On February 27, President Barack Obama told Bloomberg View that the world’s six major powers have nothing to lose from nuclear talks with Iran. If the two sides fail to agree, “the worst that will have happened is that we will have frozen their program for a six-month period. We’ll have much greater insight into their program,” argued Obama. He also warned Congress against imposing new sanctions, which could risk derailing negotiations. Obama emphasized that President Hassan Rouhani is under pressure from Iranian hardliners who do not trust the United States.
The president also suggested that Iran may be able to change its relationship with the outside world and stop supporting extremist groups. He posited that the peaceful resolution of the nuclear dispute could strengthen progressive voices in Iran. Iran’s further integration into the world economy could lead to “more travel and greater openness,” Obama suggested. The following are excerpts from his interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg.
Iran’s Nuclear Program
There’s never been a negotiation in which at some point there isn’t some pause, some mechanism to indicate possible good faith. Even in the old Westerns or gangster movies, right, everyone puts their gun down just for a second. You sit down, you have a conversation; if the conversation doesn’t go well, you leave the room and everybody knows what’s going to happen and everybody gets ready. But you don’t start shooting in the middle of the room during the course of negotiations…
Over the course of several years, we were able to enforce an unprecedented sanctions regime that so crippled the Iranian economy that they were willing to come to the table and, in fact, helped to shape the Iranian election, and that they are now in a joint plan of action that for the first time in a decade halts their nuclear program -- no centrifuges being installed; the 20 percent enriched uranium being drawn down to zero; Arak on hold; international inspectors buzzing around in ways that are unimaginable even a year ago -- what that all indicates is that there is the opportunity, there is the chance for us to resolve this without resorting to military force.
And if we have any chance to make sure that Iran does not have nuclear weapons, if we have any chance to render their breakout capacity nonexistent, or so minimal that we can handle it, then we’ve got to pursue that path. And that has been my argument with Prime Minister Netanyahu; that has been my argument with members of Congress who have been interested in imposing new sanctions. My simple point has been, we lose nothing by testing this out.
Iran’s Potential to Change
For years now, Iran has been an irresponsible international actor. They’ve sponsored terrorism. They have threatened their neighbors. They have financed actions that have killed people in neighboring states.
And Iran has also exploited or fanned sectarian divisions in other countries. In light of that record, it’s completely understandable for other countries to be not only hostile towards Iran but also doubtful about the possibilities of Iran changing. I get that. But societies do change -- I think there is a difference between an active hostility and sponsoring of terrorism and mischief, and a country that you’re in competition with and you don’t like but it's not blowing up homes in your country or trying to overthrow your government…
If… they [Iranians] are capable of changing; if, in fact, as a consequence of a deal on their nuclear program those voices and trends inside of Iran are strengthened, and their economy becomes more integrated into the international community, and there’s more travel and greater openness, even if that takes a decade or 15 years or 20 years, then that’s very much an outcome we should desire.
So again, there’s a parallel to the Middle East discussion we were having earlier. The only reason you would not want us to test whether or not we can resolve this nuclear program issue diplomatically would be if you thought that by a quick military exercise you could remove the threat entirely. And since I’m the commander in chief of the most powerful military on earth, I think I have pretty good judgment as to whether or not this problem can be best solved militarily. And what I’m saying is it’s a lot better if we solve it diplomatically.
I’m not big on extremism generally… What I’ll say is that if you look at Iranian behavior, they are strategic, and they’re not impulsive. They have a worldview, and they see their interests, and they respond to costs and benefits. And that isn’t to say that they aren’t a theocracy that embraces all kinds of ideas that I find abhorrent, but they’re not North Korea. They are a large, powerful country that sees itself as an important player on the world stage, and I do not think has a suicide wish, and can respond to incentives.
Iran's Involvement in Syria
I threatened kinetic strikes on Syria unless they got rid of their chemical weapons. When I made that threat, Syria denied even having chemical weapons. In the span of 10 days to two weeks, you had their patrons, the Iranians and the Russians, force or persuade Assad to come clean on his chemical weapons, inventory them for the international community, and commit to a timeline to get rid of them.
We’ve now seen 15 to 20 percent of those chemical weapons on their way out of Syria with a very concrete schedule to get rid of the rest. That would not have happened had the Iranians said, ‘Obama’s bluffing, he’s not actually really willing to take a strike.’
I think that there are shifts that are taking place in the region that have caught a lot of them off guard. I think change is always scary. I think there was a comfort with a United States that was comfortable with an existing order and the existing alignments, and was an implacable foe of Iran, even if most of that was rhetorical and didn’t actually translate into stopping the nuclear program. But the rhetoric was good.
What I’ve been saying to our partners in the region is, ‘We’ve got to respond and adapt to change.’ And the bottom line is: What’s the best way for us actually to make sure Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapon?
If, in fact, they can’t get there [arrive at a nuclear deal], the worst that will have happened is that we will have frozen their program for a six-month period. We’ll have much greater insight into their program. All the architecture of our sanctions will have still been enforced, in place. Their economy might have modestly improved during this six-month to one-year period. But I promise you that all we have to do is turn the dial back on…
95 percent of it [sanctions regime] never got turned off. And we will be in a stronger position to say to our partners, including the Russians, the Chinese and others, who have thus far stuck with us on sanctions, that it is Iran that walked away; it wasn’t the U.S., it wasn’t Congress, it wasn’t our new sanctions that jettisoned the deal. And we will then have the diplomatic high ground to tighten the screws even further. If, on the other hand, it is perceived that we were not serious about negotiations, then that ironically is the quickest path to sanctions unraveling, if in fact Iran is insincere.
The logic of sanctions was to get them to negotiate. The logic of the joint action plan is to freeze the situation for a certain period of time to allow the negotiators to work. The notion that in the midst of negotiations we would then improve our position by saying, ‘We’re going to squeeze you even harder,’ ignores the fact that [President Hassan] Rouhani and the negotiators in Iran have their own politics. They’ve got to respond to their own hardliners. And there are a whole bunch of folks inside of Iran who are just as suspicious of our motives and willingness to ultimately lift sanctions as we are suspicious of their unwillingness to get rid of their nuclear program…
So the logic of new sanctions right now would only make sense if, in fact, we had a schedule of dismantling the existing sanctions. And we’ve kept 95 percent of them in place. Iran is going to be, net, losing more money with the continuing enforcement of oil sanctions during the course of this joint plan of action than they’re getting from the modest amount of money we gave them access to.
And, by the way, even though they’re talking to European businesses, oil companies have been contacting Iran and going into Iran, nobody has been making any deals because they know that our sanctions are still in place. They may want to reserve their first place in line if, in fact, a deal is struck and sanctions are removed. That’s just prudent business.
But we’ve sent a very clear message to them and, by the way, to all of our partners and the P5 + 1 [the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany], that they better tell their companies that their sanctions are still in force, including U.S. unilateral sanctions. And we’re going to enforce them, and we’ve been enforcing them during the course of these discussions so far.
We have a high degree of confidence that when they [Iranians] look at 35,000 U.S. military personnel in the region that are engaged in constant training exercises under the direction of a president who already has shown himself willing to take military action in the past, that they should take my statements seriously. And the American people should as well, and the Israelis should as well, and the Saudis should as well.
Now, that does not mean that that is my preferred course of action. So let’s just be very clear here. There are always consequences to military action that are unpredictable and can spin out of control, and even if perfectly executed carry great costs. So if we can resolve this issue diplomatically, we absolutely should.
Click here for the full interview.