Barack Obama photo

Interview with Fareed Zakaria of CNN's "GPS"

August 09, 2015

Zakaria: Mr. President, thank you for joining us.

The President. Good to be with you.

Zakaria: Since you announced the agreement with Iran, it appears, if you look at several recent polls, that a majority of the American public oppose it and a majority of the United States Congress oppose it. Why do you think that is?

The President. Because people haven't been getting all the information. It's a complicated piece of business and we are negotiating with a regime that chants "Death to America!" and doesn't have a high approval rating here in the United States.

But the people who know most about the central challenge that we're trying to deal with, which is making sure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon, they are overwhelmingly in favor of it — experts in nuclear proliferation, nuclear scientists, former ambassadors, Democrat and Republican.

And as a consequence, one of my main tasks over the last several weeks — and this will continue into September — is to make sure that people know and understand that this is a diplomatic breakthrough that ensures we are cutting off all the pathways by which Iran might get a nuclear weapon.

Zakaria: In your speech at American University, you made a comparison. You said that Iran's hardliners were making common cause with Republicans. It's come under a lot of criticism. Mitch McConnell says even Democrats who oppose the deal should be insulted.

The Wall Street Journal says that this rhetoric shows that you've abandoned the hope of getting any Republicans, or even moderate Democrats, and you are targeting this message to the hard core of House Democrats who are going to sustain your veto.

The President: Fareed, your question is about politics. Let me talk about substance.

What I said is absolutely true factually. The truth of the matter is, inside of Iran, the people most opposed to the deal are the Revolutionary Guard, the Quds Force, hardliners who are implacably opposed to any cooperation with the international community. And there's a reason for that, because they recognize that if, in fact, this deal gets done, that rather than them being in the driver's seat with respect to the Iranian economy, they are in a weaker position.

And the point I was simply making is that if you look at the facts, the merits of this deal, then you will conclude that not only does it cut off a pathway for Iran getting a nuclear weapon, but it also establishes the most effective verification and inspection regime that's ever been put in place.

It also ensures that we are able to monitor what they do with respect to stockpiles, plutonium, their underground facility. And that it does not ask us to relinquish any of the options that we might need to exercise if, in fact, Iran cheated or if at some point they decided to try to break out.

And so the reason that Mitch McConnell and the rest of the folks in his caucus who oppose this jumped out and opposed it before they even read it, before it was even posted, is reflective of a ideological commitment not to get a deal done.

Zakaria: You don't think you're...

The President: And in that sense, they do have a lot in common with hardliners who are much more satisfied with the status quo.

Zakaria: You don't think you're going to get any Republican...

The President: Well, I didn't say that. What I said was that there are those who, if they did not read the bill before they announced their opposition, if they are not able to offer plausible reasons why they wouldn't support the bill or plausible alternatives in preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, other than potential military strikes, then that would indicate that they're not interested in the substance of the issue, they're interested in the politics of the issue.

Zakaria: You talked about Iran's hardliners, the old guard. But one member of Iran's old guard certainly seems to be Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader.

The President: I think he would qualify.

Zakaria: He would qualify, right. And he seems relentlessly anti-American.

The President: Yes.

Zakaria: His Twitter feed has posted a likeness of you with a gun pointed to your head.

The President: Yes.

Zakaria: Is this a guy you can really make a deal with?

The President: Well, as I said, Fareed, you don't negotiate deals with your friends. You negotiate them with your enemies. And superpowers don't respond to taunts. Superpowers focus on what is it that we need to do in order to preserve our national security and the national security of our allies and our friends.

And I think that he tweeted that in response to me stating a fact, which is, is that if we were confronted with a situation in which we could not resolve this issue diplomatically, that we could militarily take out much of Iran's military infrastructure. I don't think that's disputable. I don't think there's a military expert out there that would contest that. The Supreme Leader, obviously, doesn't want to hear that, and I understand.

But I'm not interested in a Twitter back and forth with the Supreme Leader. What I'm interested in is the deal itself and can we enforce it. Keep in mind, Fareed, when we got the interim deal — as you're aware, the way this thing evolved was, first, we essentially froze their program — they had to roll back their very highly enriched uranium stockpiles. And for that, we turned on the spigot a little bit so that they could access more of their money.

All the same critics of this deal suggested that this is terrible, this is a historic mistake.

And for the last two years, as we've been negotiating the more comprehensive deal, not only have they continued to suggest that it was a mistake, until very recently, but the Supreme Leader was saying all kinds of anti-American stuff. But the deal held.

They did exactly what they were supposed to do. The few times that they didn't, we identified it and told them they had to correct it and they did.

So there's always a gap between rhetoric and action. And, you know, the Supreme Leader is a politician, apparently, just like everybody else. What I'm focused on is can we make sure that they are doing what they have to do and that we have sufficient safeguards and verification mechanisms to ensure that they don't have a nuclear weapon.

