MTPR

Obama Compares Iran Deal To A House Under Contract, Awaiting Appraisal

Apr 7, 2015
Originally published on April 7, 2015 10:37 am

I've rarely seen President Obama speak in such definite terms on a thorny issue as he did yesterday about the nuclear agreement with Iran.

In our interview at the White House, he did not describe the deal as half a loaf. He cast it as a rock-solid plan that was designed for every eventuality. He said it would limit Iran's nuclear program, leaving no room to evade inspections and the threat of new sanctions.

In 2010 we spoke with Obama after he agreed to extend tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. At that time, we passed on a listener's question: How would keeping tax rates for the wealthy at the same rate create one single job?

"It doesn't," Obama said back then. "I'm still opposed to it." But he had to sign it as part of a larger bill to extend middle-class tax breaks and unemployment benefits.

Yesterday, Obama did not describe the Iran agreement as a tough compromise. "This deal," he said, "is the right thing to do for the United States, for our allies in the region and for world peace."

There is, of course, the problem that the deal isn't done. Last week's framework left many blanks to fill in by a June 30 deadline. "It's sort of like you've signed a contract to purchase a home but you've still got the appraisal, the inspector, got to make sure there isn't some kind of environmental disaster on the land," he said.

Not only that, the president must deal with a Congress that is eager to attend the home inspection.

What follows are some of our questions and the president's answers. (There's a full transcript, and you can also find articles on Obama and his critics — among them Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Republican presidential contenders.)

Do you believe that Iran's government is a government that is capable of changing its ways?

Let me flip the question, Steve. I would argue that this deal is the right thing to do for the United States, for our allies in the region, and for world peace regardless of the nature of the Iranian regime. This is a good deal if you think that Iran is implacably opposed to the United States and the West and our values. ... You have them rolling back a number of pathways that they currently have available to break out and get a nuclear weapon. You have assurances that their stockpile of highly enriched uranium remains in a place where they cannot create a nuclear weapon. ... And so, I'm not trying to avoid your question. I think that there are different trends inside of Iran. I think there are hard-liners inside of Iran that think it is the right thing to do to oppose us, to seek to destroy Israel, to cause havoc in places like Syria or Yemen or Lebanon. And then I think there are others inside of Iran who think that this is counterproductive. And it is possible that if we sign this nuclear deal, we strengthen the hand of those more moderate forces inside of Iran. But the key point I want to make is, the deal is not dependent on anticipating those changes. If they don't change at all, we're still better off having the deal.

Obviously, the trade-off for the concessions on the nuclear program is a lifting of many sanctions against Iran.

Yes.

This is widely anticipated to cause a lot of economic growth in Iran ... How, if at all, can you prevent Iran from using its new wealth over the next several years to support Bashar Al Assad of Syria, to support Hezbollah, adventures in Yemen or elsewhere?

Those are relevant issues ... [but] they're not going to be able to suddenly access all the funding that has been frozen all these years Their economy has been severely weakened. It would slowly and gradually improve. But a lot of that would have to be devoted at improving the lives of the people inside of Iran. And they have cordoned off and been willing to finance their war operations even in the midst of sanctions. I mean, there's been no lessening of their support of Hezbollah or Assad during the course of the last four, five years at a time when their economy has been doing terribly. ... If in fact they're engaged in international business, and there are foreign investors, and their economy becomes more integrated with the world economy, then in many ways it makes it even harder for them to engage in behaviors that are contrary to international norms.

You raise a valuable point when you say that if Iranians are doing more business with the world there will be Iranian business people who do not want sanctions to snap back, and you have insisted that in the U.S. version of this agreement that sanctions would snap back if Iran violates them. But if there is a disagreement about whether Iran violated them, aren't you going to face the same problem? There will be American business people and European business people who will be doing business with Iran, who will be making a lot of money, who will be very reluctant to have that happen.

Well, that was true when we first imposed the sanctions. But the fact of the matter is that we have been able to build an international consensus that Iran building a nuclear weapon would be extraordinarily dangerous to the region and the world.

And you can do that again?

And we're absolutely convinced that we can do it again.

