President Obama forcefully reiterated Sunday morning that the U.S. will walk away from any deal with Iran over its nuclear program unless the deal contains a strict inspections capability and dramatically restricts Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon.
The ongoing negotiations – controversial largely because of opposition to a potential deal voiced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – are reaching a critical phase. The deadline to move past the current interim agreement is at the end of this month. The U.S. has been part of a team of world powers negotiating with Iran that includes Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.
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So far, the sticking points are the degree of nuclear capacity Iran would be allowed to retain and the extent of inspections, among other things.
“Over the next month or so, we’re going to be able to determine whether or not their system is able to accept what would be an extraordinarily reasonable deal if, in fact, as they say, they are only interested in peaceful nuclear programs,” Obama told CBS News reporter Bill Plante. “If we have unprecedented transparency in that system, if we are able to verify that they are not in fact developing weapons systems, then there is a deal to be had. But that is going to require them to accept the kind of verification and constraints on their program that so far, at least, they have not been willing to say yes to.”
Obama has been severely criticized for his willingness to negotiate with Iran in the first place, but he insisted that, at the very least, negotiations have done no harm. At best, they have demonstrated that the Iranian regime, largely mistrusted in the West, might be willing to keep its word on a nuclear deal.
“The good news is that during this period, Iran has abided by the terms of the agreement,” Obama said. “We know on the ground in Iraq they have not advanced their nuclear program. We have been able to roll back their 20 percent enriched uranium during this time. It’s given us unprecedented access to what they are doing. So we’re not losing anything through these talks.”
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However, he said, “If there is no deal, then we walk away. If we cannot verify that they are not going to obtain a nuclear weapon, that there is a breakout period so that even if they cheated we would be able to have enough time to take action – if we don’t have that kind of deal, then we’re not going to take it.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu, on CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday morning, challenged the notion that Iran could be trusted, and that an inspections regimen could prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
“We share the same goal of preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” Netanyahu said of President Obama. “But we disagree on how to do it. I do not trust inspections with totalitarian regimes. It didn’t work with North Korea … it didn’t work with Iran.”
He said that in the past, Iran built two underground nuclear facilities “under the nose” of weapons inspectors, which Western intelligence agencies only found out about years later.
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Some observers noted that Netanyahu, while decrying any deal that left Iran with its “vast” nuclear infrastructure intact, did not explicitly call for its destruction during his speech to Congress last week.
CBS’s Bob Schieffer pressed him on that point, asking if Israel no longer requires a deal in which Iran has “zero capacity” to enrich uranium.
“That would have been our preference from the beginning,” said Netanyahu. “But I said at the very least you have to make sure they don’t have the capability to break out to a bomb in a year or less.”
He said, “The kind of agreement that I was talking about, that is increase the breakout time, limit their facilities, and not lift the restrictions on their nuclear program, would be a much better deal and would be something Israel and many of our Arab neighbors could live with. Literally, live with.”
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But if Netanyahu has moderated his position even slightly, Congress has not. Members of both parties were dubious about a deal.
“Iran is our enemy,” South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, a possible contender for the presidential nomination, said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “I fear them more than I fear ISIL.”
Moderator Chuck Todd was plainly surprised by Graham’s comparison of Iran to the brutally violent terrorist group also known as ISIS, which has taken over parts of Iraq and Syria. But Graham stuck to his point, saying that between ISIS and a nuclear-armed Iran, the latter would be the greater threat. “It’s not even close,” said Graham.
Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson said Sunday that the regime in Tehran was no more trustworthy than “a rattlesnake.”
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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the remains dubious about the deal as it’s been described so far. “It looks like it will leave the infrastructure in place with one of the worst regimes in the world,” he said.
McConnell said he would keep pushing for legislation to give Congress authority to approve or disapprove an Iran deal. He also believes he might be able to persuade enough Senate Democrats to create a veto-proof majority. “The fact that the president doesn’t seem to want Congress to participate in this underscores what a bad deal it is because I think he’s afraid we might not approve it,” he said, adding, “He cannot work around Congress forever.”
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