Opinion

Thomas Friedman: Obama makes his case on Iran nuclear deal

The morning after concluding an agreement with Iran to lift oil and financial sanctions in return for curbs on Iran’s nuclear capabilities, President Barack Obama evinces no second thoughts about the deal he struck.

In a 45-minute interview in the Cabinet room, the president kept stressing one argument: Don’t judge me on whether this deal transforms Iran, ends Iran’s aggressive behavior toward some of its Arab neighbors or leads to détente between Shiites and Sunnis. Judge me on one thing: Does this deal prevent Iran from breaking out with a nuclear weapon for the next 10 years?

The president made it clear that he did not agree with my assessment in a recent column that we had not used all the leverage in our arsenal, or alliances, to prevent Iran from becoming a threshold nuclear power, by acquiring a complete independent enrichment infrastructure that has the potential to undermine the global nuclear nonproliferation regime.

I want more time to study the deal, hear from the nonpartisan experts, listen to what the Iranian leaders tell their own people and hear what credible alternative strategies the critics have to offer. But the president certainly argued his case with a conviction and internal logic.

“We’re not measuring this deal by whether we are solving every problem that can be traced back to Iran,” said the president. “Whether we are eliminating all their nefarious activities around the globe. And what I’m going to be able to say, and I think we will be able to prove, is that this is the most definitive path by which Iran will not get a nuclear weapon, and we will be able to achieve that with the full cooperation of the world community.”

To sell this deal to a skeptical Congress, Obama clearly has to keep his argument tight. But I suspect his legacy ultimately be determined by whether the deal does help transform Iran, defuse the U.S.-Iran cold war and curtail the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. That, though, will be a long time in determining. For the near term, the deal’s merit will be judged on whether Iran implements the rollback of its nuclear enrichment capabilities to which it has agreed and whether the international inspection system it has accepted can detect — and thereby deter — any cheating.

Here are some highlights from the interview:

Asked about whether we failed to use all of our leverage, including a credible threat of force, the president said: “I think that criticism is misguided. We have cut off every pathway for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. The reason we were able to unify the world community around the most effective sanctions regime we’ve ever set up, a sanction regime that crippled the Iranian economy and brought them to the table, was because the world agreed with us, that it would be a great danger to the region, to our allies, to the world, if Iran possessed a nuclear weapon.

“And what we were able to do,” the president continued, “is to say to them, ‘Given your past behavior, given our strong suspicion and evidence that you made attempts to weaponize your nuclear program, given the destabilizing activities that you’ve engaged in and support for terrorism, it’s not enough for us to trust when you say that you are only creating a peaceful nuclear program. You have to prove it to us.’ And so this whole system that we built is not based on trust, it’s based on a verifiable mechanism.”

Asked if Russian President Vladimir Putin was a help or hindrance in concluding this deal, Obama said: “Russia was a help on this. I’ll be honest with you. I was not sure given the strong differences we are having with Russia right now around Ukraine, whether this would sustain itself. Putin and the Russian government compartmentalized on this in a way that surprised me, and we would have not achieved this agreement had it not been for Russia’s willingness to stick with us and the other P5-plus members in insisting on a strong deal.”

My biggest concern and that of many serious critics is that Iran is just not afraid of a serious U.S. military retaliation if it cheats. I asked the president, Why should the Iranians be afraid of us?

“Because we could knock out their military in speed and dispatch if we chose to,” said the president, “and I think they have seen my willingness to take military action where I thought it was important for U.S. interests. Now, I actually believe that they are interested in trying to operate on parallel levels to be able to obtain the benefits of international legitimacy, commerce, reduction of sanctions while still operating through proxies in destructive ways around the region..”

The president spoke to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, of Israel, by phone just before the interview. Obama did not try to sugarcoat their differences, but he hinted that his administration has in the works some significant strategic upgrades for both Israel and America’s Gulf allies.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to discuss specific details about security agreements or work that we may be doing,” said the president. “What I can tell you is that that process is in train. Now, with respect to the Israelis, we’ve done more to facilitate Israeli capabilities. And I’ve also said that I’m prepared to go further than any other administration’s gone before in terms of providing them additional security assurances from the United States. 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. There are legitimate concerns on the part of the gulf countries about Iran trying to stir up and prompt destabilizing events inside their countries.”

It strikes me that the one party that we have heard the least from is the Iranian people and how they ultimately react to this opening of Iran to the world. What would Obama say to them?

“This offers a historic opportunity,” the president said. “Their economy has been cratering as a consequence of the sanctions. They have the ability now to take some decisive steps to move toward a more constructive relationship with the world community. They need to seize that opportunity, their leaders need to seize that opportunity.”

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