Iran, Antisemitism and Bagels – Obama Interviewed by Forward Editor-in-Chief
Here is the transcript of Jane Eisner’s interview with President Obama on Friday, August 28 in the Oval Office. The questions have been edited slightly for clarity. His responses are published here in full.
JANE EISNER: You have been generous in explaining the Iran deal to all sorts of people, so I want to focus on two specific issues that are really concerning me and I know others in the Jewish community.
The first is rooted in the legitimate fear that Iran will use some of its sanction relief to fund nefarious actions in the region, especially against Israel. In his statement opposing the deal, [New York] Senator [Chuck] Schumer said restrictions should have been put in place limiting how Iran can use these new resources. I’m wondering what kind of further assurances you can give Israelis and their supporters that those resources — the Iranian resources — will not put them in more danger.
And how does that not spur on a conventional arms race in the region?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, first of all, Jane, I think it’s important to recognize that the reason that Iran came to the table to negotiate a “no nuclear weapons” pledge was because of unprecedented sanctions that we were able to structure. Congressional sanctions have been on the books for years. They have not been effective in changing Iranian behavior. What was effective was, when I came into office, our ability to mobilize vigorous multilateral support for sanctions and very vigorous enforcement of sanctions. And as a consequence, the Iranian economy really cratered. And obviously, that’s now been compounded by the severe drop in oil prices.
So, by definition, they were going to get some of their own money back as part of a deal. That was their incentive to engage with the world community in the first place. It’s estimated they’ll get about $50 billion. But as we’ve said repeatedly, the bulk of those dollars they are going to have to use for propping up their economy and getting it back on an even keel.
There have been protests inside of Iran that don’t get reported on much here because teachers aren’t getting paid and pension limits aren’t being fulfilled. And so we anticipate — and this is based on careful analysis by Treasury and Jack Lew — that most of that money will be going to spur on their economy.
Now, as sanctions are lifted, what will also happen is their economy will start improving. And by definition, as their economy improves they’ll have more resources, and some of that, undoubtedly, will go into building up their military capability.
But as I pointed out repeatedly, Iran’s annual defense budget is about $15 billion. The Gulf States, combined, spend about eight times that amount. Israel’s conventional military capacity far exceeds any Iranian capability, and you can’t compare the U.S. military to Iran. So the goal of this deal is to make sure that the one real game-changer — nuclear weapons — is taken off the table.
We now have a regional power that is good at asymmetric and unconventional and proxy aggression, and that’s something that we, together, can confront and stop. This is why I had Gulf countries up to Camp David to start coordinating more effectively to interdict arms shipments, to improve intelligence sharing, to support coordination of ballistic missile defense systems. And as soon as this debate is over, we will, I think, be able to invigorate what has been an ongoing conversation with the Israelis about how we can do even more to enhance the unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation that we have with them, and to see, are there additional capabilities that Israel may be able to use to prevent Hezbollah, for example, from getting missiles.
But I guess the point is that where Iran has been effective in its destabilizing activities, it’s not because it’s had a lot of money. It’s because they’ve effectively used proxies; it’s because they’ve invested in places like Lebanon for decades and become entrenched. And the reason we haven’t done a better job of stopping that is not because they’re outspending us. The reason is, is because we haven’t been as coordinated, had as good intelligence and been as systematic in pushing back as we need to be.
Q: So the second big issue, it seems to me, is this question of what happens in 10 or 15 years. We know that we can’t —
THE PRESIDENT: I’m sorry, before — there’s one other point, just for context — and if you want, you can splice it into the previous answer — the sanctions were so effective that even with the $50 billion —
Q: And you’re saying that’s the $50 —
THE PRESIDENT: This is Iranian money that’s currently been frozen —
Q: But you’ve used the figure, $150 billion.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, no — well, the initial estimates ranged from $100 billion to $150 billion. The analysis once a full overview of the money they had frozen overseas and what was already committed to various payments and what wasn’t brought that analysis down to about $56 billion. So it’s a significantly smaller number than people expected. But that’s their money that’s frozen. They’ll be getting access to that once they have done all the things they need to do to shut off the various pathways to a possible nuclear weapon that are called for in the deal.
But the point I was going to make was that the sanctions have been so effective that even with that $56 billion, even with their economy potentially improving modestly as they see sanctions suspended, it’s going to take, we estimate, till 2022 for their economy to get back to where it was, where it would have been had sanctions not been imposed.
The reason I make this point is, is that their economy is and will continue to be in a significant hole even after sanctions relief occurs. And that’s part of the reason that we have confidence that if we work effectively with Israel and our other allies in the region that we can counteract whatever additional resources they may have militarily.
