Friedman Interviews Obama: The Strengths of the Iran Deal
The president made clear to me that he did not agree with my assessment in a column two weeks ago that we had not used all the leverage in our arsenal, or alliances, to prevent Iran from becoming a threshold nuclear power, by acquiring a complete independent enrichment infrastructure that has the potential to undermine the global nuclear nonproliferation regime. Personally, I want more time to study the deal, hear from the nonpartisan experts, listen to what the Iranian leaders tell their own people and hear what credible alternative strategies the critics have to offer. But the president certainly argued his case with a conviction and internal logic with which his critics and Congress will have to seriously contend.
“We are not measuring this deal by whether it is changing the regime inside of Iran,” said the president. “We’re not measuring this deal by whether we are solving every problem that can be traced back to Iran, whether we are eliminating all their nefarious activities around the globe. We are measuring this deal — and that was the original premise of this conversation, including by Prime Minister Netanyahu — Iran could not get a nuclear weapon. That was always the discussion. And what I’m going to be able to say, and I think we will be able to prove, is that this by a wide margin is the most definitive path by which Iran will not get a nuclear weapon, and we will be able to achieve that with the full cooperation of the world community and without having to engage in another war in the Middle East.”
To sell this deal to a skeptical Congress, President Obama clearly has to keep his argument tight. But I suspect his legacy on this issue will ultimately be determined by whether the deal does, in the long run, help transform Iran, defuse the U.S.-Iran Cold War and curtail the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East — not foster their proliferation. That, though, will be a long time in determining. For the near term, the deal’s merit will be judged on whether Iran implements the rollback of its nuclear enrichment capabilities to which it has agreed and whether the deeply intrusive international inspection system it has accepted can detect — and thereby deter — any cheating.
Here are some highlights from the interview: Asked about whether we failed to use all of our leverage, including a credible threat of force, the president said: “I think that criticism is misguided. Let’s see exactly what we obtained. We have cut off every pathway for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. The reason we were able to unify the world community around the most effective sanctions regime we’ve ever set up, a sanction regime that crippled the Iranian economy and ultimately brought them to the table, was because the world agreed with us, that it would be a great danger to the region, to our allies, to the world, if Iran possessed a nuclear weapon. We did not have that kind of global consensus around the notion that Iran can’t enjoy any nuclear power whatsoever. And as a member of the nonproliferation treaty, the NPT, their argument was, ‘We’re entitled to have a peaceful nuclear program.’
“And what we were able to do,” the president continued, “is to say to them, ‘Given your past behavior, given our strong suspicion and evidence that you made attempts to weaponize your nuclear program, given the destabilizing activities that you’ve engaged in in the region and support for terrorism, it’s not enough for us to trust when you say that you are only creating a peaceful nuclear program. You have to prove it to us.’ And so this whole system that we built is not based on trust, it’s based on a verifiable mechanism, whereby every pathway that they have is shut off.”
The president argued that his approach grew out of the same strategic logic that Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan used to approach the Soviet Union and China.
“You know, I have a lot of differences with Ronald Reagan, but where I completely admire him was his recognition that if you were able to verify an agreement that [was negotiated]with the evil empire that was hellbent on our destruction and was a far greater existential threat to us than Iran will ever be,” then it would be worth doing, Mr. Obama said. “I had a lot of disagreements with Richard Nixon, but he understood there was the prospect, the possibility, that China could take a different path. You test these things, and as long as we are preserving our security capacity — as long as we are not giving away our ability to respond forcefully, militarily, where necessary to protect our friends and our allies — that is a risk we have to take. It is a practical, common-sense position. It’s not naïve; it’s a recognition that if we can in fact resolve some of these differences, without resort to force, that will be a lot better for us and the people of that region.”
Asked if he believed that, given the depth of Iran’s civil society, which in 2009 launched a “green revolution” challenging clerical rule, the forces there for greater integration with the world would be empowered by this deal, the president said:
“With respect to Iran, it is a great civilization, but it also has an authoritarian theocracy in charge that is anti-American, anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic, sponsors terrorism, and there are a whole host of real profound differences that we [have with]them,” said the president. “And so, initially, we have a much more modest goal here, which is to make sure Iran does not have a nuclear weapon. … What’s interesting, if you look at what’s happened over the last several months, is the [Iranian] opponents of this deal are the hard-liners and those who are most invested in Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism, most invested in destabilizing Iran’s neighbors, most virulently anti-American and anti-Israeli. And that should tell us something, because those hard-liners are invested in the status quo in which Iran is isolated, and they are empowered. They become the only game in town. Not just militarily they call the shots, but economically, they’re able to exploit the workarounds from sanctions in order to fatten themselves in a situation in which you have a different base of business people and commerce inside of Iran that may change how they think about the cost and benefits of these destabilizing activities.
“But we’re not counting on that,” the president stressed, “and that’s the thing I want to emphasize, because even over the last several weeks and today, as we announce the deal, what’s been striking to me is that, increasingly, the critics are shifting off the nuclear issue, and they’re moving into, ‘Well, even if the nuclear issue is dealt with, they’re still going to be sponsoring terrorism, and they’re going to get this sanctions relief. And so they’re going to have more money to engage in these bad activities.’ That is a possibility, and we are going to have to systematically guard against that and work with our allies — the gulf countries, Israel — to stop the work that they are doing outside of the nuclear program. But the central premise here is that if they got a nuclear weapon, that would be different, and on that score, we have achieved our objective.”
