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President Obama Continues News Conference on Iran Deal. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired July 15, 2015 - 13:30   ET


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's why the alternative, no limits on Iran's nuclear program, no inspections, an Iran that's closer to a nuclear weapon, the risk of regional nuclear arms race, and the greater risk of war -- all that would endanger our security. That's the choice that we face. If we don't choose wisely, I believe future generations will judge us harshly for letting this moment slip away.

And no one suggests that this deal resolves all the threats that Iran poses to its neighbors or the world. Moreover, realizing the promise of this deal will require many years of implementation and hard work. It will require vigilance and execution. But this deal is our best means of assuring that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon. And from the start, that has been my number one priority, our number one priority.

We've got a historic chance to pursue a safer and more secure world, an opportunity that may not come again in our lifetimes. And as president and as commander in chief, I am determined to seize that opportunity.

So with that, I'm going to take some questions. And let's see who I'm starting off with. Here you go; I got it.


Andrew Beatty, AFP.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. Yesterday, you said the deal offered a chance, a new direction in relations with Iran. What steps will you take to enable a more moderate Iran, and does this deal allow you to more forcefully counter Iran's destabilizing actions in the region, quite aside from the nuclear question? Thank you.

OBAMA: Andrew, if you don't mind, just because I suspect that there's going to be a common set of questions that are touched on -- I promise I will get to your question, but I want to start off just by stepping back and reminding folks of what is at stake here. And I already did in my opening statement, but I just want to reiterate it because I've heard already some of the objections to the deal.

The starting premise of our strategy with respect to Iran has been that it would be a grave threat to the United States and to our allies if they obtained a nuclear weapon. And so everything that we've done over the last six-and-a-half years has been designed to make sure that we address that number one priority. That's what the sanctions regime was all about. That's how we were able to mobilize the international community, including some folks that we are not particularly close to, to abide by these sanctions. That's how these crippling sanctions came about, was because we were able to gain global consensus that Iran having a nuclear weapon would be a problem for everybody.

That's the reason that Iran's accounts got frozen and they were not able to get money for the oil sales that they've made. That's the reason that they had problems operating with respect to international commerce, because we built that international consensus around this very specific narrow, but profound, issue -- the possibility of Iran getting a nuclear weapon.

And by the way, that was not simply my priority. If you look back at all the debates that have taken place over the last five, six years, this has been a Democratic priority, this has been a Republican priority, this has been Prime Minister Netanyahu's priority. It has been our Gulf allies' priority, is making sure Iran does not get a nuclear weapon.

The deal negotiated by John Kerry, Wendy Sherman, Ernie Moniz, our allies, our partners, the P5+1, achieves that goal. It achieves our top priority, making sure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapons. But we have always recognized that even if Iran doesn't get a nuclear weapon, Iran still poses challenges to our interests and our values both in the region and around the world.

[13:35:00] So when this deal gets implemented, we know that we will have dismantled the immediate concerns around Iran's nuclear program. We will have brought their stockpiles down to 98 percent. We will have significantly reduced the number of centrifuges that they operate. We will have installed an unprecedented inspections regime. And that will remain in place not just for 10 years, but for example on the stockpiles, will continue to 15 years.

Iran will have pledged to the international community that it will not develop a nuclear weapon, and now will be subject to an additional protocol, a more vigorous inspection and monitoring regime that lasts in perpetuity.

We will have disabled a facility like Arak, the Arak facility, from allowing Iran to develop plutonium that could be used for a bomb. We will have greatly reduced the stockpile of uranium that's enriched, and we will have put in place inspections along the entire supply chain so that if uranium was diverted into a covert program, we would catch it.

So, I can say with confidence, but more importantly nuclear experts can say with confidence that Iran will not be in a position to develop a nuclear bomb. We will have met our number one priority.

