On July 14, President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. and five world powers had reached a sweeping agreement with the government of Iran over the country's nuclear program. Under the deal, the U.S. and its partners agreed to lift sanctions against Iran if the regime gives up key parts of its uranium enrichment capabilities and agrees to inspections of its program.
The agreement came after two years of intense international negotiations, and will be one of Obama's defining foreign policy legacies — if it makes it through Congress. Last week, Mic Editor-in-Chief Jake Horowitz sat down with Obama in the White House Library to discuss the importance of the Iran deal, its implications for the Middle East as a whole, the debate in Congress over the agreement and much more. Obama took questions from young people in Iran, the U.S. and Israel, and responded directly to their criticisms. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Mr. President, in your speech at American University yesterday, you called this the most important foreign policy debate that we’ve witnessed since the Iraq War.
I think if you talk to most Americans, and particularly our generation, they don’t necessarily feel that. I wonder why you think that is?
Well, I lived through the debate of the Iraq War. I wasn’t yet in the United States Senate. I was a state senator in Illinois. And at the time, there was a drumbeat that going into Iraq was the right thing to do.
And a lot of people didn’t get engaged in that debate then either. It was only after the decision was made. It was only after the initial push into Baghdad descended into massive chaos that suddenly the country realized that we had made a big, strategic mistake.
And my point is that now is the time to have the debate, not after decisions are made. In this situation, we have long had a key objective in our Middle East policy.
And this has not just been me, but Republican and Democratic presidents, as well as members of Congress alike, and that is that it would be very dangerous for Iran to possess a nuclear weapon. And the deal that we negotiated after years of tough sanctions, after mobilizing the entire world community, prevents Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. And Congress now is in a position in which they can approve or disapprove of the deal.
The overwhelming majority of experts — nuclear scientists, people who are expert[s] on Iran — support this deal because they understand that by making sure Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapon, we won’t have to worry about a lot of other countries in the region trying to keep up and get their own nuclear weapon.
We will still have problems with Iran on a whole range of issues, but, the alternative to a negotiated agreement of the sort that we put together is, at some point, us having to potentially take a military strike against Iran.
That triggers potentially yet another war in the Middle East at a time when we’re already trying to fight ISIL. We’re already trying to deal with destabilized countries like Yemen and Libya. And we could get drawn further into a maelstrom that is very hard to get out of.
We asked people around the world what questions they have for the president. Then we took a few of those questions to the White House.
Mr. President, you always speak of peace and you made it. But we, the Iranian people, paid a high price because you put very harsh sanctions on us. Don’t you think you had other ways to make this deal without hurting Iranian people so much?
Well, unfortunately we didn’t have a better way of doing this.
We had, when I came into office, sent a message to the Supreme Leader of Iran indicating that we were prepared to negotiate a deal that would provide the international community assurances they weren’t developing a nuclear weapon.
There was no response. Instead, what we discovered was a covert facility for enriching uranium at a place called Fordo. And in that circumstance, what we had to do was to more severely enforce sanctions so that Iran had greater incentive to come to the table and negotiate.
Now the good news is that under this deal, if Iran abides by the agreement, if they get rid of their stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and they shut down or modify a number of the facilities they already have and they subject themselves to inspections so that we are sure that they’re not developing a nuclear weapon, then the sanctions come down.
And our hope is that the Iranian people are going to be benefiting from that. But until that happens, this was the only way for us to be able to get the Iranian government to take seriously the concerns of the international community.
Sixty percent of Iran’s population is under 30, so young Iranians have grown up knowing only tension with the U.S. and increasingly severe sanctions.
Today’s 20-somethings will be 40-somethings as this deal runs its course and will be in positions of power.
And so I wonder — knowing that the future leader of Iran could be in our audience right now — what you would say just in terms of, you know, what’s possible in the future of U.S.-Iran relations as a result of this deal?
Well, you know, I tend to be very modest in my expectations short term.
I think that if Iran abides by this deal — if Congress reads the deal, focuses on it, and then does the right thing, which is to support it — then there will be at least a decade, decade and a half in which the sanctions have come down and Iran is able to focus on its economy, the world can be assured that Iran is not getting a nuclearthat space then there are a whole bunch of broader questions about Iran’s relationship to the rest of the world.
I’ve said many times that Iran is an extraordinarily gifted country. It is an ancient culture. It has incredibly smart and talented people. And I wish those people well.
There’s going to have to be a transition inside of Iran, even if gradual, in which there’s a recognition that chanting “death to America” or denying the Holocaust among its leaders or threatening Israel with destruction or, you know, providing arms to Hezbollah, which is on the terrorist list — that those things make Iran a pariah in the eyes of a large part of the world.
And I can guarantee you that the moment the Iranian regime stopped engaging in that kind of rhetoric and that kind of behavior that Iran would just by virtue of its size, talent, resources, immediately rise in its influence and its power in the eyes of the world.
And that’s what I hope can happen. It will require a shift in the politics and the leadership of Iran — a different mindset in terms of how they are approaching the rest of the world and how they’re approaching countries like the United States.
And perhaps, it’ll be this new generation that’s able to make that happen
I’d like to know if you believe that this deal can lead to a shift in the internal politics in Iran and bring about positive reforms there. And if so, is this deal going to be at the cost of our relationships with current allies in the Middle East.
