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Wednesday, May 13, 2015
Asharq Al-Awsat interviews President Obama

Obama: We are prepared to use all elements of our power to secure our
interests in the Middle East
Written by : Mina Al-Oraibi Asharq Al-Awsat Wednesday, 13 May, 2015

In his first interview with an Arabic-language newspaper, US President
Barack Obama speaks to Asharq Al-Awsat ahead of a key summit with Gulf

Washington, DC, Asharq Al-Awsat—When he receives leaders and officials from
the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) at the White House on Wednesday and at
Camp David on Thursday, US President Barack Obama will be keen to solidify
his country’s historic alliance with the Gulf while pressing for a nuclear
deal with Iran. Having issued the invitation for the summit in the immediate
aftermath of the framework agreement with Iran last April, Obama must now
deal with concerns from the Arab world that Tehran’s leaders will take
advantage of any nuclear deal to further extend Iran’s reach in the region.

In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, his first with an
Arabic-language newspaper, President Obama concurred that “the countries in
the region are right to be deeply concerned about Iran’s activities,
especially its support for violent proxies inside the borders of other

He also outlined his main priorities for the summit—and the region. He
explains his reasoning for extending an invitation to the leaders of the
GCC, saying it is part of an effort to “further strengthen our close
partnerships, including our security cooperation, and to discuss how we can
meet common challenges together. That includes working to resolve the
conflicts across the Middle East that have taken so many innocent lives and
caused so much suffering for the people of the region.”

Obama is expected to reassure Gulf allies of his country’s commitment to
their security. He told Asharq Al-Awsat that “there should be no doubt about
the commitment of the United States to the security of the region and to our
GCC partners.”

Asharq Al-Awsat: You will be meeting leaders and officials from the GCC in
Washington tonight and tomorrow at Camp David. Beyond words of support that
you have given them in previous meetings, what actions and guarantees will
the United States be committing to—and will they include guarantees for the
Hormuz and Bab El-Mandeb straits?

Barack Obama: I have invited senior officials of the GCC states to
Washington to further strengthen our close partnerships, including our
security cooperation, and to discuss how we can meet common challenges
together. That includes working to resolve the conflicts across the Middle
East that have taken so many innocent lives and caused so much suffering for
the people of the region. I’m grateful that all the GCC countries will be
represented, and I look forward to our discussions at both the White House
and Camp David.

Our meeting is rooted in our shared interest in a Gulf region that is
peaceful, prosperous, and secure. As I said at the United Nations two years
ago, the United States has core interests in the Middle East, including
confronting external aggression; ensuring the free flow of energy and
commerce, and freedom of navigation of international waters—and this
includes the Strait of Hormuz and Bab El-Mandeb; dismantling terrorist
networks that threaten our people; and preventing the development or use of
weapons of mass destruction. I’ve made it clear that the United States is
prepared to use all elements of our power to secure these interests.

These are not just words; they are backed by a strong record of real action.
Across six decades, the United States has worked with GCC countries to
advance our mutual interests. Americans have served in the region, and given
their lives, for our mutual security. Thousands of US personnel serve in the
Gulf region today to reinforce regional stability. Our armed forces train
together in numerous major military exercises every year. So there should be
no doubt about the commitment of the United States to the security of the
region and to our GCC partners.

My hope is that this week’s meeting will deepen our cooperation across a
range of areas. Together, we have the opportunity to improve our security
coordination and help our GCC partners strengthen and further integrate
their defense capabilities in a range of areas including missile defense,
maritime security, cyber security, and border security. We can intensify our
counterterrorism efforts with a focus on stemming the flow of foreign
fighters and terrorist financing to conflict zones, as well as countering
the evil ideology of ISIL [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS]. We
can work together to resolve ongoing conflicts—in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and
Libya—and address underlying sectarian tensions which hold the region back.

I will have the opportunity to update the senior GCC officials on our
negotiations toward a comprehensive deal to prevent Iran from obtaining a
nuclear weapon, which I strongly believe is the best way to ensure the
security of the region, including our GCC partners. At the same time, this
week’s meetings will be an opportunity to ensure that our countries are
working closely to counter Iran’s destabilizing behavior across the Middle
East, including Iran’s support for terrorist groups.

Q: There are many concerns about the role of Iran in countries like Syria
and Yemen, stemming from the Iranian regime’s belief in “exporting the
revolution.” How do you see Iran’s role in the region today, and how
convinced are you that Iran’s rulers can be “constructive actors” if the
nuclear deal is reached?