Now, we'll still have problems with Iran's sponsorship of terrorism: its funding of proxies like Hezbollah that threaten Israel and threaten the region, the destabilizing activities that they're engaging in, including in places like Yemen. And my hope is that building on this deal, we can continue to have

conversations with Iran that incentivize them to behave differently in the region, to be less aggressive, less hostile, more cooperative, to operate the way we expect nations in the international community to behave. But we're not counting on it.

So this deal is not contingent on Iran changing its behavior. It's not contingent on Iran suddenly operating like a liberal democracy. It solves one particular problem, which is making sure they don't have a bomb. And the point I've repeatedly made and I believe is hard to dispute is that it'll be a lot easier for us to check Iran's nefarious activities, to push back against the other areas where they operate contrary to our interests or our allies' interests if they don't have the bomb.

And -- and so will they change their behavior? Will we seek to gain more cooperation from them in resolving issues like Syria or what's happening in Iraq, to stop encouraging Houthis in Yemen, we'll continue to engage with them.

Although keep in mind that unlike the Cuba situation, we're not normalizing diplomatic relations here. So the contacts will continue to be limited, but will we try to encourage them to take a more constructive path? Of course. But we're not betting on it. And in fact, having resolved the nuclear issue, we will be in a stronger position to work with Israel, work with the Gulf countries, work with our other partners, work with the Europeans to bring additional pressure to bear on Iran around those issues that remain of concern.

But the argument that I've been already hearing and this was foreshadowed even before the deal was announced, that because this deal does not solve all those other problems, that's an argument for rejecting this deal, defies logic: it makes no sense and it loses sight of what was our original number one priority, which is making sure that they don't have a bomb.


John Carl (ph).

[13:40:02] QUESTION: Mr. President, does it give you any pause to see this deal praised by Syrian Dictator Assad as a great victory for Iran, praised by those in Tehran who still shout "death to America," and yet our closest ally in the Middle East calls it a mistake of historic proportions?

And here in Congress, it looks like a large majority will vote to reject this deal. I know you can veto that rejection, but do you have a concerns about seeing a majority of the people's representatives in Congress saying that this is a bad deal?

And if -- if I can just ask you a quick political question, a very quick one...

OBAMA: John (ph), I think...


OBAMA: Let me answer the question that you asked.

It does not give me pause that Mr. Assad or others in Tehran may be trying to spin the deal in a way that they think is favorable to what their constituencies want to hear. That's what politicians do, and that's been the case throughout.

I mean, you will recall that during the course of these negotiations over the last couple of months, every time the supreme leader or somebody tweeted something out, for some reason, we all bought into the notion, "Well, the Obama administration must be giving this or capitulating that."

Well, now we have a document. So you can see what the deal is. We don't have to speculate. We don't have to engage in spin. You can just read what it says and what is required. And nobody has disputed that as a consequence of this agreement, Iran has to drastically reduce its stockpiles of uranium, is cut off from plutonium, the Fordow facility that is underground is converted, that we have an unprecedented inspections regime, that we have snap- back provisions if they cheat.

You know, the facts are the facts, and I'm not concerned about what others say about it.

Now, with respect to Congress, my hope -- I won't prejudge this -- my hope is -- is that everyone in Congress also evaluates this agreement based on the facts, not on politics, not on posturing, not on the fact this is a deal I bring to Congress as opposed a Republican president, not based on lobbying but based on what's in the national interest of the United States of America.

And I think that if Congress does that, then in fact, based on the facts, the majority of Congress should approve of this deal.

But we live in Washington, and politics do intrude. And as I said in an interview yesterday, I am not betting on the Republican Party rallying behind this agreement.

I do expect the debate to be based on facts and not speculation or misinformation, and -- and -- and that, I welcome, in part because, look, there are -- there are legitimate, real concerns here. We've already talked about it. We have huge differences with Iran.

Israel has legitimate concerns about its security relative to Iran. I mean, you have a large country with a significant military that has proclaimed that Israel shouldn't exist, that has denied the Holocaust, that has financed Hezbollah, and as a consequence, there are missiles that are pointed towards Tel Aviv.

And so 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 -- I've said it directly to the Israeli people.