Obama's hope is that the United States won't have to do it all over again. The U.S. is seeking to make it easy for economic sanctions to "snap back" into place if Iran is found violating the limits on its nuclear program.

The trouble is that those sanctions were imposed by many countries and by the United Nations Security Council, where a single nation's veto can block enforcement.

"We're not," Obama said, "going to make this subject to the typical Security Council where one country can hold out and you can't get this done."

But the president added, "The devil's in the details." And the enforcement mechanism has yet to be worked out — one of many parts of this agreement that was left for a final round of negotiations with Iran and other powers.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Obama offered an analogy yesterday for just how close the United States really is to a final nuclear deal with Iran.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It's sort of like you've signed a contract for - to purchase a home. But you've still got the, you know, the appraisal, the inspector, the - got to make sure that there isn't some kind of environmental disaster on the land. And until you actually sign, you know, that mortgage and that document, the deal's not closed.

INSKEEP: The plan announced last week by U.S. and other negotiators faces many questions. For one thing, the Republican-led Congress has been insisting on attending that home inspection. For another, there's the extraordinary complexity of finalizing a deal that involves science, politics, diplomacy, dangerous adversaries and fractious allies. The president spoke about all this in a talk at the White House yesterday. We're hearing him in different parts of today's program. We sat near the windows in the ceremonial part of the White House residence, just beyond the roar of thousands of children attending the Easter egg roll outside.

Thanks very much for taking the time.

OBAMA: Great to be with you, Steve.

INSKEEP: So many of the concerns and questions about the Iran deal seem to me to focus on what kind of a country you think Iran is. People are asking, what will happen in 10 or 15 years as the deal starts to expire? Or they're asking, what will Iran do in the region during the period of the deal? All of those concerns seem to get down to the nature of the government itself, which makes me begin this by asking, do you believe that Iran's government is a government that is capable of changing its ways?

OBAMA: Let me flip the question, Steve. I would argue that this deal is the right thing to do for the United States, for our allies in the region and for world peace, regardless of the nature of the Iranian regime. So I would actually argue you're right. People are focused on that. But this is a good deal if you think Iran's open to change. It's also a good deal if you think that Iran is, you know, implacably opposed to the United States and the West and our values.

INSKEEP: But surely a better deal if it changes...

OBAMA: ...And the reason is this. My goal, when I came into office, was to make sure that Iran did not get a nuclear weapon and thereby trigger a nuclear arms race in the most volatile part of the world.

INSKEEP: The president said when he came into office in 2009, Iran's nuclear program was rapidly expanding. Now global sanctions have finally forced Iran to make a deal, pending, of course, that home inspection.

OBAMA: You have them rolling back a number of pathways that they currently have available to break out and get a nuclear weapon. You have assurances that their stockpile of highly enriched uranium remains in a place where they cannot create a nuclear weapon. And that lasts not only for the first 10 years, but the inspections and verifications that are unprecedented go for another decade after that. Now, ideally, we would see a situation in which Iran, seeing sanctions reduced, would start focusing on its economy, on training its people, on re-entering the world community, to lessening its provocative activities in the region.

But if it doesn't change, we are so much better if we have this deal in place than if we don't. And so I'm not trying to avoid your question. I think that there are different trends inside of Iran. I think there are hard-liners inside of Iran that think it is the right thing to do to oppose us, to seek to destroy Israel, to cause havoc in places like Syria or Yemen or Lebanon. And then I think there are others inside Iran who think that this is counterproductive. And it is possible that if we sign this nuclear deal, we strengthen the hand of those more moderate forces inside of Iran. But the key point I want to make is the deal is not dependent on anticipating those changes. If they don't change at all, we're still better off having the deal.

INSKEEP: Obviously, the trade-off for the concessions on the nuclear program is a lifting of many sanctions against Iran.

OBAMA: Yes.

INSKEEP: This is widely anticipated to cause a lot of economic growth in Iran. Iranian businesspeople are already banking on this. That could very well be good for Iran and the world. But it also raises another question in the minds of many skeptics. How, if at all, can you prevent Iran from using its new wealth over the next several years to support Bashar al-Assad of Syria, to support Hezbollah, adventures in Yemen or elsewhere?

