US President Barack Obama insisted Friday that the recently negotiated agreement on Iran’s nuclear program “deals with the existential threat to Israel,” citing the concerns of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the most vehement opponents of the deal. Furthermore, he said, the agreement “blocks every way, every pathway that Iran might take in order to obtain a nuclear weapon.”
He said once the nuclear accord was implemented, he expected “pretty quick” improvements in US-Israeli relations.
Obama was speaking from the White House in live webcast organized by North American Jewish groups about the Iran nuclear deal. At the start of the webcast, the president made a few remarks before taking questions that were submitted ahead of the event.
The president said that the agreement ensures that Iran’s centrifuges in Natanz will be removed, except for a handful, and it makes sure that those cannot be used to create enriched uranium. He said the plant at Fordo would be converted into a research facility and would no longer have in it centrifuges that could be used to create nuclear materials.
He also maintained that the US has ensured that it can “snap back” the tight sanctions on the Islamic Republic that Obama credited with bringing Iran to the negotiating table, “in the event that Iran cheats or does not abide by the terms of the deal.”
The president stressed that the relationship between the United States and Israel is “sacrosanct” and “non-partisan,” saying it “always has been and always will be.”
“The bond between the United States and Israel is not political,” he said. “It is something that grows out of family ties and bonds that stretch back generations, and shared values and shared commitments and shared beliefs in democracy. And like all families sometimes there are going to be disagreements. And sometimes people get angrier about disagreements in families than with folks that aren’t family.”
Obama did, however, challenge the assertion that both sides have been equally vehement in presenting their case, and cited the example of New York Congressman Jerrold Nadler, the Jewish Democrat whom he said had come under unjust criticism for his support for the agreement. “People should be deeply concerned about this,” he said.
“I would suggest that in terms of the tone of this debate everybody keep in mind that we’re all pro-Israel,” he said. “We have to make sure that we don’t impugn people’s motives.”
He expressed the desire for a quick improvements in ties between the longtime allies after the accord is implemented, something he said would benefit Israel.
“As soon as this part of the debate is over, my hope is that the Israeli government will immediately want to rejoin conversations we started long before on how we can enhance Israeli security in a very troubled neighborhood,” he said.
The president defended his record on Israel’s security, saying that “even my fiercest critics” would say that there has been “unprecedented military cooperation” during his time in office, and that there had been an enhanced degree of military aid, such as in the form of the Iron Dome missile defense system.
‘Iran is no superpower’
Obama also downplayed claims that lifting the sanctions on Iran would mean that Tehran had a windfall of money with which it could further fund terrorist activity.
The money that Iran gets, the president said, would have to go to “prop up” an economy that has been crippled by international sanctions. The Iranian economy would improve modestly, he said.
He also pointed out that Iran spends $15 billion dollars on defense annually, compared to the $600 billion that the US spends. “Iran is a regional power, it’s not a superpower,” he said.
The president did nonetheless acknowledge the issue of Iranian support for the Lebanon-based terror group Hezbollah, which has previously sent hundreds of rockets into Israel, and has threatened to send thousands more. “We have to stop Iran from getting missiles to Hezbollah that threaten Israel,” he said.
He later revisited the subject, saying that by removing the possibility of Tehran obtaining a nuclear weapon, it would be easier to then tackle other problematic aspects of Iran’s behavior.
“Those are all things that we have to do anyway, and we are in a much better position if we are not concerned with Iran getting a nuclear weapon,” he said.
“It’s precisely because we’re not counting on the nature of the regime to change that it’s so important for us to make sure they don’t have a nuclear weapon,” he said.
And while the sanctions on Iran over its nuclear ambitions will be removed, Obama said, the sanctions that were imposed for its other infractions, such as its human rights record, would remain intact. “We are not normalizing ties with Iran,” he maintained, later saying that as the president of the United States, he paid no heed to the incendiary remarks directed at him personally that emanated from Tehran.
The president concluded the webcast by urging people to read up on the agreement for themselves.
The event was co-sponsored by The Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who earlier this month sponsored a similar — and ultimately glitchy — webcast with Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Under the terms of the contentious agreement negotiated last month by the Islamic Republic and six world powers, Iran would allow restrictions on and supervision of its nuclear program in return for an end to years-long crippling sanctions.
While most Republicans are against the deal, Democrats have mostly supported it. On Thursday, Senator Tom Carper of Delaware became the latest Democratic politician to announce his support for the Iran nuclear deal. “People should be deeply concerned about this,” he said.
Netanyahu has been one of the deal’s most vocal opponents, and the American Jewish community has been divided on the agreement.
Many centrist Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee, have come out against the deal, while hundreds of rabbis have taken opposing stands in public announcements. Polls gauging American Jewish public opinion have produced mixed results.
Congress has until late September to decide whether to reject the agreement. Obama has pledged to veto a rejection.
JTA and AP contributed to this report