Iran clearly engages in dangerous and destabilizing behavior in different
countries across the region. Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism. It helps
prop up the Assad regime in Syria. It supports Hezbollah in Lebanon and
Hamas in the Gaza Strip. It aids the Houthi rebels in Yemen. So countries in
the region are right to be deeply concerned about Iran’s activities,
especially its support for violent proxies inside the borders of other

It’s important to remember that Iran already engages in these activities
without a nuclear arsenal. We can only imagine how Iran might become even
more provocative if it were armed with a nuclear weapon. Moreover, it would
become even harder for the international community to counter and deter Iran’s
destabilizing behavior. That’s one of the reasons why the comprehensive deal
we’re pursuing with Iran is so important—by preventing a nuclear-armed Iran
it would remove one of the greatest threats to regional security.

Even as we’ve pursued a nuclear deal with Iran, the United States has
remained vigilant against Iran’s other reckless behavior. We’ve maintained
our robust military presence in the region and continued to help the GCC
states build their capacity to deter and defend against all forms of
external aggression. We’ve continued to fully enforce sanctions against Iran
for its support of terrorism and its ballistic missile program—and we will
enforce these sanctions going forward, even if we reach a nuclear deal with

When it comes to Iran’s future, I cannot predict Iran’s internal dynamics.
Within Iran, there are leaders and groups that for decades have defined
themselves in opposition to both the United States and our regional
partners. I’m not counting on any nuclear deal to change that. That said, it’s
also possible that if we can successfully address the nuclear question and
Iran begins to receive relief from some nuclear sanctions, it could lead to
more investments in the Iranian economy and more opportunity for the Iranian
people, which could strengthen the hands of more moderate leaders in Iran.
More Iranians could see that constructive engagement—not confrontation—with
the international community is the better path. There are two paths
available to Iran. One is continued confrontation; the better one is a more
constructive approach to the region that would allow Iran to become more
integrated with the global community. But even if the political dynamics in
Iran do not change, a nuclear deal becomes even more necessary because it
prevents a regime that is hostile to us from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Q: In May 2011 you spoke of “self-determination” in the Arab world amid the
changes of governments there. How do you see those changes today, especially
in Syria where ISIS has been able to defeat much of the nationalist

What I said four years ago remains true today. It was a lack of
self-determination—the inability of citizens to peacefully decide the future
of their countries—that helped fuel the frustrations, resentments and lack
of economic opportunity that gave rise to the Arab Spring. In some
countries, such as Tunisia, there has been real progress as citizens embrace
the spirit of compromise and inclusion that nations need to succeed. In
contrast, the Assad regime launched a war on the Syrian people, and early
hopes for progress there have been eclipsed by violence and extremism.

What hasn’t changed during these difficult years is the commitment of the
United States to the people of the region. As I said in my speech four years
ago, “There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes
change that advances self-determination and opportunity.” That is why we
continue to support the right of citizens to decide their own destiny, to
live with dignity, to choose governments that are inclusive, to have
economic opportunities, and to control their own future. And the United
States will continue to support universal rights in the Middle East, just as
we do all over the world.

Syria, of course, poses a unique challenge. The tyrannical Assad regime
continues to massacre its own people, and extremists such as ISIL and the
Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front are perpetrating atrocities, plotting
terrorist acts, and trying to impose their bankrupt ideology on the people
of Syria. The policy of the United States is clear. Assad long ago lost all
legitimacy and—since there is no military solution to Syria’s
challenges—there must ultimately be a political transition toward a Syria
where universal rights, including women’s rights, and the rights of
religious and ethnic minorities, are protected. Toward that end, the United
States continues to support the moderate Syrian opposition, we remain the
largest provider of humanitarian aid to the Syrian people, and with our
coalition partners, including Arab nations, we will remain relentless in our
campaign to degrade ISIL’s safe haven within Syria as part of our broader
campaign to destroy ISIL.

Q: You came to office with a pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq and you
kept your promise. However, the situation in Iraq today is much worse than
when you came to power, with ISIS and armed militias threatening Iraq’s
security. What will it take to stabilize Iraq and how much criticism will
you accept to how it has turned out 12 years after the war you opposed?

One of the reasons that I opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was because I
felt we hadn’t considered the long-term consequences. In fact, the years of
instability inside Iraq that followed the US invasion helped give rise to
Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which later morphed into ISIL and then established its
base in Syria. Over many years, the United States spent hundreds of billions
of dollars—and thousands of Americans gave their lives—to help Iraqis
establish a new government and security forces. Tragically, the failure of
the previous Iraqi government to govern in an inclusive manner contributed
to a situation where certain Iraqis felt alienated and Iraqi security forces
were unable or unwilling to defend much of Iraq against ISIL’s advance last
year. So this isn’t just a military problem. It’s also a political problem
as well.

It’s important for all of us to learn the lessons of the last 12 years.
Those lessons lead me to believe that a military solution cannot be imposed
on Iraq—certainly not by the United States. That’s why, along with our
coalition partners, we’re pursuing a comprehensive approach to Iraq, in
partnership with the Iraqi people. Our military campaign, including Arab
partners, has halted ISIL’s advance and in some places pushed them back.
Iraqi forces defeated ISIL at Tikrit, and ISIL has lost control of about a
quarter of the populated territory it had in Iraq. We’re helping to train
and strengthen local forces in Iraq so they can grow stronger. We’re
providing humanitarian assistance to the people of Iraq. As I’ve said many
times, the campaign to destroy ISIL will take time, but I’m confident we’re
going to succeed.

