Obama Tries to Sell Nuclear Deal

July 27, 2015

In July and August, President Barack Obama defended the Iran nuclear deal in his public remarks. “There’s a reason why 99 percent of the world thinks that this is a good deal,” he said on July 27. “It’s because it’s a good deal.” Congress has until September 18 to either allow the agreement to proceed or adopt a resolution of disapproval. President Obama has said he will veto the resolution if it is passed.

The following are excerpted remarks from Obama on the final nuclear deal.
 
“As we defend our nation, real leadership also means something else -- having the courage to lead in a new direction, the wisdom to move beyond policies that haven’t worked in the past, having the confidence to engage in smart, principled diplomacy that can lead to a better future.
 
“That’s what we’re doing in Cuba, where the new chapter between our peoples will mean more opportunities for the Cuban people.  Today, with our American embassy open in Havana for the first time in 50 years, we reaffirm that we will speak out for freedom and universal values around the world.
 
“But we’re not scared to engage.  We also see the strength of American diplomacy in our comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran -- because we must prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  And we’re now engaged in an important debate -- which is a good thing.  We are a democracy.  Unfortunately, you may have noticed there’s already a lot of shaky information out there.  So even as I make the case of why this is a critical deal to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, we’re going to make sure the people know the facts.  And here are some basic facts.
 
“With this deal, we cut off every single one of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear program.  Iran is prohibited from pursuing a nuclear weapon, permanently.  Without a deal, those paths remain open and Iran could move closer to a nuclear bomb.  With this deal, we gain unprecedented access to Iran’s nuclear facilities, and monitor them 24/7.  Without a deal, we don’t get that.  With this deal, if Iran cheats, sanctions snap back on.  Without a deal, the sanctions unravel.  With this deal, we have a chance to resolve the challenge of Iran trying to get a nuclear weapon, peacefully.  Without it, we risk yet another conflict in the Middle East.
 
“Now, if Iran tries to get a bomb despite this agreement --10 years from now, or 20 years from now -- the American President will be in a stronger position to take whatever additional steps are necessary, including any option of military action, to prevent that from happening.  And those are the facts.  That’s the choice.  And for the sake of our national security and the sake of future generations, we need to make the right choice on this critical issue. 
 
“And I also want to make a broader point.  In the debate over this deal, we’re hearing the echoes of some of the same policies and mindset that failed us in the past.  Some of the same politicians and pundits that are so quick to reject the possibility of a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program are the same folks who were so quick to go to war in Iraq, and said it would take a few months.  And we know the consequences of that choice and what it cost us in blood and treasure.
 
“So I believe there’s a smarter, more responsible way to protect our national security -- and that is what we are doing.  Instead of dismissing the rest of the world and going it alone, we’ve done the hard and patient work of uniting the international community to meet a common threat.  Instead of chest-beating that rejects even the idea of talking to our adversaries -- which sometimes sounds good in sound bites, but accomplishes nothing -- we’re seeing that strong and principled diplomacy can give hope of actually resolving a problem peacefully. 
 
“Instead of rushing into another conflict, I believe that sending our sons and daughters into harm’s way must always be a last resort, and that before we put their lives on the line, we should exhaust every alternative. That’s what we owe our troops.  That is strength and that is American leadership.
 
“Of course, even with this deal, we’ll continue to have serious differences with the Iranian government, its support of terrorism, proxies that destabilize the Middle East.  So we can’t let them off the hook.  Our sanctions for Iran’s support for terrorism and its ballistic missile program and its human rights violations -- those sanctions will remain in place.  And we will stand with allies and partners, including Israel, to oppose Iran’s dangerous behavior.
 
“And we are not going to relent until we bring home our Americans who are unjustly detained in Iran.  Journalist Jason Rezaian should be released.  Pastor Saeed Abedini should be released.  Amir Hekmati, a former sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, should be released. Iran needs to help us find Robert Levinson.  These Americans need to be back home with their families.”
—July 21, 2015, in remarks to veterans in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
 
“What we’re doing is presenting facts about an international agreement that 99 percent of the world thinks solves a vital problem in a way that will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and does so diplomatically.
 