And, again, Fareed, it is very important, I think, over the next several weeks, to not get distracted by tone, vote counts, is Mitch McConnell's feelings hurt. But let's address the argument. And it — the central point I was making yesterday — fairly exhaustively, it was a long speech — was that nobody has presented a plausible alternative, other than military strikes, to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

Nobody has presented a more effective way to ensure they don't have a nuclear weapon, including military strikes, because we know, actually, if this deal is executed, it will provide more limitations on the Iranian nuclear program for a longer period of time in a more verifiable way. And that central argument hasn't really been effectively contested. Nobody has had a good answer for that.

Zakaria: So I think the answer that some might provide is that the alternative is not war, but more pressure and a better deal and, specifically, that Iran should not have the right to enrich. There are a lot of nuclear countries with nu — peaceful nuclear programs that don't have the right to enrich. Was it impossible to stick hard on that? Was that a concession you had to make?

The President: First of all, there is no support for that position in Iran, including opposition members who were subsequently jailed back in 2009. So you have a consensus inside of Iran that they should have a right to enrich.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty is very clear about guarding against the weaponization of nuclear power, but it does not speak to prohibitions on peaceful nuclear power. And we did not have the support of that position among our global allies who have been so critical in maintaining sanctions and applying the pressure that was necessary to get Iran to the table.

And so in the real world, the alternatives you just described were not available. And, you know, I think that the notion that the United States Congress rejecting a deal that has been negotiated by the U.S. secretary of State, our top nuclear experts, with unanimous support around the world, other than the state of Israel and perhaps behind the scenes some of our allies who are also suspicious of Iran, that somehow in the face of that, countries like Russia or China would continue to voluntarily abide by sanctions in a way that would continue to put pressure on Iran is a fantasy. And I think that's demonstrable.

Zakaria: When we come back, much more of my exclusive interview with President Obama from the White House. I will ask him about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Is it appropriate for a foreign head of government to inject himself into a debate this is taking place in Washington?

Zakaria: More than four months before the Iran deal was even inked, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared before a joint meeting of the United States Congress to argue against it. Now that there is a deal between the world and Iran, Netanyahu has publicly and vocally condemned it. The Prime Minister has found many sympathetic ears for certain, but there are others — including some in Israel — who have called his rhetoric and actions into question.

I wanted to know how the President of the United States felt.

Zakaria: Prime Minister Netanyahu has injected himself forcefully into this debate on American foreign policy...

The President: Right.

Zakaria: — in Washington.

The President: Right.

Zakaria: Can you recall a time when a foreign head of government has done that? Is it appropriate for a foreign head of government to inject himself into an American debate?

The President: You know, I'll let you ask Prime Minister Netanyahu that question if he gives you an interview. I don't recall a similar example.

Obviously, the relationship between the United States and Israel is deep. It is profound. It's reflected in my policies, because I've said repeatedly and, more importantly, acted on the basic notion that our commitment to Israel's security is sacrosanct. It's something that I take very seriously, which is why we provided more assistance, more military cooperation, more intelligence cooperation to Israel than any previous administration.

But as I said in the speech yesterday, on the substance, the Prime Minister is wrong on this. And I think that I can show that the basic assumptions that he's made are incorrect.

If, in fact, my argument is right — that this is the best way for Iran not to get a nuclear weapon — then that's not just good for the United States, that is very good for Israel.

In fact, historically, this has been the argument that has driven Prime Minister Netanyahu and achieved consensus throughout Israel.

So the question has to be is there, in fact, a better path to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon than this one?

And I've repeatedly asked both Prime Minister Netanyahu and others to present me a reasonable, realistic plan that would achieve exactly what this deal achieves, and I have yet to get a response.

So, as I said yesterday, I completely understand why both he and the broad Israeli public would be suspicious, cautious about entering into any deal with Iran. But what I also try to remind everyone yesterday is, is that when we entered into arms treaties with the Soviet Union, they had missiles pointed at every single major American city. We actually had to constrain ourselves and reduce our firepower. The risks were much more severe there.

Here, we're preserving all our options so that if Iran does cheat, we can still exercise the same set of options that we have in place today. And I've been very clear about the fact that if Israel were attacked by Iran, for example, there's no doubt that not just me, but any U.S. administration would do everything that we needed to do to make sure that Israel was protected.

So there are all kinds of hedges if, in fact, Iran weren't to abide by the deal.

But if, in fact, Iran does abide by the deal, as it has the interim deal over the last two years, then we have purchased, at a very small price, one of the single most important national security objectives that both the United States and Israel has.

Zakaria: There's been some debate about the amount of money that Iran will get as a result of sanctions relief. Whatever the amount is, it's clear, they're going to get some resources...

The President: Yes.

Zakaria: — and some part of it, and they being out of the sanctions regime, will be...

The President: — improves their economy.

Zakaria: — will be — will be applied to their economy, but some of it...

The President: Yes.

Zakaria: — to regional activity.

The President: Right.

Zakaria: So I want to be clear, are you saying to the region, to the Gulf States, to other Arab — to Arab countries, look, this is inevitable, Iran is going to play an increased role in the region, get used to it?

