PRESIDENT: Well, I think this is going to have to happen in stages.
FULL TRANSCRIPT: Obama at Saban Forum
U.S. President spoke to Haim Saban at the annual Saban Forum at Washington,
By Haaretz | Dec. 7, 2013 | 10:57 PM | 2
THE PRESIDENT: Hello! (Applause.)
MR. SABAN: How are you doing?
THE PRESIDENT: I'm good. Hello, everybody.
MR. SABAN: One of your staffers said you are in a great mood this
THE PRESIDENT: I am.
MR. SABAN: ...we're doubly blessed here. So that's terrific.
I'd like to thank you very much for being here today, Mr. President. The
Forum, and I personally, are honored to have you join us in this
conversation. And I am personally honored that you insisted that I have
this conversation with you, even though I never set foot for any
conversation for 10 years. (Laughter.) So thank you. I'm very honored.
Shall we start with Iran?
THE PRESIDENT: We should.
MR. SABAN: Okay, good. (Laughter.) Mr. President, polls indicate that 77
percent of Israelis don't believe this first nuclear deal will preclude Iran
from having nuclear weapons, and they perceive this fact as an existential
matter for them. What can you say to the Israeli people to address their
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first, before I answer the question, let me say to
you, Haim, thank you so much for the great work that youíve done. I think
the Saban Forum and the Saban Center has done outstanding work, and it
provides us a mechanism where we don't just scratch the surface of these
issues. Obviously the challenges in the Middle East are enormous, and the
work that's being done here is terrific.
So I want to also thank Strobe for hosting us here today, and all of you who
are here, including some outstanding members of the Israeli government and
some friends that I haven't seen in a while. So thanks for having me.
Let me start with the basic premise that I've said repeatedly. It is in
Americaís national security interests, not just Israelís national interests
or the regionís national security interests, to prevent Iran from getting a
And letís remember where we were when I first came into office. Iran had
gone from having less than 200 centrifuges to having thousands of
centrifuges, in some cases more advanced centrifuges. There was a program
that had advanced to the point where their breakout capacity had accelerated
in ways that we had been concerned about for quite some time and, as a
consequence, what I said to my team and what I said to our international
partners was that we are going to have to be much more serious about how we
change the cost-benefit analysis for Iran.
We put in place an unprecedented regime of sanctions that has crippled Iranís
economy, cut their oil revenues by more than half, have put enormous
pressure on their currency -- their economy contracted by more than 5
percent last year. And it is precisely because of the international
sanctions and the coalition that we were able to build internationally that
the Iranian people responded by saying, we need a new direction in how we
interact with the international community and how we deal with this
sanctions regime. And thatís what brought President Rouhani to power. He
was not necessarily the first choice of the hardliners inside of Iran.
Now, that doesnít mean that we should trust him or anybody else inside
of Iran. This is a regime that came to power swearing opposition to the
United States, to Israel, and to many of the values that we hold dear. But
what Iíve consistently said is even as I donít take any options off the
table, what we do have to test is the possibility that we can resolve this
issue diplomatically. And that is the deal that, at the first stages, we
have been able to get done in Geneva, thanks to some extraordinary work by
John Kerry and his counterparts in the P5-plus-1.
So letís look at exactly what weíve done. For the first time in over a
decade, we have halted advances in the Iranian nuclear program. We have not
only made sure that in Fordor and Natanz that they have to stop adding
additional centrifuges, weíve also said that theyíve got to roll back their
20 percent advanced enrichment. So weíre --
MR. SABAN: To how much?
THE PRESIDENT: Down to zero. So you remember when Prime Minister
Netanyahu made his presentation before the United Nations last year --
MR. SABAN: The cartoon with the red line?
THE PRESIDENT: The picture of a bomb -- he was referring to 20 percent
enrichment, which the concern was if you get too much of that, you now have
sufficient capacity to go ahead and create a nuclear weapon. Weíre taking
that down to zero. We are stopping the advancement of the Arak facility,
which would provide an additional pathway, a plutonium pathway for the
development of nuclear weapons.
We are going to have daily inspectors in Fordor and Natanz. Weíre going to
have additional inspections in Arak. And as a consequence, during this
six-month period, Iran cannot and will not advance its program or add
additional stockpiles of advanced uranium -- enriched uranium.
