In a lengthy interview Saturday at the White House, President Barack Obama talked with New York Times’ op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman about his foreign policy and defended the Iran nuclear deal.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Obama Believes Engagement Is Better Than Sanctions & Isolation
Friedman asked Obama about his foreign policy views, the “Obama Doctrine,” and how it impacted the nuclear deal negotiations with Iran, as well as his decisions regarding Burma and Cuba. He told Friedman “engagement,” along with “meeting core strategic needs,” would serve American interests better than “endless sanctions and isolation,” Friedman wrote.
Obama told Friedman the U.S. can take calculated risks to open new possibilities, like the deal with Iran.
2. He Said America Is ‘Powerful Enough’ to Engage Iran Without Risking Security
Obama said America can take these risks and engage with Iran and other countries without sacrificing its ability to defend itself and its allies. Obama told Friedman:
We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk. And that’s the thing … people don’t seem to understand. You take a country like Cuba. For us to test the possibility that engagement leads to a better outcome for the Cuban people, there aren’t that many risks for us. It’s a tiny little country. It’s not one that threatens our core security interests, and so [there’s no reason not] to test the proposition. And if it turns out that it doesn’t lead to better outcomes, we can adjust our policies. The same is true with respect to Iran, a larger country, a dangerous country, one that has engaged in activities that resulted in the death of U.S. citizens, but the truth of the matter is: Iran’s defense budget is $30 billion. Our defense budget is closer to $600 billion. Iran understands that they cannot fight us. …
You asked about an Obama doctrine. The doctrine is: We will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities.
3. Israel Has Called the Agreement a ‘Very Bad Deal’
While Obama defended the Iran nuclear deal this weekend, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blasted the deal as dangerous and, as Netanyahu said, “a free path to the bomb.”
On CNN’s State of the Union, Netanyahu called it a “very bad deal and said the agreement would “pump up the terror machine worldwide. He said:
It does not roll back Iran’s nuclear program. It keeps a vast nuclear infrastructure in place. Not a single centrifuge is destroyed. Not a single nuclear facility is shut down, including the underground facilities that they built illicitly. Thousands of centrifuges will keep spinning, enriching uranium.
On NBC’s Meet the Press, he said, “I think this is a dream deal for Iran and a nightmare deal for the world.”
He also said there is a “legitimate difference of views,” between him and Obama, but didn’t criticize the president.
4. Obama Said He Understands Israel’s Concerns With the Iran Agreement
In his interview with Friedman, Obama explained that he understood why Netanyahu and Israel have concerns about the Iran deal. He told Friedman:
Now, what you might hear from Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu, which I respect, is the notion, ‘Look, Israel is more vulnerable. We don’t have the luxury of testing these propositions the way you do,’ and I completely understand that. And further, I completely understand Israel’s belief that given the tragic history of the Jewish people, they can’t be dependent solely on us for their own security. But what I would say to them is that not only am I absolutely committed to making sure that they maintain their qualitative military edge, and that they can deter any potential future attacks, but what I’m willing to do is to make the kinds of commitments that would give everybody in the neighborhood, including Iran, a clarity that if Israel were to be attacked by any state, that we would stand by them. And that, I think, should be … sufficient to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see whether or not we can at least take the nuclear issue off the table.
What I would say to the Israeli people is … that there is no formula, there is no option, to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon that will be more effective than the diplomatic initiative and framework that we put forward — and that’s demonstrable.
Obama said it’s been “personally difficult” to hear the criticism that he is anti-Israel, adding that the U.S. is ready to stand by its ally.
“It has been personally difficult for me to hear … expressions that somehow … this administration has not done everything it could to look out for Israel’s interest —The suggestion that when we have very serious policy differences, that that’s not in the context of a deep and abiding friendship and concern and understanding of the threats that the Jewish people have faced historically and continue to face,” Obama said.
5. The Deadline to Finalize the Agreement Is June 30
The deal is still being finalized and many of the details of it haven’t been settled. Obama acknowledged in his interview with Friedman that there is still a lot of work to do. He told Friedman:
There are still details to be worked out. But I think that the basic framework calls for Iran to take the steps that it needs to around [the Fordow enrichment facility], the centrifuges, and so forth. At that point, then, the U.N. sanctions are suspended; although the sanctions related to proliferation, the sanctions related to ballistic missiles, there’s a set of sanctions that remain in place. At that point, then, we preserve the ability to snap back those sanctions, if there is a violation. If not, though, Iran, outside of the proliferation and ballistic missile issues that stay in place, they’re able to get out from under the sanctions, understanding that this constant monitoring will potentially trigger some sort of action if they’re in violation.