Obama to Israelis: Military Strike Won’t Stop Iran Nuclear Program

June 2, 2015

On May 29, President Barack Obama told Israel’s Channel 2 that a military strike, even with U.S. participation, would only “temporarily slow down an Iranian nuclear program.” He pushed back on criticism of the potential deal being negotiated between Iran and the world’s six major powers. The “best way to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon is a verifiable, tough agreement,” he said. The president, however, also assured the Israeli people that he understands their concerns and fears.

On June 2, just hours before Obama’s interview aired, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Israeli public that Israel must “first and foremost” rely on itself. He warned that the deal under consideration would “pave the way for Iran to atom bombs.” The following are excerpts from Obama’s interview with Ilana Dayan and Netanyahu’s remarks.
 
QUESTION: There’s a remarkably sincere observation you made once -- you said, “Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable.”  And you said, “Any given decision I make, I wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work.”  I’m afraid Israelis cannot afford even three to four percent chance you’re wrong, Mr. President, because if you are, the bomb will hit Tel Aviv first.
 
THE PRESIDENT:  Well, let’s back up on this.  We know that Iran, prior to me coming into office, had gone from a few hundred centrifuges to thousands.  We know that the potential breakout time for Iran, if it chose to build a bomb, is a matter potentially of months today instead of years.   
 
And seeing that, I came in and organized an international coalition -- including countries like Russia and China that tend not to be very sympathetic to sanctions regimes -- and we have imposed the most effective sanctions on Iran over the course of the last five years that has led them to essentially lose a decade, perhaps, of economic growth. 
 
At the time, people were skeptical.  They said, oh, sanctions aren’t going to work.  Then we were able to force Iran to the negotiating table because of the effectiveness of the sanctions.  And I said that in exchange for some modest relief in sanctions, Iran is going to have to freeze its nuclear program, roll back on its stockpiles of very highly enriched uranium -- the very stockpiles that Prime Minister Netanyahu had gone before the United Nations with his picture of the bomb and said that was proof of how dangerous this was -- all that stockpile is gone. 
And in fact, at that time, everybody said, this isn’t going to work.  They’re going to cheat.  They’re not going to abide by it.  And yet, over a year and a half later, we know that they have abided by the letter of it.
 
So we have I think shown that we are able to construct a mechanism, if, in fact, we get an agreement, to verify that all four pathways to a nuclear weapon are shut off.
 
Q: But what if they take the $100 million showered at them after sanctions are lifted and not take them to build movie theaters and hospitals in Tehran, but rather divert it to military use?
 
THE PRESIDENT:  Okay, so that’s a different question, though.  So I just want to separate out the questions.  There’s one critique of a potential nuclear deal which is it won’t hold, and Iran will cheat, and they will get a bomb.  And I have confidence that if, in fact, we arrive at the kind of agreement that I’m looking for, and that was described in Geneva but now has to be memorialized, then we will have cut off their path to a nuclear weapon and we will be able to verify it with unprecedented mechanisms.
 
Now, it may be that Iran is not able to make the necessary concessions for us to know we can verify it --   
 
Q: Then there’s no deal. 
 
THE PRESIDENT:  Then there’s going to be no deal.  But let’s assume there’s a deal.  There is now a second set of arguments, which is you bring down sanctions --
 
Q: Now, that’s wishful thinking --
 
THE PRESIDENT:  -- and they’ve got $100-$150 billion, and now they can do even more mischief around the region.  I would make three points on that.
 
Number one is that we will be putting in place a snapback provision so that if they cheat on the nuclear deal, the sanctions automatically go back into place; we don’t have to ask Mr. Putin’s permission, for example, to put sanctions back. 
 
Number two, we shouldn’t assume that we can perpetuate the sanctions forever anyway.  There’s a shelf life on the sanctions, because the reason the international community agreed was to get to the table to deal with the nuclear issue, not to deal with all of these other issues.  So we will get a diminishing return just on maintaining sanctions.
 
Number three, Mr. Rouhani was elected specifically in order to strengthen the Iranian economy.  There’s enormous political pressure on them -- as I said, they’ve lost a decade of economic growth.  Their economy has been contracting each year.  And it is true that out of $100 billion or $150 billion, of course the IRGC, the Quds Force, they’re going to want to get their piece.  But the fact is, is that the great danger that the region has faced from Iran is not because they have so much money.  Their budget -- their military budget is $15 billion compared to $150 billion for the Gulf States -- I just met with them. 
 
They have a low-tech but very effective mechanism of financing proxies, of creating chaos in regions.  And they’ve also shown themselves, regardless of sanctions, to be willing to finance Hezbollah with rockets and others even in the face of sanctions.
 
So the question then becomes are they going to suddenly be able to finance 10 times the number of Hezbollah fighters?  Probably not.
 
Q: I don’t know if you noticed, Mr. President, but our Prime Minister gave a speech to Congress a few months ago.
 
THE PRESIDENT:  Really?  I didn’t notice.  (Laughter.) 
 
Q: Yes, really.  I was wondering if you noticed that.  But I asked your good friend, David Axelrod, your chief strategist, about it later and he said this was a highly political exercise. Would you agree on that?
 
THE PRESIDENT: As I said before, I think the Prime Minister cares very much about the security of the Israeli people, and I think that in his mind, he is doing what’s right. 
 
I care very much about the people of Israel as well, and in my mind, it is very much in Israel’s interest to make sure that Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapon.  And I can, I think, demonstrate -- not based on any hope, but on facts and evidence and analysis -- that the best way to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon is a verifiable, tough agreement.  A military solution will not fix it, even if the United States participates. It would temporarily slow down an Iranian nuclear program, but it will not eliminate it.
 
Q: Can you even imagine a scenario where Prime Minister Netanyahu, after this deal -- which he says it’s a bad deal, that’s why he came to Congress -- launches a military strike and doesn’t even call you ahead of time?
 
THE PRESIDENT: I won’t speculate on that.  What I can say is -- to the Israeli people -- I understand your concerns and I understand your fears.  But what is the worst scenario is the path that we’re currently on in which there’s no nuclear resolution, and ultimately, we have no way to verify whether Iran has a weapon or not.
 
Sanctions won’t do it.  A military solution is temporary.  The deal that we’re negotiating potentially takes a nuclear weapon off the table for 20 years.  And so when the Prime Minister comes here, I understand he is speaking because he believes that it’s the right thing to do.  But I respectfully disagree with him.  And I think that I can show if, in fact, Iran abides by the deal that we’re outlining now -- and they may not.  They could still walk away and miss this opportunity.

—May 29, 2015 in an interview with Channel 2
 
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
 
“When speaking of Israelis' security I rely first and foremost on ourselves, and proof of this is the agreement emerging between the world powers and Iran.

The deal will “pave the way for Iran to atom bombs” and inject billions of dollars into its economy.

“With that money it can continue to arm our enemies with high trajectory weapons and other arms, and also arm its war and terror machine, which is acting against us and the Middle East, and which is much more dangerous than Islamic State's terror machine, which is also dangerous.”
—June 2, 2015 in remarks at Home Command headquarters