Asked if Russian President Vladimir Putin was a help or hindrance in concluding this deal, Mr. Obama said: “Russia was a help on this. I’ll be honest with you. I was not sure given the strong differences we are having with Russia right now around Ukraine, whether this would sustain itself. Putin and the Russian government compartmentalized on this in a way that surprised me, and we would have not achieved this agreement had it not been for Russia’s willingness to stick with us and the other P5-plus members in insisting on a strong deal. I was encouraged by the fact that Mr. Putin called me a couple of weeks ago and initiated the call to talk about Syria. I think they get a sense that the Assad regime is losing a grip over greater and greater swaths of territory inside of Syria [to Sunni jihadist militias]and that the prospects for a [Sunni jihadist] takeover or rout of the Syrian regime is not imminent but becomes a greater and greater threat by the day. That offers us an opportunity to have a serious conversation with them.”
My biggest concern and that of many serious critics who would actually like to see a deal work is that Iran is just not afraid of a serious U.S. military retaliation if it cheats. I asked the president, Why should the Iranians be afraid of us?
“Because we could knock out their military in speed and dispatch if we chose to,” said the president, “and I think they have seen my willingness to take military action where I thought it was important for U.S. interests. Now, I actually believe that they are interested in trying to operate on parallel levels to be able to obtain the benefits of international legitimacy, commerce, reduction of sanctions while still operating through proxies in destructive ways around the region. That’s been their pattern, and I think it is very important to us to make sure that we are surfacing what they do through their proxies and calling them into account. That is part of the conversation we have to have with the gulf countries.”
With such a crowded pool of Republican presidential candidates competing over the right-wing base, it seems unlikely the president will get much support for this deal from G.O.P. members of Congress.
”I think it’s doubtful that we get a lot of current Republican elected officials supporting this deal,” he said. “I think there’s a certain party line that has to be toed, within their primaries and among many sitting members of Congress. But that’s not across the board. It’ll be interesting to see what somebody like a Rand Paul has to say about this. But I think that if I were succeeded by a Republican president — and I’ll be doing everything that I can to prevent that from happening — but if I were, that Republican president would be in a much stronger position than I was when I came into office, in terms of constraining Iran’s nuclear program.
“He will be in a position to know that 98 percent of their nuclear material has been shipped out. He would know that the majority of the centrifuges had been removed. He would know that there is no heavy reactor there. He’d know that the international community had signed on to this. He would know everything that we’ve learned from the inspection regime. And he’d still be in possession of the entire arsenal of our armed forces, and our diplomatic and intelligence services, to deal with the possibility that Iran was cheating. … They’re not going to admit that now. And that’s entire hypothetical, because I feel good about having a Democratic successor. But I think that this builds on bipartisan ideas, bipartisan efforts. We could not have succeeded without the strong support of Congress on a bipartisan basis to impose the sanctions we did on Iran. They deserve enormous credit for that. And as we implement this I think it will prove to be not just good for us but good for the world.”
The president spoke to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel by phone just before the start of the interview. Mr. Obama did not try to sugar coat their differences, but he hinted that his administration has in the works some significant strategic upgrades for both Israel and America’s gulf allies.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to discuss specific details about security agreements or work that we may be doing,” said the president. “What I can tell you is that that process is in train. Now, with respect to the Israelis, I think it’s fair to say that under my administration, we’ve done more to facilitate Israeli capabilities. And I’ve also said that I’m prepared to go further than any other administration’s gone before in terms of providing them additional security assurances from the United States. The thing I want to emphasize is that people’s concerns here are legitimate. Hezbollah has tens of thousands of missiles that are pointed toward Israel. They are becoming more sophisticated. The interdiction of those weapon flows has not been as successful as it needs to be. There are legitimate concerns on the part of the gulf countries about Iran trying to stir up and prompt destabilizing events inside their countries. So they’re not just being paranoid. Iran is acting in an unconstructive way, in a dangerous way in these circumstances. What I’ve simply said is that we have to keep our eye on the ball here, which is that Iran with a nuclear weapon will do more damage, and we will be in a much worse position to prevent it.”
The president added: “And what I’ve also tried to explain to people, including Prime Minister Netenyahu, is that in the absence of a deal, our ability to sustain these sanctions was not in the cards. Keep in mind it’s not just Iran that paid a price for sanctions. China. Japan. South Korea. India — pretty much any oil importer around the world that had previously import arrangements from Iran — found themselves in a situation where this was costing them billions of dollars to sustain these sanctions.
“In some ways, the United States paid the lowest price for maintenance of sanctions, because we didn’t do business with Iran in the first place. They made a significant sacrifice. The reason they did was because my administration, our diplomats, and oftentimes me personally, were able to persuade them that the only way to resolve this nuclear problem was to make these sanctions bite. And if they saw us walking away from what technical experts believe is a legitimate mechanism to ensure that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon — if they saw that our diplomatic efforts were not sincere, or were trying to encompass not just the nuclear program, but every policy disagreement that we might have with Iran, then frankly, those sanctions would start falling apart very rapidly. And so, maybe Iran wouldn’t get $150 billion, but they’d get a big chunk of that, because we would not be able to sustain that support.”
It strikes me that the one party that we have heard the least from, but in the end could count the most, is the Iranian people and how they ultimately react to this opening of Iran to the world as a result of this deal. What would Mr. Obama say to them?
“What I’d say to them is this offers a historic opportunity,” the president said. “Their economy has been cratering as a consequence of the sanctions. They have the ability now to take some decisive steps to move toward a more constructive relationship with the world community. … They need to seize that opportunity, their leaders need to seize that opportunity. And the truth of the matter is that Iran will be and should be a regional power. They are a big country and a sophisticated country in the region. They don’t need to invite the hostility and the opposition of their neighbors by their behavior. It’s not necessary for them to be great to denigrate Israel or threaten Israel or engage in Holocaust denial or anti-Semitic activity. Now that’s what I would say to the Iranian people. Whether the Iranian people have sufficient influence to fundamentally shift how their leaders think about these issues, time will tell.”