WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Saturday that US intelligence assessments show Iran is still “a year or more away” from building a nuclear weapon.
The president’s assessment puts him at odds with Israel, which says Iran is just months away from being able to build a bomb.
Obama, in an interview with The Associated Press, acknowledged that American estimates are “more conservative” than those of the Israelis.
Obama also said the world must “test” whether Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is serious about resolving its nuclear dispute diplomatically.
“If in fact he is able to present a credible plan that says Iran is pursuing peaceful nuclear energy but we’re not pursuing nuclear weapons, and we are willing to be part of a internationally verified structure so that all other countries in the world know they are not pursuing nuclear weapons, then, in fact, they can improve relations, improve their economy. And we should test that,” the president said.
He noted that the election of Rouhani, a relative moderate among the presidential candidates who “won pretty decisively,” indicates that “in the Iranian population at least there’s a genuine interest in moving in a new direction.”
“I think Rouhani has staked his position on the idea that he can improve relations with the rest of the world, and so far he’s been saying a lot of the right things,” Obama said.
Obama emphasized, however, that the US won’t take a “bad deal” from Iran. “We are going to make sure that we verify any agreement that we might strike.”
“But it is very much in not only the United States’ interest but also Israel’s interest to see if we can resolve this without some sort of military conflict,” he added. The New York Times published a report Thursday that cited Israel and American sources saying that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu planned a strike on Iran last October, but Obama sent emissaries to Jerusalem to dissuade him against such an action.
An Israeli official on Friday denied the report.
But Obama said Rouhani is not Iran’s only “decision-maker. He’s not even the ultimate decision-maker,” a reference to the control wielded by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Khamenei said Saturday that some aspects of Rouhani’s trip to New York last month were “not appropriate,” but reiterated his crucial support for the president’s policy of outreach to the West.
The comments by Khamenei, summarized on his website, came after hard-liners criticized the 15-minute phone conversation between Rouhani and Obama.
Hard-liners, including commanders in the powerful Revolutionary Guard, have said the president went too far with the phone call in reaching out to the US.
But Rouhani’s outreach has received broad support from Iranian legislators and it appears popular at a time when Iran is facing crippling economic sanctions due to the nuclear impasse.
Khamenei also said the US was “untrustworthy.” He has previously said he’s not opposed to direct talks with the U.S. to resolve Iran’s nuclear standoff with the West but is not optimistic.
“We are skeptical of Americans and have no trust in them at all. The American government is untrustworthy, arrogant, illogical and a promise-breaker. It’s a government captured by the international Zionism network,” said Khamenei, who has final say on all matters of state.
Given Khamenei’s broad influence, some countries, most notably Israel, have questioned whether Rouhani actually represents real change in Iran or just new packaging of old policies.
Israel is concerned over the recent thaw in Western-Iranian ties that developed at a breakneck pace over the past two weeks, culminating last week in a phone call between the American and Iranian presidents.
Netanyahu warned international media about Rouhani posing as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” during his United Nations “charm offensive.”
“We can never be tempted by the Iranian scheme and ease sanctions, so long as the Iranians do not dismantle their military nuclear program,” the prime minister said after returning to Israel Friday.
Obama said that if he were Israel’s leader, he’d “be very wary as well of any kind of talk from the Iranians.”
Earlier this week, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif struck back at Israeli allegations that it is working to obtain nuclear weapons during an interview with Iranian television.
“We have seen nothing from Netanyahu but lies and actions to deceive and scare,” said Zarif, “and international public opinion will not let these lies go unanswered.”
“For 22 years, the Zionist regime has been lying by repeating endlessly that Iran will have the atomic bomb in six months,” Zarif added.