Obama: Iran can have peaceful nuclear program, but no enrichment

At Saban Forum in Washington, US president says Tehran doesn’t need advanced centrifuges or underground facilities

December 07, 2013

Iran does not have the right to enrich uranium but it could have a peaceful nuclear program under strict supervision, US President Barack Obama said Saturday.

“Iran doesn’t need [its underground facility at] Fordo or [it's heavy water facility at] Arak, or enrichment, for a peaceful nuclear program, the president said. “The question is are they prepared to roll back some advancements.”

Speaking amid grave Israeli misgivings over the interim deal reached by the P5+1 powers and Iran last month, which limits but does not halt Iran’s enrichment capacity and curbs aspects of its nuclear program in returned for some easing of sanctions, Obama stated: “There’s nothing in this agreement or document that grants Iran the right to enrich. We’ve been very clear, that given its past behavior and given the UN resolutions and previous violations by Iran of its international obligations, that we don’t recognize such a right.”

He added: “What we have said is we can envision a comprehensive agreement that involves extraordinary constraints and verification mechanisms and inspections that permit Iran to have a peaceful nuclear program.”

Iran has claimed that the Geneva deal constituted international legitimization of its “right” to enrich uranium, and has said it will not give up this right under a permanent accord which is supposed to be negotiated six months after the Geneva deal comes into effect.

Speaking at the Brookings Institute’s annual Saban Forum in Washington to Haim Saban, the Israeli-American mogul who funds the forum, Obama said ”it is in the US national security interest, not just Israel’s national security interest, to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon” but ”the best way [to do that]… is a diplomatic solution.”

“What I try to describe is not a choice between this deal and the ideal, but [between] this deal and other alternatives,” said the president, referring to the nuclear deal signed in Geneva.

Under the arrangements envisaged to thwart Iran’s rogue nuclear program, “it’s not as if there’s going to be a lot of capacity to hide” aspects of the program, Obama stressed. He envisaged an arrangement with stringent international inspection and supervision, he said. In such a scenario, Iran could maintain a peaceful nuclear energy program.

“If we can’t get there, then no deal is better than a bad deal,” he said.

Addressing recent tensions between his administration and the Netanyahu government over the interim deal reached in Geneva last month, which has been harshly criticized by the prime minister and other Israeli officials, Obama said: ”Prime Minister Netanyahu and I had constant consultations on [Iran]. The cooperation with Israel has never been stronger. Our support for Israel has never been stronger.”

“There are times where I, as president of the United States, am going to have a different tactical perspective and that is understandable,” he added.

“Israel cannot contract out its security. We respect that,” Obama said.

“But ultimately, it is my view from a tactical perspective, to test out this deal,” he added.

“When I hear people criticize the Geneva deal and they say it’s all or nothing, if it’s nothing… they would be that much closer to breakout capacity six months from now,” Obama said in response to a question from Amos Yadlin, the former IDF military intelligence chief.

The president also discussed Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, saying a two-state deal between Israel and the Palestinians was doable, but “is going to require some very tough decisions.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry is set to speak later Saturday at the high-end forum focused on Israel’s relationship with the United States, with Netanyahu expected to make his address on Sunday afternoon via webcast.

The prime minister will be interviewed by PBS News host Charlie Rose.

The annual forum, now in its 10th year, is organized by The Saban Center for Middle East Policy and aims to foster dialogue between American and Israeli political figures on the most pressing issues in the Middle East.

This year’s forum comes as ties between the US and Israel have become increasingly strained following the interim nuclear deal signed in Geneva last month between Iran and six world powers including the US, which Netanyahu staunchly and outspokenly opposed.

US officials responded that they were “very frustrated” by the backlash.

On Friday night at the Saban Forum, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said there was zero trust between Israel and the Palestinians, voicing scant hope for a peace agreement by the end of the nine month period allotted for the American-brokered peace talks.

Liberman said negotiations with the Palestinians must start “not from security and not from refugees, but from some simple thing I call trust, confidence, credibility.”

While he expressed gratitude for Kerry’s efforts to bring the two sides together, “to keep this process alive,” and reach a negotiated resolution to the decades-long conflict, Liberman expressed doubt that there’d be an agreement in the coming year.

“To speak frankly,” said Liberman, “I don’t believe it is possible in the next year to achieve [a] comprehensive solution, to achieve some breakthrough, but I think it’s crucial to keep our dialogue, because we live in the same region, we’re neighbors. It’s important at least to think about coexistence.”

Liberman, head of the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, said he continued to support a two-state solution, and reiterated his backing for a land and population swap with the Palestinians — a plan which would involve the forced transfer of some Israeli Arabs to Palestinian Authority control.

Turning to the Iranian issue, Liberman reiterated his opposition to Netanyahu’s public airing of dirty laundry with the United States over the interim deal reached with Iran in Geneva last month. “It’s unnecessary to discuss public disagreements publicly,” he said. “I think to cool down the atmosphere is also very crucial today.”

Liberman also warned against a developing Middle Eastern nuclear arms race involving the Saudis, Iran, Egypt and Turkey. He said Iran’s government, headed by President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, didn’t hold the real power, but the supreme leader Ali Khamenei and Revolutionary Guard did.

He said Iran posed a greater threat to the Gulf countries than it did to Israel. ”The biggest threat from Iranians is not even to Israel, it is first of all to the [Saudi] allies, to the Gulf countries,” he said.

Liberman compared the nuclear deal reached by the US and world powers with Iran and the chemical weapons agreement reached by the US and Russia with Syria. In the Syrian case, the deal was to destroy the chemical weapons and the means of producing them, he said, but in the Iranian case “the centrifuges that were spinning before the agreement continue to spin today” and Iran keeps all enriched uranium.

“It’s really a crucial and big difference between the two deals,” he said, noting that Iran’s end of the bargain was “unacceptable to me and the Israelis” and that Israel “know[s] what the Iranian intentions” are and sees their involvement in terrorist activity in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Numerous other Israeli politicians are participating in the event — including Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Energy and Water Resources Minister Silvan Shalom, and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz.