President Barack Obama recently spoke with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg about the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear weapons program as well as his upcoming meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to the President, “Preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon isn’t just in the interest of Israel, it is profoundly in the security interests of the United States.” Obama said his primary message is that “we’ve got Israel’s back” when it comes to Iran, and he explained that “as president of the United States, I don’t bluff” when it comes to protecting America and Israel—including potentially employing a “military component” if necessary. Excerpts from the interview appear below. Click here to read the full interview.
Obama said regarding his approach to the Iranian threat:
... Both the United States and Israel have been in constant consultation about a very difficult issue, and that is the prospect of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. This is something that has been one of my top five foreign-policy concerns since I came into office.
We, immediately upon taking over, mapped out a strategy that said we are going to mobilize the international community around this issue and isolate Iran to send a clear message to them that there is a path they can follow that allows them to rejoin the community of nations, but if they refused to follow that path, that there would be an escalating series of consequences.
Three years later, we can look back and say we have been successful beyond most people’s expectations. When we came in, Iran was united and on the move, and the world was divided about how to address this issue. Today, the world is as united as we’ve ever seen it around the need for Iran to take a different path on its nuclear program, and Iran is isolated and feeling the severe effects of the multiple sanctions that have been placed on it….
And in the conversations I’ve had over the course of three years, and over the course of the last three months and three weeks, what I’ve emphasized is that preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon isn’t just in the interest of Israel, it is profoundly in the security interests of the United States, and that when I say we’re not taking any option off the table, we mean it. We are going to continue to apply pressure until Iran takes a different course.
He made it clear that the Iranian nuclear-program must be stopped:
The potential for escalation ... is profoundly dangerous, and in addition to just the potential human costs of a nuclear escalation like that in the Middle East, just imagine what would happen in terms of the world economy. The possibilities of the sort of energy disruptions that we’ve never seen before occurring, and the world economy basically coming to a halt, would be pretty profound. So when I say this is in the U.S. interest, I’m not saying this is something we’d like to solve. I’m saying this is something we have to solve.
Obama explained what he means when he says that all options are on the table for stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons program:
It means a political component that involves isolating Iran; it means an economic component that involves unprecedented and crippling sanctions; it means a diplomatic component in which we have been able to strengthen the coalition that presents Iran with various options through the P-5 plus 1 and ensures that the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] is robust in evaluating Iran’s military program; and it includes a military component. And I think people understand that.
I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don’t bluff. I also don’t, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.
Addressing his critics, he said regarding the potential use of military force to stop Iran:
Look, if people want to say about me that I have a profound preference for peace over war, that every time I order young men and women into a combat theater and then see the consequences on some of them, if they’re lucky enough to come back, that this weighs on me—I make no apologies for that. Because anybody who is sitting in my chair who isn’t mindful of the costs of war shouldn’t be here, because it’s serious business. These aren’t video games that we’re playing here.
Now, having said that, I think it’s fair to say that the last three years, I’ve shown myself pretty clearly willing, when I believe it is in the core national interest of the United States, to direct military actions, even when they entail enormous risks. And obviously, the bin Laden operation is the most dramatic, but al-Qaeda was on its [knees] well before we took out bin Laden because of our activities and my direction.
In Afghanistan, we’ve made very tough decisions because we felt it was very important, in order for an effective transition out of Afghanistan to take place, for us to be pushing back against the Taliban’s momentum.
So aside from the usual politics, I don’t think this is an argument that has a lot of legs. And by the way, it’s not an argument that the American people buy. They may have complaints about high unemployment still, and that the recovery needs to move faster, but you don’t hear a lot of them arguing somehow that I hesitate to make decisions as commander in chief when necessary.
Obama flatly dismissed the notion of containing a nuclear-armed Iran:
GOLDBERG: Let me flip this entirely around and ask: Why is containment not your policy? In the sense that we contained the Soviet Union, North Korea—
PRESIDENT OBAMA: It’s for the reason I described—because you’re talking about the most volatile region in the world. It will not be tolerable to a number of states in that region for Iran to have a nuclear weapon and them not to have a nuclear weapon. Iran is known to sponsor terrorist organizations, so the threat of proliferation becomes that much more severe….
And so the dangers of an Iran getting nuclear weapons that then leads to a free-for-all in the Middle East is something that I think would be very dangerous for the world.
GOLDBERG: Do you see accidental nuclear escalation as an issue?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Absolutely. Look, the fact is, I don’t think any of it would be accidental. I think it would be very intentional. If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, I won’t name the countries, but there are probably four or five countries in the Middle East who say, ‘We are going to start a program, and we will have nuclear weapons.’ And at that point, the prospect for miscalculation in a region that has that many tensions and fissures is profound. You essentially then duplicate the challenges of India and Pakistan fivefold or tenfold.
GOLDBERG: With everybody pointing at everybody else.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: With everybody pointing at everybody else.
Obama and Goldberg discussed Israel’s outlook on Iran:
GOLDBERG: Is it possible that the prime minister of Israel has over-learned the lessons of the Holocaust?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I think the prime minister has a profound responsibility to protect the Israeli people in a hostile neighborhood, and I am certain that the history of the Holocaust and of anti-Semitism and brutality directed against the Jewish people for more than a millennium weighs on him when he thinks about these questions.