Well, as I just said, I try to be modest about this. This deal is a good deal regardless of whether the character of the current Iranian regime changes. As long as they are sticking with the deal, we’re solving a big problem, which is Iran not having a nuclear weapon and not triggering a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
It’s possible that as a consequence of sanctions coming down, more commerce, more trade, more Iranian young people and professionals traveling overseas that some of the suspicions and barriers come down, but it’s not automatic. That will depend, I think, on the nature of events inside of Iran.
There is great suspicion of this deal among some of our closest allies, Israel in particular, but also some of the Gulf States, who have seen Iran’s actions — trying to destabilize their governments or sponsoring terrorist proxies. And what I’m convinced of is that this deal is a good deal even as we work with those allies to constrain Iranian actions in some of these other areas.
But what I can also say for certain is that if Iran started behaving differently, if it wasn’t sponsoring terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, if it wasn’t destabilizing its neighbors, that would be welcomed by those neighbors.
And you could see a greater understanding and peace in the region because part of the problem that we’ve seen emerging in the Middle East is a lot of sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni.
And Iran, as the largest Shia state, if it’s got a better relationship with Sunni majority states like Saudi Arabia, they, in fact, can have a useful influence on the region.
And as a consequence, that makes our fight against ISIL, for example, much easier, because we want to make sure that everyone recognizes that the kind of virulent extremism that we’ve seen emerging in places like Syria and Iraq and groups like ISIL — that’s a threat to everybody, that’s a threat to all states and we should be unified in fighting that.
Lifting sanctions in Iran will provide an influx of cash to the current regime, which countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia fear will flow to Iranian-funded terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas and increase Iran’s regional influence.
As an Israeli citizen, it’s very obvious that you oppose our prime minister. You’ve made a lot of promises in regards to our security as a people and as you know Hamas is right now basically at our doorstep. Why should we, as the Israeli people, trust you?
Well, as president, I have not only pledged and committed to make sure that America supports Israel’s security. But I’ve also provided more intelligence and military cooperation with Israel than any previous president.
This administration has done everything that Israel has been looking for with respect to, for example, a program called Iron Dome that has been able to shoot down missiles before they hit Israeli soil and undoubtedly saved Israeli lives.
I think it’s important for Sam to understand, I don’t oppose the Israeli prime minister across the board.
We have a strong disagreement about whether or not it makes sense for us to take a deal that cuts off all pathways for Iran getting a nuclear program or whether we should reject a deal, in which case, Iran can break out and start installing advanced centrifuges and potentially pursue a nuclear weapon without us having eyes on what’s going on on the ground or any significant constraints until it's too late.
And that is a substantive disagreement that we have but — on a whole range of issues — particularly with respect to Israel’s security, we’ve been with Israel every step of the way. And even Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government would acknowledge that.
Let’s take it back home. In your speech yesterday, you seem to compare Republicans who are against this deal to some of the hardliners in Iran, who are chanting “death to America” in the streets. But I think many people want to know, there’s also Democrats you know who are on the fence about this deal. And what would you say to them?
Well, I’m talking to them all the time.
And first of all, remember what I said was, that, it’s the hardliners in Iran who are most opposed to this deal. And I said in that sense, they’re making common cause with those who were opposed to this deal here. I didn’t say that they were equivalent.
And I think that what you see are people who are assuming confrontation is inevitable and are unwilling to seize the possibility that we could shape an agreement that doesn’t solve all conflicts, but that does solve a very serious problem without resort to war.
And what I have said to Democrats who are still trying to figure things out is, just read what’s in the text. Listen to the arguments. See what counter arguments exist on the other side.
There are going to be some Democrats who end up opposing this deal, partly because as I said yesterday in the speech, the affinity that we all feel towards the state of Israel is profound, it’s deep.
And you know when Israel is opposed to something a lot of Democrats, as well as Republicans, pay attention.
The difference though, is that most of the Democratic senators have taken the time to actually read the bill and listen to the arguments. A sizeable proportion of the Republicans were opposed before the ink was even dry on the deal before it was even posted, and that gives you sense of the degree to which this is driven by partisan politics or ideology as opposed to analysis.
And is there any criticism of the deal that you do think is legitimate?
Oh, absolu— well, what I have said is that there are concerns that are legitimate. It is absolutely true that Iran has a history of trying to play it close to the line when it comes to its nuclear program. And so we do have to be very vigilant about inspections.
It’s true that under this agreement in 15 years time, they will be in a position to install more powerful centrifuges that produce uranium and that at that point they could conceivably break out and try to get a nuclear weapon.
The point there, that I’ve made, that I think is indisputable, and in fact, former Israeli intelligence officers have made the same point, is that we’ll have just as much if not more ability to stop them at that point than they would if they are doing it right now and in the meantime we would have purchased 15 years in which we know exactly what they’re doing and can have a lot more assurance about understanding their program.
It is true that by definition, under this agreement, Iran’s economy improves because they get sanctions relief. That was the incentive for them to enter into this deal.
And some of that probably goes to help finance some of the dangerous activities that they are involved with anyway, but in that circumstance, as I’ve said before, we can deal with conventional challenges from Iran. What creates real problems for us is if they get a nuclear weapon, so we have to prioritize.
So, the point is, on all these, on any international agreement, there is always some give and take. You never get 100% of what you want. And the world is a big, complicated and sometimes dangerous place, so you have to apply judgments to what is the most important thing and how do you best achieve it, given the realities of the situation.
What I haven’t heard yet, is an argument for rejecting this deal that results in a better chance for us to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon — and since that’s our number one priority, we have to make choices — and this is by far the best choice.
Find the full transcript of our interview here.