Now, what weíve done in exchange is kept all these sanctions in place -- the
architecture remains with respect to oil, with respect to finance, with
respect to banking. What weíve done is weíve turned the spigot slightly and
weíve said, hereís maximum $7 billion out of the over $100 billion of
revenue of theirs that is frozen as a consequence of our sanctions, to give
us the time and the space to test whether they can move in a direction, a
comprehensive, permanent agreement that would give us all assurances that
theyíre not producing nuclear weapons.
MR. SABAN: I understand. A quick question as it relates to the $7 billion,
if I may.
THE PRESIDENT: Please.
MR. SABAN: How do we prevent those who work with us in Geneva, who have
already descended on Tehran looking for deals, to cause the seven to become
70? Because we can control what we do, but what is the extent that we can
control the others?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, Haim, this is precisely why the timing of this was
right. One of the things we were always concerned about was that if we did
not show good faith in trying to resolve this issue diplomatically, then the
sanctions regime would begin to fray.
Keep in mind that this was two years of extraordinary diplomatic work on
behalf of our team to actually get the sanctions in place. Theyíre not just
the unilateral sanctions that are created by the United States. These are
sanctions that are also participated in by Russia, by China, and some allies
of ours like South Korea and Japan that find these sanctions very costly.
But thatís precisely why theyíve become so effective.
And so what weíve said is that we do not loosen any of the core sanctions;
we provide a small window through which they can access some revenue, but we
can control it and it is reversible. And during the course of these six
months, if and when Iran shows itself not to be abiding by this agreement,
not to be negotiating in good faith, we can reverse them and tighten them
But here is the bottom line. Ultimately, my goal as President of the United
States -- something that Iíve said publicly and privately and shared
everywhere Iíve gone -- is to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
But what Iíve also said is the best way for us to prevent Iran from getting
a nuclear weapons is for a comprehensive, verifiable, diplomatic resolution,
without taking any other options off the table if we fail to achieve that.
It is important for us to test that proposition during the next six months,
understanding that while weíre talking, theyíre not secretly improving their
position or changing circumstances on the ground inside of Iran. And if at
the end of six months it turns out that we canít make a deal, weíre no worse
off, and in fact we have greater leverage with the international community
to continue to apply sanctions and even strengthen them.
If, on the other hand, weíre able to get this deal done, then what we can
achieve through a diplomatic resolution of this situation is, frankly,
greater than what we could achieve with the other options that are available
MR. SABAN: Letís all hope we get there.
THE PRESIDENT: Absolutely.
MR. SABAN: You have hosted Passover dinners at the White House.
THE PRESIDENT: I have.
MR. SABAN: And you know this famous saying, ďWhy is this night different
than any other night?Ē In that context, I would like to ask you a question.
THE PRESIDENT: Please.
MR. SABAN: With the best intentions and all efforts, President Reagan vowed
that Pakistan would not go nuclear. Didnít happen. With the best intentions
and all efforts, President Clinton vowed that North Korea wonít go nuclear.
Why is this nuclear deal different than any other nuclear deal? (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: Well, we donít know yet. No, we donít know yet. I think itís
important for everybody to understand this is hard. Because the technology
of the nuclear cycle, you can get off the Internet; the knowledge of
creating a nuclear weapons is already out there. And Iran is a large
country and it is a relatively wealthy country, and so we have to take
seriously the possibility that they are going to try to get a nuclear
weapon. Thatís what this whole exercise is about.
Having said that, if you look at the history, by the time we got an
agreement with North Korea, they essentially already had a nuclear weapon.
With respect to Pakistan, there was never the kinds of inspection regimes
and international sanctions and U.N. resolutions that were in place. We
have been able to craft an international effort and verification mechanism
around the Iran nuclear program that is unprecedented and unique. That
doesn't mean itís easy. And thatís why we have to take it seriously.
But I think one of the things that Iíve repeatedly said when people ask, why
should we try to negotiate with them, we canít trust them, weíre being
naÔve, what I try to describe to them is not the choice between this deal
and the ideal, but the choice between this deal and other alternatives.
