US President Barack Obama on Wednesday delivered a detailed defense of the world powers’ landmark nuclear accord with Iran, and lambasted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other vociferous critics inside the US for what he said was their failure to present a viable alternative to it.
Taking a direct jab at Netanyahu, Obama said some critics claim Iran wants to “take over the world,” referencing a speech the prime minister made earlier in the month in which he claimed Iran has “the ultimate true aim of taking over the world.” This was “news to the Iranians,” Obama quipped during a press conference on the deal with reporters in the White House.
But Obama agreed that “Israel has legitimate concerns about its security relative to Iran.” The regime in Tehran, he noted, “has proclaimed that Israel shouldn’t exist… has denied the Holocaust… has financed Hezbollah, and as a consequence there are missiles that are pointed toward Tel Aviv.”
Therefore, he said, “I think there are very good reasons why Israelis are nervous about Iran’s position in the world generally, and I’ve said this to Prime Minister Netanyahu, I’ve said it directly to the Israeli people.”
Still, he continued, “all those threats are compounded if Iran gets a nuclear weapon.”
‘There really are only two alternatives here: either the issue of Iran attaining a nuclear weapon is resolved diplomatically through negotiation, or it’s resolved through force, through war’
Under the deal announced Tuesday, Iran’s nuclear program will be scaled back and closely monitored as the US and world powers seek to cut off its ability to develop an atomic weapon. In exchange, Iran will see biting economic sanctions gradually lifted, freeing up tens of billions of dollars in oil revenue and frozen assets. But Netanyahu and other critics say the deal should have neutralized and dismantled Iran’s military nuclear facilities, and warn that the deal paves Iran’s path to the bomb and will send billions into its coffers which it will use to promote its violent agenda in the region and beyond.
Obama said he had been hearing that it is a “bad deal, a historically bad deal” — Netanyahu had branded it just that on Tuesday — “that this will threaten Israel, the world and the United States.” Said Obama: “What I haven’t heard is what is your preferred alternative?”
“If 99 percent of the world’s community and the majority of nuclear experts look at this thing and they say this will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, and you are arguing either that it does not, or that even if it does, it’s temporary, or that because they’re going to get a [financial] windfall… they’ll cause more problems,” said Obama, “then you have to have some alternative to present.”
In fact, he asserted, “I haven’t heard that, and the reason is because there really are only two alternatives here: either the issue of Iran attaining a nuclear weapon is resolved diplomatically through negotiation, or it’s resolved through force, through war. Those are the options.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Netanyahu reiterated his biting critique of the agreement, claiming it is “filled with absurdities,” and scolded world leaders for caving in to Iran’s “charm offensive.” Addressing the Knesset, he insisted Israel was not bound by the agreement, suggesting it could still take military action against Iran’s nuclear program even if the deal proceeds. Obama urged critics Wednesday to read the deal before attacking it; Netanyahu had said hours earlier that he had read, and that the more he read, the worse it got.
But Obama asserted that a so-called “better deal” — as repeatedly demanded by Netanyahu — was unrealistic. “You’ll hear some critics say, well, we could have negotiated a better deal. Okay, what does that mean?” he asked.
“I think the suggestion among a lot of the critics has been that a better deal, an acceptable deal, would be one in which Iran has no nuclear capacity, peaceful or otherwise. The problem with that position is that there is nobody who thinks that Iran would or could ever accept that, and the international community does not take the view that Iran can’t have a peaceful nuclear program. They agree with us that Iran can’t have a nuclear weapon.”
The US, he said, does not have “diplomatic leverage to eliminate every vestige of a peaceful nuclear program in Iran. What we do have the leverage to do is to make sure they don’t have a weapon. That’s exactly what we’ve done.”
If the alternative sought by the deal’s opponents “is that we should bring Iran to heel by military force,” he said, speaking directly to some Congressional Republican critics, “then those critics should say so, and that would be an honest debate.”
The president addressed specific Israeli objections to the agreement, noting that sanctions and other measures targeting Iran’s support for the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah movement are “still in place.”
He further insisted that criticism of the accord was based only on “speculation” and “misinformation.”
But while the president maintained that the nuclear accord would make the world more secure, he said “profound differences” with the Islamic Republic will remain, and that “unlike the Cuba situation, we’re not normalizing diplomatic relations here.” Obama said he hoped the deal would encourage the Iranian regime to “behave differently” and stop sponsoring terrorist actors in the Middle East, but noted that he wasn’t “betting on it.”
In the absence of a deal, however, the international economic sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table would have unraveled, he said, and the world community would not have been able to put the sanctions regime back together.
Responding to criticism of the deal’s provisions on inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities, Obama said Iran will be subject to a more vigorous inspection regime than before the nuclear deal, and “will not be in a position to develop a nuclear bomb,” but would still pose challenges to Western interests and values.
Still, he added, “this is not something that you hide in the closet or you wheel off somewhere. If there is nuclear material on that site, your high school physics will remind us that that leaves a trace, so we’ll know that in fact there is a violation of the agreement.”
In the absence of a deal, he contended, the region — which he termed “the most dangerous in the world” — would see “even more war” and a nuclear arms race in the short term, as “other countries in the Middle East would feel compelled to develop their own nuclear weapons.”
His remarks were aimed in good part at Congress, where lawmakers are discussing legislation to try to stop the deal’s implementation. “I expect the debate to be robust, and that’s how it should be,” Obama said, imploring lawmakers skeptical of the deal to “remember the alternative.”
The United States Wednesday presented a draft resolution to the UN Security Council asking it to endorse the historic deal, which could be voted on as early as Monday or Tuesday, diplomats said.
The draft text seeks formal UN approval for the agreement and would also replace the existing framework of Security Council sanctions with the restrictions set out in the deal, under which Iran has dismantle or mothball much of its nuclear industry.
Times of Israel staff, AP and AFP contributed to this report.