In an address to American Jews on Aug. 28, President Barack Obama insisted that the agreement negotiated between world powers and Iran blocks the Islamic Republic from developing nuclear weapons without limiting the United States’ options in case of violations.
“This deal blocks every way, every pathway Iran might take to obtain a nuclear weapon,” Obama said during the 50-minute live webcast from the White House. “We’re not giving away anything in this deal in terms of our capacity to respond if they choose to cheat.”
The event was co-sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Obama made a few remarks before responding to questions, many submitted by American Jews to the organizers in advance.
The deal reached on July 14 between Iran and six world powers, including the United States, requires Iran to remove all but a “handful” of centrifuges from Natanz; to rebuild the heavy water facility at Arak in such a way that weapons-grade plutonium enrichment would be impossible; and to turn the uranium enrichment facility at Fordow into a research facility, Obama said.
“In the best of all worlds, Iran would have no nuclear infrastructure whatsoever,” Obama said. “Unfortunately, that’s not a reality that’s obtainable.”
The president reiterated that the United States had ensured it could “snap back” the sanctions on Iran that he credited with bringing the Islamic Republic to the negotiating table “in the event that Iran cheats or does not abide by the terms of the deal.”
Obama said that without this deal, he and his successor would be forced into military action. He conceded that Iran could feel “cocky enough” to develop nuclear weapons when parts of the agreement expire in 15 years, but he said Iran “could pursue it next week if we didn’t have this deal.”
The president stressed that the United States has not taken any options off the table to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon but that a “military approach at this juncture would forestall a determined Iran for a year or two from getting a nuclear weapon.”
He defended his record on Israel’s security, saying that even his fiercest critics would say there has been “unprecedented military cooperation” during his time in office and that there had been an enhanced degree of military aid, including for the Iron Dome missile defense system.
Obama rejected the “heated” rhetoric that has been used by both sides, though he challenged the idea that the vitriol has been equal on both sides, laying most of the blame on detractors of the deal.
He denied calling deal opponents “warmongers” and defended Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who recently came out in support of the agreement. Nadler, he said, “for personal and political integrity, stood by Israel and has been attacked in ways that are appalling.
“I would suggest that in terms of the tone of this debate, everybody keep in mind that we’re all pro-Israel,” he said. “We have to make sure that we don’t impugn people’s motives.”
Obama brushed off comments tweeted out by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, saying, “The president of the United States doesn’t respond to taunts. The president of the United States responds to interests, facts, evidence” in making decisions for the American people and American allies.
In a personal moment, the president said that if he lived in Israel he would have a “visceral reaction” to dealing with a country that denies the Holocaust.
“As an African-American, I understand history teaches us that man can be very cruel to man and you have to take threats seriously, but what history also teaches us is that sometimes the best security is to enter into negoti-ations with your enemies,” he said, referencing negotiations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
“The bond between the United States and Israel is not political. It’s not based on alliances of convenience; it is something that grows out of family ties and bonds that stretch back generations and shared values and shared commitments and shared beliefs in democracy,” Obama said. While the two governments may disagree, as families do, it “does not affect the core commitments we have to each other.”
The president promised to make sure Israel keeps its military edge in a dangerous neighborhood where Iranians prop up Hezbollah and other terrorist proxies, though he was adamant that military aid and sharing of intelligence was not to compensate for the deal as critics have suggested. Obama said that Israelis and Americans have been in discussion “for months” over enhanced sharing of military knowledge.
Congress has until late September to decide whether to reject the deal. Obama has pledged to veto a rejection.
On Aug. 30, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) came out in support of the Iran deal, bringing the total number of Democratic supporters in the Senate to 31. Obama needs 34 senators to uphold a presidential veto. Only two Democratic Senators have come out against the deal: Chuck Schumer of New York and Bob Menendez of New Jersey.