President Obama on Saturday defended the recently brokered Iran nuclear deal, arguing that a diplomatic approach was worth pursuing even if a long-term agreement never materializes.
If the six-month deal reached late last month in Geneva to restrict Iran’s nuclear capabilities doesn’t stick, the U.S. and its allies can ratchet up the sanctions they agreed to ease, Obama added.
“If and when Iran shows itself to not be negotiating in good faith, we can reverse [the sanctions] and tighten them even further,” Obama said at the Brookings Institute’s Saban Forum.
The president denounced what he characterized as the “all or nothing” stance taken by critics of the deal, such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has called for tougher sanctions. “If it turns out we can’t make a deal, we’re no worse off,” Obama said.
While Obama pushed back against the argument that easing sanctions and negotiating with Iran only emboldens the Iranian government in its pursuit of nuclear weapons, he admitted that there is still little trust between Washington and Tehran.
“Precisely because we don’t trust the nature of the Iranian regime, we have to be more realistic,” he said of the Iranian government, currently headed by President Hassan Rouhani, a more moderate leader whose election marked a major shift in relations between the two countries.
But Rouhani’s election “represents a desire on the part of the Iranian people for a change of direction,” the president added. “We should not underestimate or entirely dismiss a shift in how the Iranian people want to interact with the world.”
Despite the diplomatic progress seen in recent weeks, the president pegged the chances of a long-term deal with Iran at only about 50-50. “But we have to try,” he said.
Obama reassured the audience, which included Israeli politicians and journalists, that protecting Israel’s security interests remains a top priority for the U.S., and said that he and Netanyahu have had “constant consultations” on security issues during the president’s time in office. “Cooperation with Israel has never been stronger,” Obama said.