we’ve
said is that we do not loosen any of the core sanctions; we provide a small
window through which they can access some revenue, but we can control it
and it is reversible. And during the course
of these six months, if and when Iran shows itself not to be abiding
by this agreement, not to be negotiating
in good faith, we can reverse them and
tighten them even further. But here is the bottom line. Ultimately, my goal as President
of the United States — something that I’ve said
publicly and privately and shared everywhere
I’ve gone — is to prevent Iran
from getting a nuclear weapon. But what I’ve also said is the
best way for us to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapons
is for a comprehensive, verifiable,
diplomatic resolution, without taking any
other options off the table if we fail to achieve that. It is important for
us to test that proposition during the next six months, understanding that
while we’re talking, they’re not secretly improving
their position or changing circumstances on the
ground inside of Iran. And if at the end of six months
it turns out that we can’t make a deal, we’re no worse off, and
in fact we have greater leverage with the international community
to continue to apply sanctions and even strengthen them. If, on the other hand, we’re
able to get this deal done, then what we can achieve through
a diplomatic resolution of this situation is, frankly, greater
than what we could achieve with the other options that
are available to us. Mr. Saban:
Let’s all hope we get there. The President:
Absolutely. Mr. Saban:
You have hosted Passover
dinners at the White House. The President:
I have. Mr. Saban:
And you know this famous saying, “Why is this night different
than any other night?” In that context, I would
like to ask you a question. The President:
Please. Mr. Saban:
With the best intentions
and all efforts, President Reagan vowed that
Pakistan would not go nuclear. Didn’t happen. With the best intentions
and all efforts, President Clinton vowed that
North Korea won’t go nuclear. Why is this nuclear
deal different than any other nuclear deal? [laughter] The President:
Well, we don’t know yet. No, we don’t know yet. I think it’s important
for everybody to understand this is hard. Because the technology
of the nuclear cycle, you can get off the Internet;
the knowledge of creating a nuclear weapons is
already out there. And Iran is a large country
and it is a relatively wealthy country, and so we have to take
seriously the possibility that they are going to try
to get a nuclear weapon. That’s what this whole
exercise is about. Having said that,
if you look at the history, by the time we got an
agreement with North Korea, they essentially already
had a nuclear weapon. With respect to Pakistan,
there was never the kinds of inspection regimes and
international sanctions and U.N. resolutions
that were in place. We have been able to craft
an international effort and verification mechanism
around the Iran nuclear program that is unprecedented
and unique. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. And that’s why we have
to take it seriously. But I think one of the things that I’ve repeatedly
said when people ask, why should we try
to negotiate with them, we can’t trust them,
we’re being naïve, what I try to describe
to them is not the choice between this deal and the ideal, but the choice between this
deal and other alternatives. If I had an option,
if we could create an option in which Iran eliminated
every single nut and bolt of their nuclear program, and foreswore the possibility of
ever having a nuclear program, and, for that matter, got rid of
all its military capabilities, I would take it, but — Mr. Saban:
Next question — The President:
Sorry, Haim, I want
to make sure everybody understands it — that particular option
is not available. And so as a consequence,
what we have to do is to make a decision as to,
given the options available, what is the best way
for us to assure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon. And the best way for us to
assure it is to test this diplomatic path, understanding
that it’s not based on trust; it’s based on what
we can verify. And it also, by the way, does
not negate the fact that Iran is engaging in a whole bunch of
other behavior in the Middle East and around
the world that is detrimental to the United States and
detrimental to Israel. And we will continue to contest
their efforts where they’re engaging in terrorism, where
they’re being disruptive to our friends and our allies. We will not abide by any threats
to our friends and allies in the region, and we’ve made
that perfectly clear. And our commitment to Israel’s
security is sacrosanct, and they understand that. They don’t have any
doubt about that. But if we can negotiate on the
nuclear program in the same way that Ronald Reagan was able to
negotiate with the Soviet Union even as we were still contesting
them around the world, that removes one more
threat — and a critical, existential threat — takes