I think it’s important to recognize, though, that the prime minister is also head of a modern state that is mindful of the profound costs of any military action, and in our consultations with the Israeli government, I think they take those costs, and potential unintended consequences, very seriously.
GOLDBERG: Do you think Israel could cause damage to itself in America by preempting the Iranian nuclear program militarily?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I don’t know how it plays in America. I think we in the United States instinctively sympathize with Israel, and I think political support for Israel is bipartisan and powerful.
In my discussions with Israel, the key question that I ask is: How does this impact their own security environment? I’ve said it publicly and I say it privately: ultimately, the Israeli prime minister and the defense minister and others in the government have to make their decisions about what they think is best for Israel’s security, and I don’t presume to tell them what is best for them.
But as Israel’s closest friend and ally, and as one that has devoted the last three years to making sure that Israel has additional security capabilities, and has worked to manage a series of difficult problems and questions over the past three years, I do point out to them that we have a sanctions architecture that is far more effective than anybody anticipated; that we have a world that is about as united as you get behind the sanctions; that our assessment, which is shared by the Israelis, is that Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon and is not yet in a position to obtain a nuclear weapon without us having a pretty long lead time in which we will know that they are making that attempt.
In that context, our argument is going to be that it is important for us to see if we can solve this thing permanently, as opposed to temporarily. And the only way, historically, that a country has ultimately decided not to get nuclear weapons without constant military intervention has been when they themselves take [nuclear weapons] off the table. That’s what happened in Libya, that’s what happened in South Africa. And we think that, without in any way being under an illusion about Iranian intentions, without in any way being naive about the nature of that regime, they are self-interested. They recognize that they are in a bad, bad place right now. It is possible for them to make a strategic calculation that, at minimum, pushes much further to the right whatever potential breakout capacity they may have, and that may turn out to be the best decision for Israel’s security.
These are difficult questions, and again, if I were the prime minister of Israel, I’d be wrestling with them. As president of the United States, I wrestle with them as well….
I think that in the end, Israel’s leaders will make determinations based on what they believe is best for the security of Israel, and that is entirely appropriate.
When we present our views and our strategy approach, we try to put all our cards on the table, to describe how we are thinking about these issues. We try to back those up with facts and evidence. We compare their assessments with ours, and where there are gaps, we try to narrow those gaps. And what I also try to do is to underscore the seriousness with which the United States takes this issue. And I think that Ehud Barak understands it. I think that Prime Minister Netanyahu, hopefully when he sees me next week, will understand it.
Obama said regarding his relationship with Netanyahu:
I actually think the relationship is very functional, and the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The fact of the matter is, we’ve gotten a lot of business done with Israel over the last three years. I think the prime minister—and certainly the defense minister—would acknowledge that we’ve never had closer military and intelligence cooperation. When you look at what I’ve done with respect to security for Israel, from joint training and joint exercises that outstrip anything that’s been done in the past, to helping finance and construct the Iron Dome program to make sure that Israeli families are less vulnerable to missile strikes, to ensuring that Israel maintains its qualitative military edge, to fighting back against delegitimization of Israel, whether at the [UN] Human Rights Council, or in front of the UN General Assembly, or during the Goldstone Report, or after the flare-up involving the flotilla—the truth of the matter is that the relationship has functioned very well….
[O]ne thing that I have found in working with Prime Minister Netanyahu is that we can be very frank with each other, very blunt with each other, very honest with each other. For the most part, when we have differences, they are tactical and not strategic. Our objectives are a secure United States, a secure Israel, peace, the capacity for our kids to grow up in safety and security and not have to worry about bombs going off, and being able to promote business and economic growth and commerce. We have a common vision about where we want to go. At any given moment—as is true, frankly, with my relationship with every other foreign leader—there’s not going to be perfect alignment of how we achieve these objectives.
He said regarding his support for Israel:
... [E]very single commitment I have made to the state of Israel and its security, I have kept…. there is no good reason to doubt me on these issues….
[W]hen you look at the record, there’s no ‘there’ there. And my job is to try to make sure that those political factors are washed away on an issue that is of such great strategic and security importance to our two countries. And so when I’m talking to the prime minister, or my team is talking to the Israeli government, what I want is a hardheaded, clear-eyed assessment of how do we achieve our goals.
And our goals are in sync. And historically, one of the reasons that the U.S.-Israeli relationship has survived so well and thrived is shared values, shared history, the links between our peoples. But it’s also been because it has been a profoundly bipartisan commitment to the state of Israel. And the flip side of it is that, in terms of Israeli politics, there’s been a view that regardless of whether it’s a Democratic or Republican administration, the working assumption is: we’ve got Israel’s back. And that’s something that I constantly try to reinforce and remind people of.
GOLDBERG: Wait, in four words, is that your message to the prime minister—we’ve got Israel’s back?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: That is not just my message to the prime minister, that’s been my message to the Israeli people, and to the pro-Israel community in this country, since I came into office. It’s hard for me to be clearer than I was in front of the UN General Assembly, when I made a more full-throated defense of Israel and its legitimate security concerns than any president in history—not, by the way, in front of an audience that was particularly warm to the message. So that actually won’t be my message. My message will be much more specific, about how do we solve this problem.
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