Sorry to interrupt. Go ahead.
Q: So it’s 10 or 15 years from now. We don’t know what kind of leadership will be in Iran, and you have said repeatedly that this is not about regime change. But we can expect — and here I’m paraphrasing a reader of ours, Sam Kermanian, a Persian Jewish leader in L.A. — and he wrote to us and he said, look, Iran is going to gain international legitimacy, it’s going to have a stronger economy, the arms embargoes are going to be lifted, they’ll have more access to conventional weapons.
You say that the United States retains the right always to use a military option if it looks like Iran is getting a nuclear weapon. But won’t it be much more difficult — won’t Iran be more formidable to attack 10 or 15 years from now when it’s stronger than the way it’s been the last few years, so isolated and so weak?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, keep in mind that under the terms of this agreement, we have great confidence that not only will we have shut off the various pathways to a nuclear weapon, but we will also have installed an unprecedented verification and inspection mechanism that helps us to understand the entire nuclear production chain inside of Iran. IAEA inspectors will be there on a regular basis reporting what will be conducted on a regular basis. And we will, for the first 10 years, have maintained a one-year breakout time so that if they cheat, we’ll have ample time to catch them and call them to account. And that’s a significantly longer breakout time than exists right now, and certainly a longer breakout time than will exist if we — if Congress rejected the deal.
Around year 10, 11, 12, that breakout time starts shrinking again and we’re back to a situation in which they could theoretically try to dash for a bomb. But under the terms of the agreement, they will still be prohibited from having a nuclear weapon, so they would be violating international law if they dash for a bomb 15 years from now. They would still be subject to what’s called the additional protocol — a whole range of inspection mechanisms that are in place so that we would know if they were dashing for a bomb. And they will still be a military power that is far weaker than the United States — and for that matter, will be weaker than Israel.
And so, in 15 years’ time, whoever is occupying my chair here in the White House will have more information about their nuclear program, will have greater international legitimacy in the event that the President needs to initiate a strike against Iran’s nuclear program, will have the justification of them explicitly having violated international agreements that they entered into.
And so the notion that somehow we’re better off confronting that problem right now, rather than having 15 full years in which to monitor, learn about their program and be assured that they don’t have a nuclear weapon doesn’t make much sense. There’s no scenario in which, in the absence of a nuclear weapon, Iran will be able to match the United States, Israel and its various Gulf allies if they tried to break out and get a bomb. Their economy may be better. We hope that by virtue of them interacting with the world’s community on a more regular basis commercially, that that may moderate their behavior, but we’re not counting on it. And the backstop to this agreement throughout is that we, the United States, are not giving up any of our capacity to respond if and when they pose a national security threat to us or they pose a national security threat to our friends and allies in the region, particularly Israel.
Q: So let’s talk about Israel for a moment. Unquestionably, your administration has given unprecedented military and strategic support to Israel. But it’s also apparent that the relationship in many ways between the United States and Israel, between the governments and even, in some cases, between some peoples, has grown toxic. And I’m wondering now, looking forward, what do you think the Israeli government can do to repair this? What can your administration do? And what can American Jews do?
THE PRESIDENT: There are always going to be arguments within families and among friends. And Israel isn’t just an ally, it’s not just a friend — it’s family. The relationships between our peoples, the shared values, the shared commitment to democracy — those things are so deep that they have survived arguments in the past and they will survive this argument.
And so I understand the anxiety that it causes. But I think a testament to how sturdy the relationship is, is that despite this very significant policy disagreement, all the military, security, commercial, cultural cooperation that existed before this debate came up has continued unabated and will continue unabated.
I think that once we have completed the congressional debate and the deal is in the process of being implemented, it will be important for my administration and the Israeli government to move forward on what I’ve been calling for since April, when the political framework agreement in Lausanne was first announced, and that is to sit down and ask the question, what are the major security challenges that we together face in the region, and how can we build on the already robust, unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation that we have to make our security arrangements even stronger?
We had already begun a discussion about how we lock in our long-term security assistance to Israel under a memorandum of understanding, and those discussions need to continue. I already mentioned that as much intelligence cooperation and sharing as we’re already doing, we need to do better if we want to stop Hezbollah from continuing to get missiles that can be trained on Tel Aviv.
And so there’s going to be a lot of just nuts-and-bolts work that has to be done, and that, I think, has to be the primary focus.