OBAMA: Well, you know, those irrelevant issues. And it is true that Iran would not be entering into any deal, I assume, if in fact their economy was not under significant pressure. But that doesn't mean that if we just apply more pressure, then somehow we get a better deal, which is the logic that's been put forward by Prime Minister Netanyahu. I think that if in fact the Rouhani administration, the forces that are more moderating, even if - let's acknowledge that they don't share our values, and they still consider us an enemy. If they are shown to have delivered for their people, presumably it strengthens their hand vis-a-vis some of the hard-liners inside of Iran.

They're not going to be able to suddenly access all the funding that has been frozen all these years. Their economy has been severely weakened. It would slowly and gradually improve. But a lot of that would have to be devoted to improving the lives of the people inside of Iran. And they have actually cordoned off and been willing to finance their war operations even in the midst of sanctions. I mean, there's been no lessening of their support of Hezbollah or Assad during the course of the last four or five years at a time when their economy has been doing terribly.

So I think that it's important for us to recognize that if in fact they're engaged in international business and there are foreign investors and their economy becomes more integrated with the world economy, then in many ways, it makes it harder for them to engage in behaviors that are contrary to international norms. You know, the country that is most isolated in the world is North Korea. I think it'd be hard to argue that by virtue of the fact that they can't feed their people and that they are almost entirely cut off from global trade, that that somehow has lessened their capacity for mischief and troublemaking.

INSKEEP: You raise a valuable point when you say that if Iranians are doing more business with the world, there will be Iranian businesspeople who will not want sanctions to snap back.

OBAMA: Exactly.

INSKEEP: And you have insisted that in the U.S. version of this agreement, that sanctions would snap back if Iran violates them. But if there is a disagreement about whether Iran violates them, aren't you going to face the same problem? There will be American businesspeople and European businesspeople who will be doing business with Iran, who will be making a lot of money, who will be very reluctant to have that happen.

OBAMA: Well, that was true when we first imposed sanctions. But the fact of the matter is is that we have been able to build an international consensus that Iran building a nuclear weapon would be extraordinarily dangerous to the region and the world. And...

INSKEEP: And you can do that again?

OBAMA: We're absolutely convinced we can do it again, in part because the way we are trying to design the snap-back provisions is is that they're not dependent on absolute consensus in the Security Council, for example, but that they are triggered by an IAEA identification of a very real problem there and that a majority of the countries who are concerned, who are involved have identified this as a real problem. Now, the details...

INSKEEP: I want to make sure that the listeners understand this. Nuclear experts at the International Atomic Energy Agency would make this judgment. It would not be the U.N. Security Council having to vote, with Russia having a veto and so forth.

OBAMA: Well, the - right. We're not going to make this subject to the typical Security Council where one country can hold out and you can't get this done. But these are details that still have to be worked out, Steve. So I don't want to give the false impression that we have all this resolved. This is why I have said this is an important first step that we've taken. We have a political framework and an understanding. But the devil's in the details. And over the next two to three months, we are going to be in a very tough series of negotiations to make sure that the mechanisms we've set in place actually work.

INSKEEP: That's some of our talk with President Obama, where you heard him say the devil's in the details. Nowhere was that more true than the intricate point he just made.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

If Iran breaks the rules, Obama wants a swift response - one that isn't caught in time-consuming diplomacy. But for now, getting approval for that swift response is caught in time-consuming diplomacy.

INSKEEP: We talked about this with the president's former director for arms control. Gary Samore told us it would be terrific to set up a special enforcement body that judges any violations inspectors find. It's just not clear if Iran will agree.

MONTAGNE: Samore said the timing, the triggering and the mechanism for re-imposing sanctions is, quote, "the most important part of the agreement that has yet to be resolved."

INSKEEP: We are listening to an NPR News interview with President Obama. Elsewhere this morning, we listen as the president tells presidential contender Scott Walker to bone up on foreign policy. And you can watch video of the full interview at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.