Ultimately, though, Iraq will only succeed if its leaders govern in an
inclusive way where Iraqis from all backgrounds see that they have a future
in Iraq. I’ve been encouraged by Prime Minister [Haider] Al-Abadi’s work to
empower local forces by integrating Sunni tribes and working to develop a
National Guard. He has also outlined a new, decentralized vision of
governance. He’s reached out to Iraq’s neighbors, and he’s been welcomed in
regional capitals. My meetings this week with our GCC partners will be an
opportunity to reaffirm that we very much support stronger ties between Iraq
and its neighbors, which must respect Iraq’s sovereignty.

Q: There was much appreciation for your initial efforts to end the Israeli
occupation of Palestine and have a two-state solution. And yet those efforts
have been met by obstruction from various sides. Have you given up on
reaching the two-state solution before the end of your presidency, and if
not, how can you change the dynamic?

I will never give up on the hope for peace between Israelis and
Palestinians, and the United States will never stop working to realize that
goal. As I said when I visited Ramallah two years ago, Palestinians deserve
an end to the occupation and the daily indignities that come with it; they
deserve to live in an independent, sovereign state, where they can give
their children a life of dignity and opportunity. And as I said in my speech
to the Israeli people on that same trip, peace between Israelis and
Palestinians is necessary, it is just, and it is possible. It is also in the
national security interest of the United States. That’s why we’ve worked so
hard over the years for a two-state solution and to develop innovative ways
to address Israel’s security and Palestinian sovereignty needs.

With the breakdown of talks, simmering tension in East Jerusalem and the
West Bank, last summer’s conflict in Gaza, and serious questions about
overall commitment to a two-state outcome, it’s no secret that we now have a
very difficult path forward. As a result, the United States is taking a hard
look at our approach to the conflict.

We look to the new Israeli government and the Palestinians to
demonstrate—through policies and actions—a genuine commitment to a two-state
solution. Only then can trust be rebuilt and a cycle of escalation avoided.
Addressing the lasting impact in Gaza of last summer’s conflict should also
be central to any effort. Ultimately, the parties will need to address not
just Gaza’s immediate humanitarian and reconstruction needs, but also core
challenges to Gaza’s future within a two-state context, including
reinvigorating Gaza’s connection with the West Bank and reestablishing
strong commercial links with Israel and the global economy.

Q: You reached out to the Arab world soon after coming to the White House
with the Cairo speech; much has changed since then. In your recent New York
Times interview you spoke of “Sunni youth,” and this caused quite an outcry
in Arab cities where young people don’t want to be seen through their
religious or sectarian identities. Do you regret that the US may have helped
fuel some of this sectarianism? Do you have a message to those youth,
including those who risk everything to get to “the West” via the
Mediterranean sea where we have seen thousands perish?

I’ve spent my presidency—indeed much of my life—working to bridge perceived
divisions of race, ethnicity and religion that too often prevent people from
working together, in the United States and around the world. With respect to
the Middle East, I have repeatedly urged governments to govern in an
inclusive way so that all their people—be they Sunni, Shi’a, Christian, or
other religious minorities—know that their rights will be upheld and that
they will have an opportunity to succeed. So when young people refuse to see
themselves through a sectarian lens, it gives me hope.

What is undeniable, however, is that sectarianism unfortunately does exist
in the region. I said at the United Nations last year that “the proxy wars
and terror campaigns between Sunni and Shi’a across the Middle East” are “a
fight no one is winning.” Syria has been ripped apart by civil war. ISIL
managed to take over large swaths of Iraq. ISIL peddles a distorted and
false version of Islam and most of its victims are other Muslims—innocent
men, women, and children. That’s why one of the issues we’ll focus on this
week in Washington will be how our nations can work together to help resolve
some of the region’s most pressing conflicts which have allowed these
extremists to thrive.

It’s an utter tragedy that so many young people feel that the lack of
opportunity at home drives them to risk their lives—and often lose their
lives—trying to cross the Mediterranean for Europe. So my message to young
people across the region is that the United States sees you for what you
are—enormously talented young men and women who have so much to give your
communities, your countries, and the world. And America wants to be your
partner as you work to succeed. That was a core message of my speech in
Cairo, and it remains our goal today. It’s why we’re working to support
entrepreneurship and educational partnerships—so young people can turn their
ideas into new ventures and businesses that create jobs and opportunity. And
it’s why America will continue to stand up for democracy and human rights
around the world—because we believe that every man and woman, boy and girl,
deserves the chance to pursue their dreams, in freedom and dignity.

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