President Barack Obama warned leaders of the American-Jewish community that if Congress blocks the multinational agreement to stop Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, “we would be putting Iran in the driver’s seat.”
Obama also insisted that the agreement negotiated between world powers and Iran blocks the Islamic Republic from developing nuclear weapons without limiting the United States’ options in case of violations.
The 56-minute webcast from the White House on Aug. 28 was cosponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Obama made a few remarks before responding to questions, many submitted by American Jews to the organizers in advance.
“I think [Iran] would garner enormous international sympathy” if the plan were blocked, said Obama near the end of the call. The Iranians “would be able to isolate the United States and Israel as the reason for the deal falling through. I think the sanctions would begin to dissolve; they would not be as effective.”
Obama said that American commitment to Israel “is sacrosanct, and it is nonpartisan. It always has been, and it always will be. And I would suggest that, in terms of the tone of this debate, everybody keep in mind that we’re all pro-Israel. We’re all pro-U.S.-Israel. And we have to make sure that we don’t impugn people’s motives even as we have what is a very serious debate about how best to protect the United States, Israel, and the world community from a potentially destabilizing Iranian nuclear weapon.”
Obama acknowledged that opponents of the deal “have a sincere concern because, just as the people in Israel have a sincere concern, when you have a regime that denies the Holocaust, that’s going to make you worried. You’ve got to take that seriously. And so I recognize where the anxieties come from.
“But I think that it’s important for us to remember the bonds that hold us together…that go well beyond this particular issue.”
Addressing specific points of opposition, Obama said many argue that “Iran will cheat. They’re not trustworthy.” In response, he said, “I keep on emphasizing we don’t trust Iran. Iran is antagonistic to the United States. It is anti-Semitic. It has denied the Holocaust. It has called for the destruction of Israel. It is an unsavory regime.
“But this deal doesn’t rely on trust,” he stressed; “it relies on verification and our capacity to catch them when they cheat and to respond vigorously if they do.”
He answered some opponents who have expressed concern that when the agreement expires in 15 years, Iran will become a nuclear power.
“We are not giving up our ability to respond militarily,” said Obama. “We’re not giving up our ability to impose sanctions. Any of the tools that critics of the deal are suggesting we could be applying now we’ll be able to apply in 15 years.” But by then, he said, “we’ll have the advantage of a deal that the entire world has ratified, that Iran has committed to, saying that it’s not going to have a nuclear weapon. We will have purchased 15 years of familiarity with their program so that we know exactly what’s going on.”
Responding to the argument that lifting sanctions will give Iran a “windfall” of money to subsidize Islamic terrorism in the Middle East, Obama said, “We have to stop Iran from getting missiles to Hizbullah that threaten Israel. We have to stop their destabilizing activities using proxies in other parts of the region. But to do that requires us to better coordinate with our partners, improve our intelligence…, continue to build on things like Iron Dome that protect populations from missiles coming in over the border…. That’s the one game-changer, and that’s why it has to be our number-one priority.”
He warned that if Congress votes down the deal, and once other nations resumed trade with Tehran, the United States would face the same kind of challenge it did during the George W. Bush administration.
“We actually have experience of unilateral sanctions without the support of the world community. That’s what was happening before I came into office, and it didn’t work. Iran accelerated its nuclear program unimpeded because we did not have global cooperation,” Obama said.
Obama deplored the rancorous nature of the dialogue between supporters and opponents of the agreement in the United States and Israel. “As soon as this particular debate is over, my hope is that the Israeli government will immediately want to rejoin conversations that we had started long before about how we can continue to improve and enhance Israel’s security in a very troubled neighborhood.”
Then, personalizing his remarks, Obama said, “If I lived in Israel, and I had seen rockets rain down on homes, as I’ve seen when I went to a place like Sderot, if my grandparents had traveled to Israel and lost family in the Holocaust and I hear somebody denying it, I’ve got a visceral reaction that says, How can I do business with somebody like that? I understand it. It’s loathsome. And I think it’s been said repeatedly — and I think as an African-American I understand — history teaches us that man can be very cruel to man, and you have to take threats seriously.
“But what history also teaches us is that sometimes the best security is to enter into negotiations with your enemies.”