If I had an option, if we could create an option in which Iran eliminated
every single nut and bolt of their nuclear program, and foreswore the
possibility of ever having a nuclear program, and, for that matter, got rid
of all its military capabilities, I would take it. But --
MR. SABAN: Next question --
THE PRESIDENT: Sorry, Haim, I want to make sure everybody understands it --
that particular option is not available. And so as a consequence, what we
have to do is to make a decision as to, given the options available, what is
the best way for us to assure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon.
And the best way for us to assure it is to test this diplomatic path,
understanding that itís not based on trust; itís based on what we can
verify. And it also, by the way, does not negate the fact that Iran is
engaging in a whole bunch of other behavior in the Middle East and around
the world that is detrimental to the United States and detrimental to
And we will continue to contest their efforts where theyíre engaging in
terrorism, where theyíre being disruptive to our friends and our allies. We
will not abide by any threats to our friends and allies in the region, and
weíve made that perfectly clear. And our commitment to Israelís security is
sacrosanct, and they understand that. They don't have any doubt about that.
But if we can negotiate on the nuclear program in the same way that Ronald
Reagan was able to negotiate with the Soviet Union even as we were still
contesting them around the world, that removes one more threat -- and a
critical, existential threat -- takes it out of their arsenal. And it
allows us then to ultimately I think win them -- defeat some of their agenda
throughout the region without worrying that somehow itís going to escalate
or trigger a nuclear arms race in the most volatile part of the world.
MR. SABAN: Unfortunately, youíre right -- it would. Tom Friedman had an
interesting perspective in one of his columns. He said, ďNever negotiate
with Iran without some leverage and some crazy on your side. We have to
out-crazy the crazies.Ē Do you think he has a point? (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: Well, Tom is a very smart observer. And I know that my
friend, Bibi, is going to be speaking later, and if Tom wants to
characterize Bibi the way you just described, thatís his --
MR. SABAN: I didn't say that.
THE PRESIDENT: -- that's his prerogative, thatís not my view. (Laughter.)
Prime Minister Netanyahu and I have had constant consultations on these
issues throughout the last five years. And something that I think bears
repeating: The United States military cooperation with Israel has never
been stronger. Our intelligence cooperation with Israel has never been
stronger. Our support of Israelís security has never been stronger.
Whether youíre talking about Iron Dome, whether youíre talking about trying
to manage the situation in Gaza a little over a year ago, across the board,
our coordination on the concrete issues facing Israelís security has never
been stronger. And thatís not just my opinion; I think thatís something
that can be verified.
There are times where I, as President of the United States, am going to have
different tactical perspectives than the Prime Minister of Israel -- and
that is understandable, because Israel cannot contract out its security. In
light of the history that the people of Israel understand all too well, they
have to make sure that they are making their own assessments about what they
need to do to protect themselves. And we respect that. And I have said
that consistently to the Prime Minister.
But ultimately, it is my view, from a tactical perspective, that we have to
test out this proposition. It will make us stronger internationally, and it
may possibly lead to a deal that weíll have to show to the world, in fact,
assures us that Iran is not getting a nuclear weapon.
Itís not as if thereís going to be a lot of capacity to hide the ball here.
Weíre going to be able to make an assessment, because this will be subject
to the P5-plus-1 and the international community looking at the details of
every aspect of a potential final deal, and weíre consulting with all our
friends, including Israel, in terms of what would that end state look like.
And if we canít get there, then no deal is better than a bad deal. But
presuming that itís going to be a bad deal and, as a consequence, not even
trying for a deal I think would be a dire mistake.
MR. SABAN: Well, personally, I find a lot of comfort in the fact that even
though the United States and Israel may have red lines in different places,
we are on the same place as far as the bottom line goes --
THE PRESIDENT: Absolutely.
MR. SABAN: -- and Iran will not have nuclear weapons. Fair to say?
THE PRESIDENT: Absolutely. That is more than fair.
MR. SABAN: Good. Thank you. Should we move to these
THE PRESIDENT: We should.
MR. SABAN: Okay. (Laughter.) Very obedient President I have here today.
THE PRESIDENT: This is the Saban Forum, so youíre in charge. (Laughter.)
MR. SABAN: I wish. (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: Or Cheryl is in charge.
MR. SABAN: Youíre more on now, Mr. President. It is Cheryl who is in
THE PRESIDENT: Thatís exactly right.