“And essentially what we've been seeing is Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Energy Ernie Moniz -- who is an expert on nuclear issues -- just providing the facts, laying out exactly what the deal is, explaining how it cuts off all the pathways for Iran to get a nuclear weapon; explaining how it puts in place unprecedented verification and inspection mechanisms; explaining how we have snapback provisions so that if they cheat, we immediately re-impose sanctions; explaining also how we will continue to address other aspects of Iranian behavior that are of deep concern to us and our allies -- like providing arms to terrorist organizations.
 
“So the good news, I guess, is that I have not yet heard a factual argument on the other side that holds up to scrutiny. There’s a reason why 99 percent of the world thinks that this is a good deal -- it's because it's a good deal. There’s a reason why the overwhelming majority of nuclear scientists and nonproliferation experts think it's a good deal -- it's because it's a good deal. It accomplishes our goal, which is making sure Iran does not have a nuclear weapon. In fact, it accomplishes that goal better than any alternative that has been suggested.
—July 27, 2015, in a press conference with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn
 
 
THE PRESIDENT:  … When I ran for office, I made a series of commitments, series of promises to the American people.  One of those commitments was that Iran would not get a nuclear weapon.  Another commitment was that I would do everything in my power as President of the United States to preserve the unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel, and to ensure Israel’s security.
 
A third commitment was that, given the lessons of the previous decade, I would never hesitate to use military force where necessary to protect America, its friends and allies around the world, but that I would always first try a diplomatic approach -- not only because war inevitably creates unintended consequences and great pain and hardship, but also because sometimes diplomacy is more effective in achieving our goals.
 
And the deal that the P5+1 has struck accomplishes each of those promises and commitments that I made when I ran for office. I know that many people who are listening know the basic outlines of the deal, but I just want to reiterate the core of it.
 
This deal blocks every way -- every pathway that Iran might take in order to obtain a nuclear weapon.  It makes sure that the centrifuges that are currently in Natanz are removed, except for a handful, and it makes sure that they cannot immediately use more advanced centrifuges to build up their capacity to create enriched uranium that might be diverted into a weapons program.
 
The underground facility of Fordow is converted into a research facility and no longer will have in it centrifuges that could be used to create nuclear weapons or nuclear materials, and might be difficult to reach.  The heavy-water facility at Arak that, if struck by a missile, could create a plume and thereby is more difficult to deal with -- that is going to be reconfigured.
 
So you have the existing facilities being transformed.  You have a commitment in which stockpiles of highly enriched uranium are being shipped out.  We create then a verification and inspection mechanism across the entire nuclear production chain within Iran that is unprecedented -- more rigorous than anything that has ever been negotiated in the history of nuclear nonproliferation.
 
And we also preserve the capacity to snap back all the various sanctions provisions that we put in place very systematically -- my administration working in concert with our partners over the last five years, sanctions that ultimately brought Iran to the table -- we have the capacity to snap those back in the event that Iran cheats or does not abide by the terms of the deal.
 
So what we have done is, for the first 10 years, essentially restricted Iran’s capacity not just to weaponize nuclear power but we severely constrain any nuclear program -- peaceful or militarized.  After 10 years, they're able to obtain some additional advanced centrifuges, but they continue to have to be carefully monitored in terms of the stockpiles that they produce.
 
And even critics of this deal acknowledge that for the first 15 years or so, we have extended the breakout time so that not only are we on them constantly, observing what they're doing, but if they decided that they wanted to break the deal, we would have ample time to respond in ways that prevented them from getting a nuclear weapon.  The breakout time would be significantly longer than it is right now.
 
So because of the stringency of the deal, the vast majority of experts on nuclear proliferation have endorsed this deal.  The world is more or less united, with some significant exceptions -- obviously the state of Israel and perhaps others less publicly -- around the deal.  You have seen people who are unlikely bedfellows -- Brent Scrowcroft and Elizabeth Warren -- endorse the deal.  And we have said to members of Congress, we are prepared to answer every single question and provide exhaustive hearings on every element of this. 
 