it out of their arsenal. And it allows us then to
ultimately I think win them — defeat some of their agenda
throughout the region without worrying that somehow it’s going
to escalate or trigger a nuclear arms race in the most
volatile part of the world. Mr. Saban:
Unfortunately, you’re
right — it would. Tom Friedman had
an interesting perspective in one of his columns. He said, “Never negotiate with
Iran without some leverage and some crazy on your side. We have to out-crazy
the crazies.” Do you think he has a point? [laughter] The President:
Well, Tom is
a very smart observer. And I know that my friend, Bibi,
is going to be speaking later, and if Tom wants
to characterize Bibi the way you
just described, that’s his — Mr. Saban:
I didn’t say that. The President:
— that’s his prerogative,
that’s not my view. [laughter] Prime Minister Netanyahu and I
have had constant consultations on these issues throughout
the last five years. And something that I think bears
repeating: The United States military cooperation with
Israel has never been stronger. Our intelligence
cooperation with Israel has never been stronger. Our support of Israel’s security
has never been stronger. Whether you’re talking
about Iron Dome, whether you’re talking about
trying to manage the situation in Gaza a little over
a year ago, across the board, our coordination on the concrete
issues facing Israel’s security has never been stronger. And that’s not just my opinion;
I think that’s something that can be verified. There are times where I, as
President of the United States, am going to have different
tactical perspectives than the Prime
Minister of Israel — and that is understandable, because Israel cannot
contract out its security. In light of the history that the
people of Israel understand all too well, they have to
make sure that they are making their own assessments
about what they need to do to protect themselves. And we respect that. And I have said
that consistently to the Prime Minister. But ultimately, it is my view,
from a tactical perspective, that we have to test
out this proposition. It will make us stronger
internationally, and it may possibly lead to a
deal that we’ll have to show to the world, in fact, assures
us that Iran is not getting a nuclear weapon. It’s not as if there’s
going to be a lot of capacity to hide the ball here. We’re going to be able
to make an assessment, because this will
be subject to the P5-plus-1 and the international
community looking at the details of every aspect of
a potential final deal, and we’re consulting with all our friends,
including Israel, in terms of what would
that end state look like. And if we can’t get there, then no deal
is better than a bad deal. But presuming that it’s
going to be a bad deal and, as a consequence,
not even trying for a deal I think would
be a dire mistake. Mr. Saban:
Well, personally, I find
a lot of comfort in the fact that even though the United
States and Israel may have red lines in different places,
we are on the same place as far as the
bottom line goes — The President: Absolutely. Mr. Saban:
— and Iran will not
have nuclear weapons. Fair to say? The President:
Absolutely. That is more than fair. Mr. Saban: Good. Thank you. Should we move to these
Israeli-Palestinians — The President:
We should. Mr. Saban: Okay. [laughter] Very obedient President
I have here today. [laughter] The President:
This is the Saban Forum, so you’re in charge. [laughter] Mr. Saban:
I wish. [laughter] The President:
Or Cheryl is in charge. Mr. Saban:
You’re more on
now, Mr. President. It is Cheryl who is in charge. The President:
That’s exactly right. Mr. Saban: Anyway. [laughter] First of all, before
I ask the first question, I would be remiss if I didn’t,
from the bottom of my heart, thank you for your continuous
effort to achieve peace in the Middle East. Thank you so very much. [applause] The President:
I appreciate it. Thank you. Mr. Saban:
So people talk about
an imposed American solution. We’ve heard these rumors
rumbling around for a while. The U.S. has always
said it doesn’t want to impose. What would you propose? The President:
Well, first of all, this is a challenge that
we’ve been wrestling with for 60 years. And what I’ve consistently said
is that the only way this is going to be resolved
is if the people of Israel and the Palestinian people make a determination
that their futures and the futures of their
children and grandchildren will be better off with
peace than with conflict. The United States can be
an effective facilitator of that negotiation
and dialogue; we can help to bridge
differences and bridge gaps. But both sides have
to want to get there. And I have to commend
Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas
for the courageous efforts that have led to
very serious conversations over the last several months. They are not easy. But they come down
to what we all know are going to be the core issues: territory; security;
refugees; Jerusalem. And there are not a lot