MR. SABAN: Anyway. (Laughter.) First of all, before I ask the first
question, I would be remiss if I didnít, from the bottom of my heart, thank
you for your continuous effort to achieve peace in the Middle East. Thank
you so very much. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: I appreciate it. Thank you.
MR. SABAN: So people talk about an imposed American solution. Weíve
heard these rumors rumbling around for a while. The U.S. has always said it
doesnít want to impose. What would you propose?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, this is a challenge that we've been
wrestling with for 60 years. And what I've consistently said is that the
only way this is going to be resolved is if the people of Israel and the
Palestinian people make a determination that their futures and the futures
of their children and grandchildren will be better off with peace than with
conflict. The United States can be an effective facilitator of that
negotiation and dialogue; we can help to bridge differences and bridge gaps.
But both sides have to want to get there.
And I have to commend Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas for the
courageous efforts that have led to very serious conversations over the last
several months. They are not easy. But they come down to what we all know
are going to be the core issues: territory; security; refugees; Jerusalem.
And there are not a lot of secrets or surprises at this point. We know what
the outlines of a potential agreement might look like. And the question
then becomes are both sides willing to take the very tough political risks
involved if their bottom lines are met.
For the Palestinians, the bottom line is that they have a state of their own
that is real and meaningful. For the Israelis, the bottom line is, to a
large extent, is the state of Israel as a Jewish state secure. And those
issues have been spoken about over the last several months in these
negotiations in a very serious way. And I know Tzipi Livni is here and been
participating in that, and we're very grateful for her efforts there.
And I think it is possible over the next several months to arrive at a
framework that does not address every single detail but gets us to a point
where everybody recognizes better to move forward than move backwards.
Sometimes when you're climbing up a mountain, even when itís scary, itís
actually easier to go up than it is to go down. And I think that we're now
at a place where we can achieve a two-state solution in which Israelis and
Palestinians are living side-by-side in peace and security. But itís going
to require some very tough decisions.
One thing I have to say, though, is we have spent a lot of time working with
Prime Minister Netanyahu and his entire team to understand from an Israeli
perspective what is required for the security of Israel in such a scenario.
And we -- going back to what I said earlier -- we understand that we can't
dictate to Israel what it needs for its security. But what we have done is
to try to understand it and then see through a consultative process, are
there ways that, through technology, through additional ideas, we can
potentially provide for that.
And I assigned one of our top former generals, John Allen, who most recently
headed up the entire coalition effort in Afghanistan -- heís retired now,
but he was willing to take on this mission -- and heís been working to
examine the entire set of challenges around security --
MR. SABAN: Has he concluded anything?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, heís come up to -- he has arrived at the conclusion
that it is possible to create a two-state solution that preserves Israelís
core security needs.
Now, that's his conclusion, but ultimately heís not the decision-maker here.
Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Israeli military and intelligence folks
have to make that determination. And ultimately, the Palestinians have to
also recognize that there is going to be a transition period where the
Israeli people cannot expect a replica of Gaza in the West Bank. That is
unacceptable. And I think we believe that we can arrive at that point where
Israel was confident about that, but we're going to have to see whether the
Israelis agree and whether President Abbas, then, is willing to understand
that this transition period requires some restraint on the part of the
Palestinians as well. They don't get everything that they want on day one.
And that creates some political problems for President Abbas, as well.
MR. SABAN: Yes. Well, I'd say my next question of what was the reaction of
the Prime Minister to General Allen for John Kerry.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, ask John Kerry, or ask the Prime Minister.
MR. SABAN: Okay.
THE PRESIDENT: I don't want to speak for him. (Laughter.)
MR. SABAN: They won't tell me, but, okay. (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: That's probably true.
MR. SABAN: My last question: The Palestinians are two people -- one in the
West Bank, led by President Abbas that is negotiating the deal; and one in
Gaza, led by Hamas that wants to eradicate Israel from the face of the
Earth. President Abbas, as far as I know, says he won't make a deal that
doesnít include Gaza, which he doesnít control. How do we get out from this
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think this is going to have to happen in stages.
But hereís what I know from my visits to Israel, my visits to the West Bank:
There are people of goodwill on both sides that recognize the status quo is
not sustainable over the long term, and as a consequence, it is in the
interests of both the Israelis and Palestinians to resolve this issue.