But what I've also said is that all those threats are compounded if Iran gets a nuclear weapon. And for all the objections of Prime Minister Netanyahu or, for that matter, some of the Republican leadership that's already spoken, none of them have presented to me or the American people a better alternative.

[13:45:10] I'm hearing a lot of talking points being repeated about "This is a bad deal. This is a historically bad deal. This is a historically bad deal. This will threaten Israel and threaten the world and threaten the United States." I mean, there's been a lot of that.

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 windfall of their accounts being unfrozen that they'll cause more problems, then you should have some alternative to present. And I haven't heard that.

And the reason is because there really are only two alternatives here. Either the issue of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is resolved diplomatically through a negotiation or it's resolved through force, through war. Those are -- those are the options.

Now, you'll hear some critics say, "well, we could have negotiated a better deal." OK. What does that mean? I think the suggestion among a lot of the critics has been that a -- a better deal, an acceptable deal would be one in which Iran has no nuclear capacity at all, 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 cannot have a nuclear weapon.

And so we don't 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 that they don't have a weapon. That's exactly what we've done. So to go back to Congress, I challenge those who are objecting to this agreement, number one to read the agreement before they comment on it, number two to explain specifically where it is that they think this agreement does not prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and why they're right and people like Ernie Moniz, who is an MIT nuclear physicist and an expert in these issues is wrong, why the rest of the world is wrong, and then present an alternative.

And if the alternative is that we should bring Iran to heel through military force, then those critics should say so. And that will be an honest debate.

All right.

QUESTION: Mr. President, if I can...

OBAMA: No. No. QUESTION: ... Prime Minister Netanyahu said that you know, you have a situation where Iran can delay 24 days before giving access to military facilities.

OBAMA: I'm happy to -- I'm happy to -- that's a good example.

So, let's take the issue of 24 days. This has been, I think, swirling today, the notion that this is insufficient in terms of inspections. Now, keep in mind first of all that we'll have 24/7 inspections of declared nuclear facilities: Fordow, Natanz, Arak, their uranium mines, facilities that are known to produce centrifuges, parts. That entire infrastructure that we know about, we will have sophisticated 24/7 monitoring of those facilities.


So then the issue is what if they try to develop a covert program? Now, one of the advantages of having inspections across the entire production chain is that it makes it very difficult to set up a covert program.

You know, there are only so many uranium mines in Iran.

[13:50:00] And if in fact we're counting the amount of uranium that's being mined, and suddenly some is missing on the back end, they got some 'splainin' to do.

So we're able to track what's happening along the existing facilities to make sure that there is not diversion into a covert program. But let's say that Iran is so determined that it now wants to operate covertly, the IAEA, the international organization charged with implementing the non-proliferation treaty and monitoring nuclear activities in countries around the world, the IAEA will have the ability to say that undeclared site, we're concerned about. We see something suspicious. And they will be able to say to Iran, we want to go inspect that.

Now, if Iran objects, we can override it. In the agreement, we've set it up so we can override Iran's objection, and we don't need Russia or China in order for us to get that override. And if they continue to object, we're in a position to snap back sanctions and declare that Iran's in violation and is cheating.

As for the fact that it may take 24 days to finally get access to the site, the nature of nuclear programs and facilities is such -- this is not something you hide in a closet. This is not something you put on a dolly and kind of wheel off somewhere. And by the way, if we identify an undeclared site that we're suspicious about, we're going to be keeping eyes on it. So we're going to be monitoring what the activity is, and that's going to be something that will be evidence if we think that some funny business was going on there, that we can then present to the international community.

So we'll be monitoring it that entire time. And by the way, if there is nuclear material on that site, you know, your high school physics will remind us that that leaves a trace. And so we'll know that, in fact, there was a violation of the agreement.