of secrets or surprises at this point. We know what the outlines
of a potential agreement might look like. And the question then becomes
are both sides willing to take the very tough
political risks involved if their bottom lines are met. For the Palestinians,
the bottom line is that they have
a state of their own that is real and meaningful. For the Israelis, the bottom
line is, to a large extent, is the state of Israel
as a Jewish state secure. And those issues
have been spoken about over the last several months
in these negotiations in a very serious way. And I know Tzipi Livni is here
and been participating in that, and we’re very grateful
for her efforts there. And I think it is possible
over the next several months to arrive at a framework that does
not address every single detail but gets us to a point where
everybody recognizes better to move forward than
move backwards. Sometimes when you’re
climbing up a mountain, even when it’s scary, it’s
actually easier to go up than it is to go down. And I think that we’re now at
a place where we can achieve a two-state solution in which
Israelis and Palestinians are living side-by-side
in peace and security. But it’s going to require
some very tough decisions. One thing I have to say, though,
is we have spent a lot of time working with Prime Minister
Netanyahu and his entire team to understand from an Israeli
perspective what is required for the security of Israel
in such a scenario. And we — going back
to what I said earlier — we understand that we can’t
dictate to Israel what it needs for its security. But what we have done
is to try to understand it and then see through
a consultative process, are there ways that, through technology,
through additional ideas, we can potentially
provide for that. And I assigned one of our top
former generals, John Allen, who most recently headed up the entire coalition
effort in Afghanistan — he’s retired now,
but he was willing to take on this mission — and he’s been working
to examine the entire set of challenges
around security — Mr. Saban:
Has he concluded anything? The President:
Well, he’s come up
to — he has arrived at the conclusion that it is
possible to create a two-state solution that preserves
Israel’s core security needs. Now, that’s his conclusion, but ultimately he’s
not the decision-maker here. Prime Minister Netanyahu
and the Israeli military and intelligence folks have
to make that determination. And ultimately, the Palestinians
have to also recognize that there is going to be
a transition period where the Israeli people
cannot expect a replica of Gaza in the West Bank. That is unacceptable. And I think we believe that we
can arrive at that point where Israel was confident about that,
but we’re going to have to see whether the Israelis agree and
whether President Abbas, then, is willing to understand that
this transition period requires some restraint on the part
of the Palestinians as well. They don’t get everything
that they want on day one. And that creates
some political problems for President Abbas, as well. Mr. Saban: Yes. Well, I’d say my next question
of what was the reaction of the Prime Minister to
General Allen for John Kerry. The President:
Yes, ask John Kerry, or ask the Prime Minister. Mr. Saban: Okay. The President:
I don’t want to speak for him. [laughter] Mr. Saban:
They won’t tell me, but, okay. [laughter] The President:
That’ probably true. Mr. Saban:
My last question: The
Palestinians are two people — one in the West Bank,
led by President Abbas that is negotiating
the deal; and one in Gaza, led by Hamas that
wants to eradicate Israel from the face of the Earth. President Abbas,
as far as I know, says he won’t make a deal
that doesn’t include Gaza, which he doesn’t control. How do we get out
from this labyrinth? The President:
Well, I think this is going
to have to happen in stages. But here’s what I know
from my visits to Israel, my visits to the West Bank:
There are people of goodwill on both sides that recognize the
status quo is not sustainable over the long term,
and as a consequence, it is in the interests of both
the Israelis and Palestinians to resolve this issue. There are young people,
teenagers that I met both in Israel and in the Palestinian
Territories that want to get out from under this history and seek
a future that is fundamentally different for them. And so if, in fact, we can
create a pathway to peace, even if initially it’s
restricted to the West Bank, if there is a model where young
Palestinians in Gaza are looking and seeing that in the West Bank
Palestinians are able to live in dignity, with
self-determination, and suddenly their economy is
booming and trade is taking place because they have created
an environment in which Israel is confident about its security
and a lot of the old barriers to commerce and educational
exchange and all that has begun to break down, that’s something
that the young people of Gaza are going to want. And the pressure that will be