There are young people, teenagers that I met both in Israel and in the
Palestinian Territories that want to get out from under this history and
seek a future that is fundamentally different for them. And so if, in fact,
we can create a pathway to peace, even if initially itís restricted to the
West Bank, if there is a model where young Palestinians in Gaza are looking
and seeing that in the West Bank Palestinians are able to live in dignity,
with self-determination, and suddenly their economy is booming and trade is
taking place because they have created an environment in which Israel is
confident about its security and a lot of the old barriers to commerce and
educational exchange and all that has begun to break down, thatís something
that the young people of Gaza are going to want. And the pressure that will
be placed for the residents of Gaza to experience that same future is
something that is going to be I think overwhelmingly appealing.
But that is probably going to take place during the course of some sort
of transition period. And the security requirements that Israel requires
will have to be met. And I think that is able -- that we can accomplish
that, but ultimately itís going to be something that requires everybody to
stretch out of their comfort zones.
And the one thing I will say to the people of Israel is that you can be
assured whoever is in the office I currently occupy, Democrat or Republican,
that your security will be uppermost on our minds. That will not change.
And that should not mean you let up on your vigilance in terms of wanting to
look out for your own country. It does -- it should give you some comfort,
though, that you have the most powerful nation on Earth as your closest
friend and ally. And that commitment is going to be undiminished.
Q That was my last question.
THE PRESIDENT: I promised -- we worked something backstage where as
long as Haimís questions werenít too long, Iíd take a couple of questions
from the audience. And he was very disciplined -- (laughter) -- so let me
take one or two.
This gentleman right here. Why donít you get a microphone so everybody can
Q Mr. President, I used to be a general in the Israeli Air Force, in
intelligence, and now running a think tank in Tel Aviv. Looking into the
future agreement with Iran -- I put behind me the initial agreement, and
what is really important is the final agreement. Two questions. What is
the parameters that you see as a red line to ensure that Iran will be moving
forward -- moving backward, rolling back from the bomb as much as possible?
And what is your plan B if an agreement cannot be reached?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, with respect to the end state, I want to be very clear
thereís nothing in this agreement or document that grants Iran a right to
enrich. Weíve been very clear that given its past behavior, and given
existing U.N. resolutions and previous violations by Iran of its
international obligations, that we donít recognize such a right, and if, by
the way, negotiations break down, there will be no additional international
recognition thatís been obtained. So this deal goes away and weíre back to
where we were before the Geneva agreement, subject -- and Iran will continue
to be subject to all the sanctions that we put in place in the past and we
may seek additional ones.
But I think what we have said is we can envision a comprehensive agreement
that involves extraordinary constraints and verification mechanisms and
intrusive inspections, but that permits Iran to have a peaceful nuclear
Now, in terms of specifics, we know that they donít need to have an
underground, fortified facility like Fordor in order to have a peaceful
nuclear program. They certainly donít need a heavy-water reactor at Arak in
order to have a peaceful nuclear program. They donít need some of the
advanced centrifuges that they currently possess in order to have a limited,
peaceful nuclear program.
And so the question ultimately is going to be, are they prepared to roll
back some of the advancements that theyíve made that would not justify -- or
could not be justified by simply wanting some modest, peaceful nuclear
power, but, frankly, hint at a desire to have breakout capacity and go right
to the edge of breakout capacity. And if we can move that significantly
back, then that is, I think, a net win.
Now, youíll hear arguments, including potentially from the Prime Minister,
that say we canít accept any enrichment on Iranian soil. Period. Full
stop. End of conversation. And this takes me back to the point I made
earlier. One can envision an ideal world in which Iran said, weíll destroy
every element and facility and you name it, itís all gone. I can envision a
world in which Congress passed every one of my bills that I put forward.
(Laughter.) I mean, there are a lot of things that I can envision that
would be wonderful. (Laughter.) But precisely because we donít trust the
nature of the Iranian regime, I think that we have to be more realistic and
ask ourselves, what puts us in a strong position to assure ourselves that
Iran is not having a nuclear weapon and that we are protected? What is
required to accomplish that, and how does that compare to other options that
we might take?
