As the battle over a landmark nuclear deal with Iran shifts from Vienna to Capitol Hill, US President Barack Obama expressed confidence the agreement would be okayed by US lawmakers despite lobbying by Jerusalem.
In wide-ranging interview with Thomas Friedman in The New York Times Wednesday, the president also dismissed criticism that the inspections regime of Iran’s nuclear sites would fail to prevent cheating and said he believed Tehran should be a regional power and will follow the deal “to the letter.”
With the clinching of the deal Tuesday, Congress will now be tasked with approving the pact, and Israeli leaders, loudly critical of the accord, have indicated they will continue to lobby lawmakers to prevent sanctions on Tehran from being lifted in exchange for some curbs on nuclear enrichment.
Obama vowed in an address Tuesday to veto any effort by US lawmakers to quash the agreement, and indicated in the New York Times interview that the deal would not have trouble making it through Congress.
“Perhaps [Netanyahu] thinks he can further influence the congressional debate, and I’m confident we’re going to be able to uphold this deal and implement it without Congress preventing that,” Obama said, adding that international support for the sanctions were losing ground because developing nations such as China and India need additional sources of oil.
Asked whether it would not be better to coordinate strategy with Netanyahu, rather than enduring their ongoing public disagreements, Obama replied: “That’s precisely the offer that I’ve made, and I’ve said that specifically to him.”
A number of congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle have said the deal will not have any easy time in Congress, where lawmakers will now have 60 days to review it. Senators will need to muster a 67-vote supermajority to override Obama’s veto.
On Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner issued a warning to the White House, saying that if Republicans don’t think the newly announced nuclear deal with Iran is a good one, they will block it.
With regards to Israel, Obama noted that “legitimate” concerns regarding Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism were outside the scope of the agreement but that as president, he would “keep his eye on the ball” to stop Tehran from “acting in an unconstructive way” — including the matter of Iranian proxy group Hezbollah which “has tens of thousands of missiles that are pointed toward Israel.”
“The thing I want to emphasize is that people’s concerns here are legitimate. Hezbollah has tens of thousands of missiles that are pointed toward Israel. They are becoming more sophisticated. The interdiction of those weapon flows has not been as successful as it needs to be,” Obama said, adding that countries in the region such as Israel that feel threatened by Iran are “not just being paranoid.”
Yet he also indicated that Iran should be tested to see if it can keep its nuclear program peaceful.
Iran is entitled to a nuclear program if it can “prove” that the program is peaceful, Obama noted, adding that he believes Tehran is “interested in trying to operate on parallel levels to be able to obtain the benefits of international legitimacy.”
“The truth of the matter is that Iran will be and should be a regional power. They are a big country and a sophisticated country in the region,” Obama said, adding that Iran’s potential greatness need not be predicated upon “denigrating Israel or threatening Israel or engaging in Holocaust denial or anti-Semitic activity.”
Responding to criticism that the world powers sued for a deal despite having the upper hand and despite the fact that Iran was in dire economic straits, Obama said “I think that criticism is misguided. Let’s see exactly what we obtained. We have cut off every pathway for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon.”
Yet reforming the Iranian regime or stopping Iranian-sponsored terrorism is not part of the agreement, which focuses solely on nuclear weapons, Obama said.
“We are not measuring this deal by whether it is changing the regime inside of Iran. We’re not measuring this deal by whether we are solving every problem that can be traced back to Iran, whether we are eliminating all their nefarious activities around the globe. We are measuring this deal — and that was the original premise of this conversation, including by Prime Minister Netanyahu — Iran could not get a nuclear weapon. That was always the discussion,” he said.
“[Continued Iranian aggression] is a possibility, and we are going to have to systematically guard against that and work with our allies — the gulf countries, Israel — to stop the work that [Iran is] doing outside of the nuclear program. But the central premise here is that if they got a nuclear weapon, that would be different, and on that score, we have achieved our objective,” he added.
Defending the inspections program, which warns the Iranians of a nuclear site inspection 24 days in advance, Obama noted that “it’s not that easy to suddenly just hide potentially radioactive material,” but did admit that the inspections regime is not perfect.
“If you hear a critic say, `Well, this inspection regime is not 100 percent foolproof,’ I guess theoretically, nothing is 100 percent foolproof. But if the standard is what is the best, most effective, most rigorous mechanism whereby it is very, very, very difficult for Iran to cheat, then this is the mechanism, and it goes far beyond anything that was done, for example, in North Korea.”
Obama is expected to hold a press conference later Wednesday in a bid to answer critics on the deal as part of a continuing effort to calm jittery allies, including Israel and the Gulf states.
In phone calls Tuesday with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Prince Mohammed Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates, both of who have expressed their opposition to the deal, Obama attempted to allay fears and affirm that the nuclear deal will cutting off all of Iran’s potential pathways to a bomb.
The United States is “as committed as ever” to working with the Gulf states to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region, Obama added, according to a statement released by the White House.
He also spoke with both about “stopping the fighting in Yemen,” where Saudis have faced off against Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
Obama earlier spoke to Netanyahu, assuring him that that the deal “will not diminish our concerns regarding Iran’s support for terrorism and threats toward Israel,” the White House said in a statement.