I think the most important thing for those of us who believe it is our sacred obligation to stand up for Israel and to ensure its security — and that’s for American Jews but also non-Jews who feel that same affinity — the most important thing we can do I think is to continue to have honest conversations and honest debate about what is most likely to provide that kind of long-term security. And I will say that sometimes fights within families and among friends can be more heated than fights with people that you don’t care about — it’s been true in my family, anyway. And so even over the next several weeks as we get to the conclusion of the congressional debate, I think it is important for everybody to just take a breath for a moment and recognize that people on both sides of the debate love the United States and also love Israel.
I do get disturbed sometimes when I hear folks suggesting that those who oppose the deal are pro-Israel. We’re all pro-Israel. The issue is how do we solve this very particular problem of making sure Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapon.
There are legitimate questions and concerns that have been raised by critics of the deal. I have gone out of my way to say that I am prepared to stand there and answer every single one of them as long as it takes. We have thought this through carefully. But I think all of us have to steer away from incendiary language that suggests that either those who are in favor of the deal are appeasing Iran, or, conversely, that those who are opposed to the deal are not thinking about America’s interest. That kind of language we do have to shy away from.
Q: There are people, even some of your supporters, who feel that you have contributed to some of that incendiary language. Do you feel that?
THE PRESIDENT: Not at all. And I’d be interested in an example of that.
Q: Saying that people who were against the deal were warmongers.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I didn’t — that’s not actually a phrase that I used. What I said in my American University speech, and I continue to maintain, is a very logical argument, a dispassionate argument, which is, if, in fact, we reject this deal, then we have to — and if we all agree that Iran should not have a nuclear weapon — that’s not in dispute — then what are the alternatives? The alternative that has been presented by some is, well, we should just maintain sanctions and keep squeezing Iran and eventually we’ll get a “better deal.” That better deal has typically been defined as Iran not just giving up a nuclear weapons program, but giving up any sort of nuclear program, peaceful or otherwise.
And what I’ve said, which I think has been confirmed by every expert on Iran, but also the international community, is that Iran would never agree to what they would consider a complete capitulation. And we would not have the support of the international community in that position, which means that sanctions would unravel. So that does not end up being a good option. And the critics have not responded very vigorously or effectively to that point.
So if, in fact, that avenue is foreclosed, then what I’ve said is, is that by rejecting the deal, we leave ourselves with very few options. Iran potentially could continue what it was doing before we began these negotiations — shrink their breakout time to a matter of a few months or even a few weeks. We would not know what was taking place inside of Iran. We would be flying blind. And in that situation, then our most realistic option for preventing them from getting a nuclear weapon would be to take military strikes.
Now, that’s not a controversial proposition. Many of the people who have opposed this deal previously have said that’s what we should do. Venues like the Wall Street Journal editorial page have said it. And now they’re saying, what are you talking about, we never said that. Do a Google search.
But the point is that at no point have I ever suggested that those who are critical of the deal are “warmongers.” What I’ve said is that if we reject the deal, the logical conclusion is that if we want to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, military strikes will be the last option remaining at some point. It may not be under my administration; it might be under the next one. And that is something that has to be taken into account in this debate.
So I think it’s very important to distinguish between impugning the motives of people. I don’t think somebody like a Chuck Schumer wants war. That’s not the argument I was making. What I’ve said is that if you reject the deal, we have to be realistic about what options are available, and we shouldn’t be pedaling the notion that there’s going to be some easy answer and we’re going to grab some magic beans and suddenly solve this problem, or that there’s a short-cut where we just kind of continue with business as usual, and the Chinese or the Russians or the Indians or the Japanese are all going to agree to continue maintaining sanctions as they have been, despite the fact that they believe, as I do, that this is a very good deal and they disagree with those who oppose it.
Q: You talked about how you can repair the relationships going forward, and that there certainly had been times when Israeli governments and American governments had vehemently disagreed. But all those times were under Republican administrations, Republican Presidents — Reagan, Bush. Are you worried about the effects this might have on the Democratic coalition and on the historical fealty that Jews in America have had to the Democratic Party?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, American Jews, like African Americans or any other cohort of Americans, has a wide range of concerns. They care about student loans; they care about housing; they care about poverty; they care about women’s health issues. And so it’s not as if the American Jewish community makes decisions solely on the basis of a single issue.
Obviously, Israel’s security is an issue that is deep and emotional, and rightly so. And I don’t worry about it because I’m convinced that this actually will result in greater safety and security for Israel, as well as the United States. And if, when the cameras are watching centrifuges being pulled out, and stockpiles of enriched uranium being destroyed or shipped out of Iran, and facilities that are of most concern being shut down, and inspectors operating effectively — then I think people will have a different assessment of this deal than they would at a time when — most folks find it difficult to follow all the technical aspects of this, and they’re seeing commercials on television that play on the legitimate anxieties that folks have about a regime that’s anti-Semitic and has denied the Holocaust and chants “Death to America.”