And it is my strong belief that we can envision a end state that gives us an
assurance that even if they have some modest enrichment capability, it is so
constrained and the inspections are so intrusive that they, as a practical
matter, do not have breakout capacity.
Theoretically, they might still have some. But, frankly, theoretically,
they will always have some, because, as I said, the technology here is
available to any good physics student at pretty much any university around
the world. And they have already gone through the cycle to the point where
the knowledge, weíre not going to be able to eliminate. But what we can do
is eliminate the incentive for them to want to do this.
And with respect to what happens if this breaks down, I wonít go into
details. I will say that if we cannot get the kind of comprehensive end
state that satisfies us and the world community and the P5-plus-1, then the
pressure that weíve been applying on them and the options that Iíve made
clear I can avail myself of, including a military option, is one that we
would consider and prepare for. And weíve always said that. So that does
But the last point Iíll make on this. When I hear people who criticize the
Geneva deal say itís got to be all or nothing, I would just remind them if
itís nothing, if we did not even try for this next six months to do this,
all the breakout capacity weíre concerned about would accelerate during that
six months. Arak would be further along. The advanced centrifuges would
have been put in place. Theyíd be that much closer to breakout capacity six
months from now. And thatís why I think itís important for us to try to
test this proposition.
Iíll take a couple more. Yes, sir. Right over here.
Q Mr. President, Israeli journalist from Isreal Hayom daily newspaper.
Mr. President, I covered the negotiations with Iran, nuclear negotiations --
Geneva 2009, Istanbul 2010. And I came back now from Geneva again, where
you could see the big change was not only on Iranís side, but also on the
P5-plus-1 side, meaning they were very eager to reach an agreement. Coming
back from Geneva, we learned, and some of us had known before, the secret
talks America had with Iran. And we know the concern you have on the
Israeli security -- eíre very grateful. But how does it coincide with your
secret negotiations Washington had with Tehran? Thank you.
THE PRESIDENT: The truth is, is that, without going into the details, there
werenít a lot of secret negotiations. Essentially what happened -- and we
were very clear and transparent about this -- is that from the time I took
office, I said we would reach out to Iran and we would let them know weíre
prepared to open up a diplomatic channel. After Rouhani was elected, there
was some acceleration leading up to the U.N. General Assembly. Youíll
recall that Rouhani was engaging in what was termed a charm offensive,
right, and he was going around talking to folks. And at that point, it made
sense for us to see, all right, how serious are you potentially about having
They did not get highly substantive in the first several meetings but were
much more exploring how much room, in fact, did they have to get something
done. And then as soon as they began to get more technical, at that point,
they converged with the P5-plus-1 discussions.
I will say this: The fact of Rhouhaniís election -- itís been said that
thereís no difference between him and Ahmadinejad except that heís more
charming. I think that understates the shift in politics that took place in
this election. Obviously, Rouhani is part of the Iranian establishment and
I think we have to assume that his ideology is one that is hostile to the
United States and to Israel. But what he also represents is the desire on
the part of the Iranian people for a change of direction. And we should not
underestimate or entirely dismiss a shift in how the Iranian people want to
interact with the world.
Thereís a lot of change thatís going to be taking place in the Middle East
over the next decade. And wherever we see the impulses of a people to move
away from conflict, violence, and towards diplomatic resolution of
conflicts, we should be ready and prepared to engage them -- understanding,
though, that, ultimately itís not what you say, itís what you do.
And we have to be vigilant about maintaining our security postures, not be
naÔve about the dangers that an Iranian regime pose, fight them wherever
theyíre engaging in terrorism or actions that are hostile to us or our
allies. But we have to not constantly assume that itís not possible for
Iran, like any country, to change over time. It may not be likely. If you
asked me what is the likelihood that weíre able to arrive at the end state
that I was just describing earlier, I wouldnít say that itís more than
50/50. But we have to try.
Last question. And I think itís -- the young lady right there.
Q Mr. President, Iím a reporter for Israeli Channel Two. I have been
listening to your analysis of the Iranian deal, and I can only imagine a
different -- a slightly different analysis given by our Prime Minister
THE PRESIDENT: I think thatís probably a good bet. Thatís more than 50/50.