placed for the residents of Gaza to experience that same future
is something that is going to be I think overwhelmingly
appealing. But that is probably going to
take place during the course of some sort of transition period. And the security requirements
that Israel requires will have to be met. And I think that is able —
that we can accomplish that, but ultimately it’s going
to be something that requires everybody to stretch out
of their comfort zones. And the one thing I will say to
the people of Israel is that you can be assured whoever is in
the office I currently occupy, Democrat or Republican,
that your security will be uppermost on our minds. That will not change. And that should not mean
you let up on your vigilance in terms of wanting to
look out for your own country. It does — it should give
you some comfort, though, that you have the most
powerful nation on Earth as your closest friend and ally. And that commitment
is going to be undiminished. Mr. Saban:
That was my last question. The President:
I promised — we
worked something backstage where as long as Haim’s
questions weren’t too long, I’d take a couple of
questions from the audience. And he was very disciplined — [laughter] — so let me take one or two. This gentleman right here. Why don’t you get a microphone
so everybody can hear you? – Mr. President,
I used to be a general in the Israeli Air Force, in intelligence,
and now running a think tank in Tel Aviv. Looking into the future
agreement with Iran — I put behind me
the initial agreement, and what is really important
is the final agreement. Two questions. What is the parameters that you
see as a red line to ensure that Iran will be moving
forward — moving backward, rolling back from the
bomb as much as possible? And what is your plan B if
an agreement cannot be reached? The President:
Well, with respect
to the end state, I want to be very clear there’s
nothing in this agreement or document that grants
Iran a right to enrich. We’ve been very clear that
given its past behavior, and given existing
U.N. resolutions and previous violations by Iran of
its international obligations, that we don’t
recognize such a right, and if, by the way,
negotiations break down, there will be no
additional international recognition that’s
been obtained. So this deal goes away
and we’re back to where we were before the Geneva agreement, subject — and Iran
will continue to be subject to all the sanctions that
we put in place in the past and we may seek additional ones. But I think what we have
said is we can envision a comprehensive agreement that involves extraordinary
constraints and verification mechanisms and
intrusive inspections, but that permits Iran to have
a peaceful nuclear program. Now, in terms of specifics,
we know that they don’t need to have an underground,
fortified facility like Fordor in order to have
a peaceful nuclear program. They certainly don’t need a
heavy-water reactor at Arak in order to have a peaceful
nuclear program. They don’t need some of
the advanced centrifuges that they currently possess
in order to have a limited, peaceful nuclear program. And so the question
ultimately is going to be, are they prepared to roll back
some of the advancements that they’ve made that
would not justify — or could not be justified by simply wanting some modest,
peaceful nuclear power, but, frankly, hint at a desire
to have breakout capacity and go right to the edge
of breakout capacity. And if we can move that
significantly back, then that is,
I think, a net win. Now, you’ll hear arguments,
including potentially from the Prime Minister, that say we
can’t accept any enrichment on Iranian soil. Period. Full stop. End of conversation. And this takes me back to
the point I made earlier. One can envision an ideal
world in which Iran said, we’ll destroy every element
and facility and you name it, it’s all gone. I can envision a world
in which Congress passed every one of my
bills that I put forward. [laughter] I mean, there are a lot of
things that I can envision that would be wonderful. [laughter] But precisely because
we don’t trust the nature of the Iranian regime, I think that we have to be more
realistic and ask ourselves, what puts us in a strong
position to assure ourselves that Iran is not
having a nuclear weapon and that we are protected? What is required
to accomplish that, and how does that
compare to other options that we might take? And it is my strong belief that
we can envision a end state that gives us an assurance that
even if they have some modest enrichment capability, it is so
constrained and the inspections are so intrusive that they,
as a practical matter, do not have breakout capacity. Theoretically, they
might still have some. But, frankly, theoretically,
they will always have some, because, as I said, the
technology here is available to any good physics student at
pretty much any university around the world. And they have already gone
through the cycle to the point where the knowledge, we’re not
going to be able to eliminate. But what we can do is eliminate
