Obama Sees Less Than 50-50 Chance Iran Talks Will Succeed

U.S. President Barack Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about Iran, the U.S. and Israel at the Saban Forum hosted by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., on December 7, 2013. Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

President Barack Obama said he is committed to trying diplomacy to resolve tensions over Iran’s nuclear program even as he puts the odds of success at no better than 50-50.

Defending his recent overtures to the Islamic republic, Obama said yesterday that the preliminary six-month accord reached in Geneva last month curtails Iran’s nuclear activities and buys time for talks on a comprehensive deal that would leave it unable to produce nuclear weapons.

“You know, if you ask me what is the likelihood that we’re able to arrive at the end state that I was just describing earlier, I wouldn’t say that it’s more than 50-50,” Obama said at a forum sponsored by the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington. “But we have to try.”

Both Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, who spoke later at the same forum, sought to persuade the audience -- which included Israeli officials and policy analysts -- that the U.S. stands firmly with Israel and will be tough in dealing with Iran.

Kerry said he remains “unconvinced” that Iran’s leaders will make the “the hard decisions necessary” for a final nuclear accord to be reached.

“These negotiations will not be open-ended,” Kerry said, adding that the U.S. will be vigilant in enforcing economic sanctions.

Nuclear Weapon

Obama said that while the U.S. can’t fully trust the regime’s leadership, he is committed to testing whether negotiations can prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. The diplomacy is “not based on trust, it’s based on what we can verify,” Obama said at the forum on U.S.-Israel relations.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today said any future negotiations with Iran must be accompanied by the credible threat of a military strike if it seeks to develop nuclear weapons.

“A diplomatic solution is better than a military option, but a military option is necessary for diplomacy to succeed, as are powerful sanctions,” Netanyahu said, speaking by video from Jerusalem to the Saban Forum.

Netanyahu also said international powers must insist Iran “change its genocidal policy” toward the Jewish state, linking the nuclear talks to peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Lawmakers Skeptical

“Our best efforts to reach Palestinian-Israeli peace will come to nothing if Iran succeeds in building atomic bombs,” Netanyahu said.

Two U.S. House members said today they are concerned that the six-month accord could set the stage for further weapons development.

“Just yesterday, the president of Iran, Rouhani, said the centrifuges will never stop in Iran,” Representative Michael McCaul, the Texas Republican who heads the House Committee on Homeland Security, said on the CNN program “State of the Union.” “That sends to me a very cold, hard message that they are not intent on a civilian, nuclear peaceful program but rather towards, you know, getting a nuclear weapon.”

Representative Adam Schiff, a California Democrat appearing on the same program, said: “I think what the administration needs to push for in this negotiation is a peaceful program without enrichment, and I wouldn’t begin the process by conceding anything on enrichment.”

U.S.-Israel Tensions

Both Obama and Kerry said the interim deal and the efforts at a comprehensive accord make both the U.S. and Israel, its closest Mideast ally, safer than they would be if Iran were continuing to build its inventories of enriched uranium and pursuing other nuclear activities.

Their comments come as tensions between the U.S. and Israel run high over disagreements about dealing with Iran and U.S. efforts to broker a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Kerry told the forum that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders are seriously engaged with him on seeking a peace accord under his nine-month timetable than runs to May.

The U.S. and five other world powers, in an interim agreement concluded Nov. 24 in Geneva, set the six-month timetable to reach a comprehensive accord with Iran, denying it a nuclear-weapons capability in return for reducing sanctions. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, not weapons.

‘Netanyahu Consultations’

Obama played down a rift with Netanyahu, saying the two have had consistent consultations on Iran since both took office in 2009. He acknowledged, though, that they have different “tactical perspectives.”

While Obama repeatedly emphasized his preference for a diplomatic solution with Iran throughout the hour-long forum session, he also said that if the talks fail, military action remains an option.

Obama also said Netanyahu’s preference to prevent Iran from having any uranium enrichment capacity is unrealistic.

“One can envision an ideal world in which Iran said, ‘We’ll destroy every element and facility and you name it, it’s all done,’” Obama said. “Precisely because we don’t trust the nature of the Iranian regime, I think that we have to be more realistic and ask ourselves: What puts us in a strong position to assure ourselves that Iran’s not having a nuclear weapon and that we are protected.”

‘Sacrosanct’ Pledge

Obama reiterated that the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security is “sacrosanct” and the Iranians “understand that.” He pledged that, even with the accord, the U.S. would work to contest Iran’s other behavior that continues to be “detrimental” to the U.S. and to Israel.

Such efforts, Obama said, allow the U.S. to defeat some of Iran’s agenda in the region “without worrying that somehow it’s going to escalate or trigger a nuclear arms race in the most volatile part of the world.”

Obama spoke during a question-and-answer session led by billionaire entertainment executive Haim Saban, a Democratic donor. He also took questions from the audience that included a number of Israeli journalists.

On the progress of talks to secure a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians, Obama said negotiators should be able arrive at a “framework” by the spring.

“I think this is going to have to happen in stages,” Obama said. “There are people of goodwill on both sides that recognize the status quo is not sustainable over the long term.”

Accord Near

Kerry, while in Israel last week for talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, lauded progress on negotiations. Without providing details, he said the two sides are closer to an accord than they’ve been in years.

Kerry told yesterday’s forum that the U.S. has presented a package of measures that deal with Israeli security concerns under a two-state solution.

“A basic framework will have to address all of the core issues -- borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem, mutual recognition and an end of claims -- and it will have to establish agreed guidelines for subsequent negotiations that will fill out the details in a full-on peace treaty,” he said.

Kerry, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said progress is discernible over the eight trips he’s made for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders since becoming the top U.S. diplomat in February.

Stretch `Comfort Zones'

Referring to his background on the issue, he said, “After so many decades of disappointments, I’m not a starry-eyed Pollyanna-ish idealist who comes at this and thinks he can just wipe it away and make it happen overnight.”

Obama said peace in the Middle East would “require everybody to stretch out of their comfort zones.”

The U.S. president last month attended a $16,200 per plate fundraiser for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee at Saban’s Beverly Hill’s estate. Saban’s company produced the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers television series and other children’s programs.

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