Q Israelis are known for their understatement. (Laughter.) And I try to
imagine a conversation between you two. And he would ask you, Mr. President,
I see this deal as a historic mistake -- which he has already stated -- and
I think itís the worst deal the West could have gotten. And you would have
told him, Bibi, thatís where you go wrong. What would you have told him?
Thatís one thing. And then, perhaps to understand the essence of your
conversation, he would ask you, Mr. President, is there one set of
circumstances under which you will order your B-52s to strike in Iran? What
would you tell him? (Laughter.) Is there any set of circumstances in which
you will order your fighter pilots to strike in Iran? What would you tell
the Prime Minister?
THE PRESIDENT: Let me make a couple of points. Number one, obviously, the
conversations between me and the Prime Minister are for me and the Prime
Minister, not for an audience like this. And I will say that Bibi and I have
very candid conversations, and there are occasionally significant tactical
disagreements, but there is a constancy in trying to reach the same goal.
And in this case, that goal is to make sure that Iran does not have a
As President of the United States, I don't go around advertising the
circumstances in which I order pilots to launch attacks. That I think would
be bad practice. (Laughter.) I also would say, though, that when the
President of the United States says that he doesn't take any options off the
table, that should be taken seriously. And I think I have a track record
over the last five years that indicates that that should be taken seriously.
Itís interesting -- in the region, there was this interesting interpretation
of what happened with respect to Syria. I said itís a problem for Syria to
have chemical weapons that it uses on its own citizens. And when we had
definitive proof that it had, I indicated my willingness potentially to take
military action. The fact that we ultimately did not take military action
in some quarters was interpreted as, ah, you see, the President is not
willing to take military action -- despite the fact that I think Mr. Qaddafi
would have a different view of that, or Mr. bin Laden. Be that as it may,
that was yesterday, what have you done for me lately? (Laughter.)
But the point is that my preference was always to resolve the issue
diplomatically. And it turns out, lo and behold, that Syria now is actually
removing its chemical weapons that a few months ago it denied it even
possessed, and has provided a comprehensive list, and they have already
begun taking these weapons out of Syria. And although that does not solve
the tragic situation inside of Syria, it turns out that removing those
chemical weapons will make us safer and it will make Israel safer, and it
will make the Syrian people safer, and it will make the region safer.
And so I do not see military action as an end unto itself. Military action
is one tool that we have in a tool kit that includes diplomacy in achieving
our goals, which is ultimately our security.
And I think if you want to summarize the difference, in some ways, between
myself and the Prime Minister on the Geneva issue, I think what this comes
down to is the perception, potentially, that if we just kept on turning up
the pressure -- new sanctions, more sanctions, more military threats, et
cetera -- that eventually Iran would cave. And what Iíve tried to explain
is two points: One is that the reason the sanctions have been so
effective -- because we set them up in a painstaking fashion -- the reason
theyíve been effective is because other countries had confidence that we
were not imposing sanctions just for the sake of sanctions, but we were
imposing sanctions for the sake of trying to actually get Iran to the table
and resolve the issue. And if the perception internationally was that we
were not in good faith trying to resolve the issue diplomatically, that,
more than anything, would actually begin to fray the edges of the sanctions
regime. Point number one.
And point number two -- Iíve already said this before -- you have to compare
the approach that weíre taking now with the alternatives. The idea that
Iran, given everything we know about their history, would just continue to
get more and more nervous about more sanctions and military threats, and
ultimately just say, okay, we give in -- I think does not reflect an honest
understanding of the Iranian people or the Iranian regime. And I say
that -- by the way, Iím not just talking about the hardliners inside of
Iran. I think even the so-called moderates or reformers inside of Iran
would not be able to simply say, we will cave and do exactly what the U.S.
and the Israelis say.
They are going to have to have a path in which they feel that there is a
dignified resolution to this issue. Thatís a political requirement of
theirs, and that, I suspect, runs across the political spectrum. And so for
us to present a door that serves our goals and our purposes but also gives
them the opportunity to, in a dignified fashion, reenter the international
community and change the approach that theyíve taken -- at least on this
narrow issue, but one that is of extraordinary importance to all of us -- is
an opportunity that we should grant them.
Well, thank you very much. I enjoyed this. (Applause.)
MR. SABAN: Thank you so much. Thank you, Mr. President. Youíve been very