the incentive for them to want to do this. And with respect to what
happens if this breaks down, I won’t go into details. I will say that if we cannot get
the kind of comprehensive end state that satisfies
us and the world community and the P5-plus-1, then the pressure that
we’ve been applying on them and the options that I’ve made
clear I can avail myself of, including a military option, is
one that we would consider and prepare for. And we’ve always said that. So that does not change. But the last point
I’ll make on this. When I hear people who
criticize the Geneva deal say it’s got to be all or nothing, I would just remind
them if it’s nothing, if we did not even try for this
next six months to do this, all the breakout capacity we’re
concerned about would accelerate during that six months. Arak would be further along. The advanced centrifuges
would have been put in place. They’d be that much
closer to breakout capacity six months from now. And that’s why I think
it’s important for us to try to test this proposition. I’ll take a couple more. Yes, sir. Right over here. – Mr. President,
Israeli journalist from Isreal Hayom
daily newspaper. Mr. President, I covered
the negotiations with Iran, nuclear negotiations —
Geneva 2009, Istanbul 2010. And I came back now
from Geneva again, where you could see the
big change was not only on Iran’s side,
but also on the P5-plus-1 side, meaning they were very
eager to reach an agreement. Coming back from
Geneva, we learned, and some of us
had known before, the secret talks
America had with Iran. And we know the concern you have
on the Israeli security — we’re very grateful. But how does it coincide
with your secret negotiations Washington had with Tehran? Thank you. The President:
The truth is, is that, without going into the details, there weren’t a lot
of secret negotiations. Essentially what happened —
and we were very clear and transparent about this — is that from the
time I took office, I said we would
reach out to Iran and we would let them know
we’re prepared to open up a diplomatic channel. After Rouhani was elected,
there was some acceleration leading up to the U.N. General Assembly. You’ll recall that Rouhani was
engaging in what was termed a charm offensive, right,
and he was going around talking to folks. And at that point, it made
sense for us to see, all right, how serious are
you potentially about having
these conversations. They did not get highly
substantive in the first several meetings but were much more
exploring how much room, in fact, did they have
to get something done. And then as soon as they
began to get more technical, at that point, they converged
with the P5-plus-1 discussions. I will say this: The fact
of Rhouhani’s election — it’s been said that there’s
no difference between him and Ahmadinejad except
that he’s more charming. I think that understates
the shift in politics that took place
in this election. Obviously, Rouhani is part
of the Iranian establishment and I think we have to
assume that his ideology is one that is hostile to
the United States and to Israel. But what he also represents
is the desire on the part of the Iranian people
for a change of direction. And we should not underestimate
or entirely dismiss a shift in how the Iranian people want
to interact with the world. There’s a lot of change that’s
going to be taking place in the Middle East
over the next decade. And wherever we see the impulses
of a people to move away from conflict, violence, and towards
diplomatic resolution of conflicts, we should be ready
and prepared to engage them — understanding, though, that, ultimately it’s not what
you say, it’s what you do. And we have to be vigilant
about maintaining our security postures, not be naïve about the
dangers that an Iranian regime pose, fight them wherever
they’re engaging in terrorism or actions that are hostile
to us or our allies. But we have to not constantly
assume that it’s not possible for Iran, like any country,
to change over time. It may not be likely. If you asked me what is the
likelihood that we’re able to arrive at the end state that
I was just describing earlier, I wouldn’t say that
it’s more than 50/50. But we have to try. Last question. And I think it’s —
the young lady right there. – Mr. President, I’m a reporter
for Israeli Channel Two. I have been listening to your
analysis of the Iranian deal, and I can only imagine
a different — a slightly different analysis given by
our Prime Minister Netanyahu. The President:
I think that’s
probably a good bet. That’s more than 50/50. [laughter] – Israelis are known
for their understatement. [laughter] And I try to imagine a
conversation between you two. And he would ask
you, Mr. President, I see this deal
as a historic mistake — which he has already stated — and I think it’s the worst deal
the West could have gotten. And you would have told him,
Bibi, that’s where you go wrong. What would you have told him? That’s one thing. And then, perhaps to