The criticisms of the deal have really come down to a few buckets, and maybe I’ll just address those very quickly upfront. Number one, people have said that, well, Iran will cheat.  They're not trustworthy.  And I keep on emphasizing we don't trust Iran.  Iran is antagonistic to the United States.  It is anti-Semitic.  It has denied the Holocaust.  It has called for the destruction of Israel.  It is an unsavory regime.  But this deal doesn't rely on trust; it relies on verification and our capacity to catch them when they cheat and to respond vigorously if they do.  And it’s precisely because we are not counting on the nature of the regime to change that it’s so important for us to make sure that they don't have a nuclear weapon.  And this is the best way to do it.
 
A second argument I’ve heard is, well, they are going to, in 15 years, have the ability to break out and they’ll be more powerful.  But, in fact, we're not giving away anything in this deal in terms of our capacity to respond if they choose to cheat. We are not giving up our ability to respond militarily.  We're not giving up our ability to impose sanctions.  Any of the tools that critics of the deal are suggesting we could be applying now we’ll be able to apply in 15 years.  But we’ll have the advantage of a deal that the entire world has ratified; that Iran has committed to, saying that it’s not going to have a nuclear weapon.  We will have purchased 15 years of familiarity with their program so that we know exactly what’s going on.  And so anybody sitting in my chair 15 years from now will be in a much stronger position to respond if they at that point decide to break out than a President would next year or the year after.
 
Number three, people have suggested that this will give a windfall to Iran and they will be able to conduct more terrorist activity and destabilizing activity in the region.  I want to make sure people have some perspective here.  Iran’s defense budget is $15 billion a year.  By comparison, ours is around $600 billion.  Because of the unprecedented partnership we have with Israel, Israel has a much stronger military.  Our Gulf partners spend eight times as much money as Iran does on their military. 
 
So Iran is a regional power; it’s not a superpower.  The money that they’re obtaining is money that has been frozen under sanctions.  They will get about $56 billion back, but they’re going to have to spend that to prop up an economy that’s been crushed by our sanctions.  Their economy will improve modestly, but there’s no analysis that’s been done by our experts that suggest that they are going to have a qualitatively different capacity to engage in some of the nefarious activities that they’ve done before.
 
That’s not to say that those aren’t very serious issues.  We have to stop Iran from getting missiles to Hezbollah that threaten Israel.  We have to stop their destabilizing activities using proxies in other parts of the region.  But to do that requires us to better coordinate with our partners, improve our intelligence, improve -- continue to build on things like Iron Dome that protect populations from missiles coming in over the border.  And those are all things that we have to do anyway.  We’re in a much better position to do it if we also know in the meantime that Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapon.  That’s the one game-changer, and that’s why it has to be our number-one priority.
 
So let me just close this initial set of comments by saying something about the U.S.-Israel relationship that you raised, Steve.  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.  And like all families, sometimes there are going to be disagreements, and sometimes people get angrier about disagreements in families than they do with folks who aren’t family.  I understand that.  But we’ve repeatedly throughout the history of the United States and Israel had times where the U.S. administration and the Israeli government had disagreements, and that does not affect the core commitments that we have to each other. 
 
And throughout my administration, even my fiercest critics in Israel would acknowledge that we’ve maintain unprecedented military cooperation, unprecedented intelligence coordination.  We have not only maintained but enhanced the degree of military assistance that we provide, including helping to fund things like the Iron Dome program that has protected and saved lives inside of Israel.
 
And what I have said repeatedly is that as soon as this particular debate is over, my hope is, is that the Israeli government will immediately want to rejoin conversations that we had started long before about how we can continue to improve and enhance Israel’s security in a very troubled neighborhood. 
 
