President Barack Obama said engaging with Iran on a nuclear accord doesn’t mean the U.S. will forfeit its military superiority or fail to protect Israel.
“We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk,” Obama said in an interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman published Sunday.
“Iran’s defense budget is $30 billion,” Obama said. “Our defense budget is closer to $600 billion. Iran understands that they cannot fight us.”
When asked to define an “Obama doctrine” guiding his foreign policy, the president said, “The doctrine is: We will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities.”
That doctrine has guided the administration’s policy with Cuba as well as Iran, Obama said, adding that the equation changes when a country gets a nuclear weapon. “Witness North Korea,” he said.
Friedman wrote that Obama offered him the interview, which took place on Saturday, to explain the rationale behind the framework of the deal with Iran announced last week by the U.S. and five other countries. The deal would curb Iran’s ability to enrich uranium and subject the country to years of international inspections in exchange for an easing of economic sanctions.
Obama said he understood the objections of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who attacked the agreement as a threat to Israel’s survival during appearances on three U.S. television networks on Sunday.
“It’s been a hard period,” Obama said of the criticism. “It has been personally difficult for me to hear” accusations that “this administration has not done everything it could to look out for Israel’s interest,” he said.
His message to the Israeli people, Obama said in the interview, is that the deal represents “the best bet by far to make sure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon” and that the U.S. will make clear to Iran and the region that “if anybody messes with Israel, America will be there.”
Obama, who has invited Sunni Arab countries including Saudi Arabia to a summit at Camp David to reassure them of U.S. support, said those nations may face internal threats, such as an alienated youth and destructive ideologies, that are greater than any danger posed to them by Iran.
“The biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading,” he said. “It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries. That’s a tough conversation to have, but it’s one that we have to have.”
Obama in the interview criticized actions such as the letter sent by 47 Republican senators to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, cautioning him on reaching any deal with Obama without congressional approval.
Calling the letter “inappropriate,” Obama said foreign leaders need to know the White House speaks for the entire nation.
“Without that, what you start getting is multiple foreign policies, confusion among foreign powers as to who speaks for who,” he said.
Obama said he would insist on maintaining the authority to complete agreements with foreign powers like Iran without approval by Congress, while suggesting support for a non-binding vote or other input from lawmakers.
“My hope is that we can find something that allows Congress to express itself but does not encroach on traditional presidential prerogatives,” Obama said.