understand the essence of your conversation,
he would ask you, Mr. President, is there one set of
circumstances under which you will order
your B-52s to strike in Iran? What would you tell him? [laughter] Is there any set of
circumstances in which you will order your fighter
pilots to strike in Iran? What would you tell
the Prime Minister? The President:
Let me make a couple of points. Number one, obviously,
the conversations between me and the Prime Minister are
for me and the Prime Minister, not for an audience like this. And I will say that Bibi and I
have very candid conversations, and there are
occasionally significant tactical disagreements,
but there is a constancy in trying to
reach the same goal. And in this case, that goal
is to make sure that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon. As President of
the United States, I don’t go around
advertising the circumstances in which I order pilots
to launch attacks. That I think would
be bad practice. [laughter] I also would say, though, that when the President
of the United States says that he doesn’t take
any options off the table, that should be taken seriously. And I think I have a track
record over the last five years that indicates that that
should be taken seriously. It’s interesting
— in the region, there was this interesting
interpretation of what happened with respect to Syria. I said it’s a problem for Syria
to have chemical weapons that it uses
on its own citizens. And when we had definitive
proof that it had, I indicated my
willingness potentially to take military action. The fact that we ultimately
did not take military action in some quarters was
interpreted as, ah, you see, the President is not willing
to take military action — despite the fact that I
think Mr. Qaddafi would have a different view of
that, or Mr. bin Laden. Be that as it may,
that was yesterday, what have you done
for me lately? [laughter] But the point is that my
preference was always to resolve the
issue diplomatically. And it turns out,
lo and behold, that Syria now is actually
removing its chemical weapons that a few months ago
it denied it even possessed, and has provided
a comprehensive list, and they have already begun
taking these weapons out of Syria. And although that does
not solve the tragic situation inside of Syria, it turns out that removing
those chemical weapons will make us safer and it
will make Israel safer, and it will make
the Syrian people safer, and it will make
the region safer. And so I do not see military
action as an end unto itself. Military action is one tool
that we have in a tool kit that includes diplomacy
in achieving our goals, which is ultimately
our security. And I think if you want
to summarize the difference, in some ways, between myself
and the Prime Minister on the Geneva issue, I think what
this comes down to is the perception, potentially, that if we just kept on
turning up the pressure — new sanctions,
more sanctions, more military
threats, et cetera — that eventually Iran would cave. And what I’ve tried to
explain is two points: One is that the
reason the sanctions have been so effective — because we set them up
in a painstaking fashion — the reason they’ve been effective is because other
countries had confidence that we were not
imposing sanctions just for the sake of sanctions, but we were imposing sanctions
for the sake of trying to actually get Iran to the
table and resolve the issue. And if the perception
internationally was that we were not
in good faith trying to resolve the issue diplomatically, that, more than anything, would actually begin to fray the
edges of the sanctions regime. Point number one. And point number two —
I’ve already said this before — you have to compare the
approach that we’re taking now with the alternatives. The idea that Iran, given everything we
know about their history, would just continue to get
more and more nervous about more sanctions
and military threats, and ultimately just
say, okay, we give in — I think does not reflect an honest understanding
of the Iranian people or the Iranian regime. And I say that — by the way,
I’m not just talking about the hardliners
inside of Iran. I think even the so-called
moderates or reformers inside of Iran would not
be able to simply say, we will cave and do
exactly what the U.S. and the Israelis say. They are going to have to have
a path in which they feel that there is a dignified
resolution to this issue. That’s a political requirement
of theirs, and that, I suspect, runs across the
political spectrum. And so for us to present a
door that serves our goals and our purposes but also
gives them the opportunity to, in a dignified fashion, reenter
the international community and change the approach
that they’ve taken — at least on this narrow issue, but one that is of
extraordinary importance to all of us — is an opportunity that
we should grant them. All right? Well, thank you very much. I enjoyed this. [applause]

Danny Hutson

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