US President Barack Obama on Friday conceded that the Iranian nuclear deal would grant the Islamic Republic greater military funding, but said Tehran — even in its most dire financial state — had never ceased to fund terror groups such as Hezbollah.
“Does the IRGC [Revolutionary Guards] or the Quds Force have more resources [as a result of the deal]? Probably, as the economy in Iran improves. But the challenge that we’ve had, when it comes to Hezbollah, for example, aiming rockets into Israel is not a shortage of resources,” Obama said in an interview with BBC.
“Iran has shown itself to be willing, even in the midst of real hardship, to fund what they consider to be strategy priorities.”
The president maintained that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will face significant public pressure to sink much of the funds it receives as a result of the international sanctions relief into Iran’s economy.
“A large portion of those funds are going to have to be used for them to rebuild their economy,” Obama added. “That was the mandate that elected Rouhani. And the supreme leader is feeling pressure there.”
Regarding Iran’s expansionist policies and support for terror groups, Obama said the US sent “a clear message” to Iran. “We are settling the Iran deal, but we still have a big account that we’re going to have to work. Hopefully some of it diplomatically, if necessary some of it militarily,” Obama stated.
The US Gulf allies have a defense budget 10 times the size of Iran’s defense budget, Obama said, while conceding that these countries were reluctant to embroil themselves in the Middle East’s wars.
Ultimately, went on the president, “how issues get resolved in the Middle East is going to depend on both strengthening military capacity, but also addressing the underlying social and political issues.”
Israel has been fiercely critical of the nuclear deal, arguing that the money Iran receives, as sanctions are lifted, will be used to sponsor terror and destabilize the region.
The Foreign Ministry’s Director General Dore Gold said Wednesday evening that Israel anticipates a “major escalation” of Iranian-backed terror attacks on its borders as a direct result of the nuclear agreement.
Although he did not detail the specific threats for Israel that could be impacted, or list specific accommodations that Israel sought to counter the threats, Gold warned that “the moment that the funds become available from frozen accounts… that’s when the Middle East goes south and things become extremely dangerous in the region.”
Saying that the release of $150 billion of frozen funds would free Iran from having to choose which terror activities to support, Gold said Iranian troops and their proxies in the region “will have an ability to be everywhere simultaneously.”
While the Iranian-backed Shiite terror group Hezbollah has been operating in Lebanon since the 1980s, its recent involvement in the Syrian civil war — on the side of the Assad regime — has brought its forces to the Golan Heights, where altercations between the group’s fighters and troops of the Israel Defense Forces have already taken place.
Iran has also made great efforts to acquire and distribute advanced weaponry to terror groups, Gold said. “We have been seeing an expansion of Iranian deployment around Israel.”
He stressed, however, that even though the P5+1 states had already ratified a resolution that enabled lifting sanctions against Tehran, the US could retain leverage against Tehran.
“People tend to play down the leverage that a US negotiator has,” he said, suggesting that the US can continue its own unilateral sanctions against Tehran with or without parallel sanctions regimes in place in the other P5+1 member states.
Raphael Ahren and Rebecca Shimoni Stoil contributed to this report.