But what I would emphasize is that the commitment to Israel is sacrosanct and it is nonpartisan.  It always has been and it always will be.  And I would suggest that, in terms of the tone of this debate, everybody keep in mind that we’re all pro-Israel. We’re all pro-U.S.-Israel.  And we have to make sure that we don’t impugn people’s motives even as we have what is a very serious debate about how best to protect the United States, Israel, and the world community from a potentially destabilizing Iranian nuclear weapon.
 
MR. SIEGAL:  I haven’t been invited, but okay.  It says:  Aren’t you concerned that after 15 years, Iran will have access to the highly enriched uranium that they need to build a nuclear weapon -- one of the things you talked about.  Do you worry at that time that Iran might build as large a nuclear infrastructure as they want?  What about others in the region?  And do you expect that others will also insist on building comparable nuclear infrastructures?  And then lastly, and importantly, how does this deal reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation in the region?
 
THE PRESIDENT:  Good.  One thing that might be helpful is to understand sort of what a lot of this argument has been about.  I think that in the best of all worlds, Iran would have no nuclear infrastructure whatsoever.  There wouldn’t be a single nut, bolt, building, nuclear scientist, uranium mine anywhere inside of Iran.  And that, I suppose, would be the single guarantee that Iran never has a nuclear weapon -- unless it purchased one, of course, from North Korea, which it could also do.
 
Unfortunately, that’s not a reality that’s attainable.  And those who say they want a better deal, that this isn’t a good deal and they want a better deal typically mean that not only do they want Iran not to have nuclear weapons, but they don’t want them to have any nuclear program at all, even a peaceful one.
 
The problem is, is that even Iranians who oppose this regime believe that Iran should have the right to peaceful nuclear programs.  The world community -- not just the Russians or the Chinese but the Europeans, the Indians, the Japanese, others -- they all believe that under the nonproliferation treaty, you are allowed to have peaceful nuclear power.  You just can’t have a weapon.
 
So this deal is designed to essentially put Iran in the penalty box for the first 15 years, where even its peaceful nuclear program is severely constrained.  After 15 years, assuming they’ve abided by that deal, they can then start opening up their peaceful nuclear program.  But their prohibition on weaponizing nuclear power -- that continues in perpetuity, and will continue to be monitored by the toughest inspection regime that exists under the current international rules, called the additional protocol.  And we’ll still be monitoring it very carefully and we will have had 15 years of knowledge about what their program is.
 
Now, is it possible that at the end of 15 years, they now start introducing some more advanced centrifuges and at some point, they feel comfortable enough, cocky enough, where they say to themselves, now is the time for us to breakout, we’re going to kick out all the IAEA inspectors, we’re going to announce that we’re going to pursue a nuclear weapon -- is that possible?  Absolutely.  Just as it’s possible that they could have done that next week if we hadn’t had this deal.  The question then becomes, have we given up any ability to response forcefully?  And as I indicated in my opening remarks, we will have not given anything up.
 
When I came into office, I talked to the Pentagon to say it’s not enough for us just to beat our chest and rattle our sabers.  Do we have specific plans in terms of how we would respond if necessary to Iran dashing for the goal line of getting a nuclear weapon?  And we prepared and made sure that we could respond.  And we have shared a lot of information with our Israeli partners and our other partners in the region about our confidence in our capacity to respond.  A President of the United States 15 years from now is not going to be in a worse position to respond; he’ll be in a stronger position, or she will be in a stronger position, to respond.  And so that’s something that I feel great confidence about.
 
The alternative -- I’ve never understood the logic that says because there may be issues that we have to deal with 15 years from now, we should reject a deal that ensures us for 15 years not having a nuclear weaponized Iran.  And we now are in a situation in which they could breakout next year, without inspectors on the ground to monitor effectively, without the international constraints that this deal provides, and forcing us or the Israelis to make that same decision, isolated, without international legitimacy, and in a situation where even the best estimates suggest that, at best, a military approach at this juncture would probably forestall a determined Iran for a year or two from getting a nuclear weapon.
—Aug. 28, 2015 in a webcast discussion with The Jewish Federations of North America