So the point is, Jonathan, that this is the most vigorous inspection and verification regime, by far, that has ever been negotiated. Is it possible that Iran decides to try to cheat despite having this entire inspection and verification mechanism? That's possible. But if it does, first of all, we built in a one-year breakout time, which gives us a year to respond forcefully, and we've built in a snap-back provision so we don't have to go through lengthy negotiations at the U.N. to put the sanctions right back in place.

And so really, the only argument you can make against the verification and inspection mechanism that we've put forward is that Iran is so intent on obtaining a nuclear weapon that no inspection regime and no verification mechanism would be sufficient because they'd find some way to get around it because they're untrustworthy. And if that's your view, then we go back to the choice that you have to make earlier.

That means, presumably, that you can't negotiate, and what you're really saying is that you've got to apply military to guarantee that they don't have a nuclear program. And if somebody wants to make that debate, whether it's the Republican leadership or Prime Minister Netanyahu or the Israeli ambassador or others, they're free to make it, but it's not persuasive.

Carol Lee?

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. I want to ask you about the arms and ballistic missile embargo. Why did you decide -- agree to lift those, even with the five-and eight-year durations?

OBAMA: Right.

QUESTION: It's obviously emerging as a sticking point on the Hill. And are you concerned that arms to Iran will go to Hezbollah or Hamas? And is there anything that you or a future president can do to stop that?

And if you don't mind, I mean, I wanted to see if you could step back a little bit and when you look at this Iran deal and all the other issues and unrest that's happening in the Middle East, what kind of Middle East do you want to leave when you leave the White House in a year-and-a-half?

[13:55:09] OBAMA: So the issue of the arms embargo and ballistic missiles is a real concern to us, has been of real concern to us, and it is in the national security interest of the United States to prevent Iran from sending weapons to Hezbollah, for example, or sending weapons to the Houthis in Yemen that accelerate a civil war there.

We have a number of mechanisms under international law that gives us authority to interdict arms shipments by Iran. One of those mechanisms is the U.N. security resolution related to Iran's nuclear program.

Essentially, Iran was sanctioned because of what had happened at Fordow, its unwillingness to comply with previous U.N. security resolutions about their nuclear program, and as part of the package of sanctions that was slapped on them, the issue of arms and ballistic missiles were included.

Now, under the terms of the original U.N. resolution, the fact is that once a -- an agreement -- once an agreement was arrived at that gave the international community assurance Iran didn't have a nuclear weapon, you could argue just looking at the text that those arms and ballistic missiles prohibition should immediately go away.

But what I said to our negotiators was, given that Iran has breached trust and the uncertainty of our allies in the region about Iran's activities, let's press for a longer extension of the arms embargo and the ballistic missile prohibitions. And we got that.

We got five years in which, under this new agreement, arms coming in and out of Iran are prohibited, and we got eight years for the respective ballistic missiles.

But part of the reason why we were willing to extend it only for five, let's say, as opposed a longer period of time, is because we have other U.N. resolutions that prohibit arms sales by Iran to organizations like Hezbollah. We have other U.N. resolutions and multilateral agreements that give us authority to interdict arms shipments from Iran throughout the region.

And so we've had belts and suspenders and buttons, a whole bunch of different legal authorities. These legal authorities under the nuclear program may lapse after five or eight years, but we'll still be in possession of other legal authorities that allow us to interdict those arms.

And -- and -- and truthfully, these prohibitions are not self- enforcing. It's not like the U.N. has the capacity to police what -- what Iran is doing. What is does is it gives us authority under international law to prevent arms -- arms shipments from happening in concert with our allies and our partners.

And the real problem, if you look at how, for example, Hezbollah got a lot of missiles that are a grave threat to Israel and many of our friends in the region, it's not because they were legal, it's not because somehow that was authorized under international law; it was because there was insufficient intelligence or capacity to stop those shipments.

So the bottom line is, Carol (ph), I share the concerns of Israel, Saudis, Gulf partners about Iran shipping arms and causing conflict and chaos in the region, and that's why I've said to them, "Let's double down and partner much more effectively to improve our intelligence capacity and our interdiction capacity so that fewer of those arms shipments are getting through the net."