The President: I think the message is that the nefarious activities that Iran engages in, whether it's providing arms to Hezbollah or stirring up destabilizing activities among some of their Gulf neighbors, is something that they've been able to do consistently at very low cost — that I have no doubt that as Iran's economy improved or they got some financial inflows that relieves some fiscal pressure on their military, they may be able to fund some additional activities.

But it's not a game-changer. And the reason that Iran has been effective has less to do with the amount of money they've spent. It has more to do with the fact that although Gulf countries, for example, spend eight times more, at least combined, on defense than Iran's entire defense budget, they haven't deployed it in ways that have been as strategically effective.

And part of the function of our meeting up at Camp David with Gulf leaders was to describe how we can work with them to create a more effective counter to these kinds of activities.

And, you know, whether it's countering cyber-attacks or a possible ballistic missile threat, but more typically, the kinds of asymmetric proxy activities that Iran has developed over the last several decades, you know, those are things that we know how to do if all those countries are cooperating and we're doing it systematically. That will have a greater impact than simply preventing this deal from taking place.

The flip side of it is if Iran is able to get a nuclear weapon, if its breakout time remains as short it is — as it is right now and they are installing advanced centrifuges and so on, then they will be emboldened to engage in more of the activities that have been discussed, which are not constrained or bound by the amount of money Iran has, but rather have to do with the very strategic decisions that Iran is making at any given time.

Zakaria: We'll be back with the President in just a moment. We are in the Map Room of the White House. The Map House was essentially an early version of the Situation Room during World War II. It was where Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to ponder next moves in the war.

I will ask President Obama if he will need to seriously think about a war with Iran if this deal falls through.

Zakaria: Back now with President Obama on Iran, ISIS, the Taliban, and what happens if the nuclear deal falls through. Listen in.

Zakaria: Right now, Iran is probably one of the strongest fighting forces against ISIS. In Afghanistan, it has historically been opposed to the Taliban, just as the United States has.

The President: Right.

Zakaria: Do you think that this — these overlapping interests might allow for a more productive and constructive relation between the United States and Iran?

The President: I think it is conceivable but the premise of this deal is not that Iran warms toward the United States or that we are engaging in any kind of strategic reassessment of the relationship.

Within the four corners of the agreement, we deal with the nuclear problem. And I believe that is incontestable. I think we are doing that better than any other alternative.

Is there the possibility that having begun conversations around this narrow issue that you start getting some broader discussions about Syria, for example, and the ability of all the parties involved to try to arrive at a political transition that keeps the country intact and does not further fuel the growth of ISIL and other terrorist organizations — I think that's possible.

But I don't think it happens immediately.

Zakaria: So far no signs?

The President: Well, I... you know, what I have been encouraged by is that the Russians are now more interested in discussions around what a political transition — or at least framework for talks — would look like inside of Syria. And presumably, Iran is seeing some of the same trends that are not good for them. And I do think that it is even conceivable that Saudi Arabia and Iran, at some point, would begin to recognize that their enemy is chaos as much as anything else. And what ISIL represents and what the collapse of Syria or Yemen or others represent is far more dangerous than whatever rivalries that may exist between those two nation states.

Zakaria: Final question: If this deal falls through somehow and what you predict does happen — Iran does go back to trying to produce centrifuges on an industrial scale; it perhaps restarts some of the weaponization programs — are you worried that you would confront, within your remaining term, the strong possibility that you might have to use nuclear — that you might have to use military force to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon?

The President: I have a general policy on big issues like this not to anticipate failure. And I'm not going to anticipate failure now because I think we have the better argument.

And I just go back again and again, Fareed, to those who are opposed to the deal can't just say we want a better deal. They can't just say we're going to be tougher.

This is serious. And it requires us asking tough questions and engaging in a substantive conversation about how are we to achieve what even my fiercest critics would acknowledge should be a shared goal, which is preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

If Congress were to reject this deal, then that central goal would be harder to achieve. And the international unity that we've brought about over the last several years would fray, not just with respect to sanctions, but with respect to the world's attitude about U.S. leadership and how they gauge who's at fault in this dispute between the United States and Iran.

And, you know, as I said yesterday, the issue here — and I've said this to members of Congress — is not simply the deal itself. It's certainly not just an issue for my presidency. The issue, as you well know, Fareed, because you travel around the world a lot, is does the rest of the world take seriously the United States' ability to craft international agendas, to reach international agreements, to deliver on them in ways that garner the respect and the adherence from other countries?

And that's continually tested. And what Congress needs to understand is, is that we are the most powerful country on Earth. But our power does not simply come from the fact that we've got the biggest military. Our power derives from the fact that since World War II, we have put together international institutions that have served our interests but have also served the interests of the world.

And as much as people may complain about the United States, they still recognize that we have been able to operate on the basis of principles and values and build human institutions that function effectively and fairly around the world. And if we stop doing that, then our power will be diminished, no matter how big our military budget is. And it will become a much more dangerous world. That's why I don't intend to lose on this.

Zakaria: Mr. President, pleasure to have you. Thank you so much.

The President: Thank you so much. Appreciate it, Fareed.

Barack Obama, Interview with Fareed Zakaria of CNN's "GPS" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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