It’s always hard for folks to feel good about doing a deal with your enemy. But as people have pointed out, that’s who you do arms control treaties with. That’s who you have agreements with of this sort, are with your adversaries, not with your friends.
So I think that one of the wonderful things about the Jewish community in America is that it is a community that is intellectually vigorous and morally grounded. And after the smoke clears in the debate, I think people ultimately make honest assessments and judgments about what’s been true, and I think that they will find that this deal is exactly as I presented it.
Keep in mind that two years ago, when we set up the Interim Agreement that allowed us to negotiate for a comprehensive deal while ensuring that Iran wasn’t just stalling, some of the same critics said this will never work, Iran will cheat, this is terrible. Two years later, it’s worked exactly as it was supposed to. Even those former critics acknowledged that for the first time in a decade, Iran actually did not make progress on its nuclear program, and in fact, in some cases, reversed it.
And I think the same thing will happen with this deal — people will look back and say as long as we implemented it with care and precision that it was the right thing to do.
The one thing I do want to make sure is that your readers and everybody who cares about the U.S.-Israeli relationship retain the understanding that I think is one of the foundations of this relationship, which is, is that this is not a partisan issue; the bipartisan support of Israel is critical to a strong U.S.-Israeli relationship. And I have been troubled by some of the activities that have taken place up in Congress because I think that it has sometimes involved politics rather than policy.
Q: Are you referring to the Prime Minister’s speech?
MR. PRESIDENT: Well, I’ve said before I don’t think that was the wisest thing to do. If I had gone to the Knesset and actively lobbied members on a position that was contrary to the Prime Minister’s position, I suspect that some eyebrows would have been raised inside of Israel.
But the fact that there were a number of — in fact, maybe the majority of Republicans announced their opposition to the Iran deal before the deal was actually posted and they could read it I think indicates the degree to which sometimes politics gets involved in this. That’s not good for anybody.
And so, look, I probably wouldn’t be sitting in this Oval Office were it not for the incredible support that I received from the Jewish community throughout my political career — from my very first race in the state Senate coming out of Hyde Park in Chicago, to my Senate run, to my presidential run. It’s not just that I’ve received votes from the Jewish community; it’s that I have received ideas, values, support that helped shape me into the person I am. And the friendships that I have are ones that will last me a lifetime — and those include friendships with people who are opposed to this deal.
Q: So does it hurt you personally when people say that you’re anti-Semitic?
THE PRESIDENT: Oh, of course. And there’s not a smidgen of evidence for it, other than the fact that there have been times where I’ve disagreed with a particular Israeli government’s position on a particular issue. And I’ve said before, and I will continue to say, that if you care deeply about Israel, then you have an obligation to be honest about what you think, the same way you would with any friend. And we don’t do anybody, any friend, a service by just rubber-stamping whatever decisions they make, even if we think that they’re damaging in some fashion.
And the good news is that the people I’m close to, the people who know me, including people who disagree with me on this issue, would never even think about making those statements. I get probably more offended when I hear members of my administration who themselves are Jewish being attacked. You saw this historically sometimes in the African American community, where there’s a difference on policy and somebody starts talking about, well, you’re not black enough, or you’re selling out. And that, I think, is always a dangerous place to go.
These are hard issues, and worthy of serious debate. But you don’t win the debate by suggesting that the other person has bad motives. That’s I think not just consistent with fair play; I think it’s consistent with the best of the Jewish tradition.
Q: Thank you. One last question. One of my daughters wants to know, what’s your favorite bagel flavor?
THE PRESIDENT: I was always a big poppy seed guy.
Q: Poppy seed.
THE PRESIDENT: So the poppy seed bagels at H&H Bagels — which somebody told me they closed —
BEN RHODES: They closed.
Q: It’s closed, yes.
THE PRESIDENT: Which is shocking.
MR. RHODES: My school was a block from H&H bagels.
THE PRESIDENT: I mean, I would walk down from —
MR. RHODES: Columbia.
THE PRESIDENT: — Columbia just to get H&H bagels on Saturdays or on the weekends.
Q: And what do you like on a poppy seed?
THE PRESIDENT: Just a schmear.
Q: Just a schmear.
THE PRESIDENT: Lox and capers okay, but generally just your basic schmear.
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, became editor-in-chief of the Forward in 2008, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward readership has grown significantly and it has won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.