NPR logo Full Video And Transcript: NPR's Interview With President Obama

Full Video And Transcript: NPR's Interview With President Obama

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Editor's Note: NPR's interview with President Obama will air on Morning Edition Tuesday and Wednesday.

NPR's STEVE INSKEEP: In a speech the other day, you spoke quite a lot about the consequences of Congress rejecting this deal.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Right.

INSKEEP: But let's talk about the other side of that, what the world looks like if the deal is approved.

Secretary of State Kerry said to us the other day that this nuclear deal will leave the United States "absolutely" — his word — absolutely freer to push back against Iran and its ambitions in the region.

If you get the deal, what do you intend to do with that freedom?

OBAMA: Well, let's first focus on the fact that a central objective of not just my foreign policy but of U.S. foreign policy with Democratic or Republican administrations has been preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. That would be a game-changer.

And this deal achieves that. It cuts off all the pathways for Iran getting a nuclear weapon. In exchange, Iran gets relief from the sanctions that we organized, systematically, with the international community over the last several years that's crippled their economy and forced them back to the table.

With that issue resolved, although we will have to be vigilant through the inspection process and the verification process, although we will have a backstop in being able to exercise all options, including military, if Iran violated or cheated on the agreement, then an additional priority that we have is making sure that Iran ends some of the destabilizing activities that it's engaged in for a very long time, providing arms to Hezbollah to threaten Israel and our other allies in the region, making sure that through proxies, Iran is not engaging in destabilizing activities toward Gulf countries.

And to both Israel and our Gulf partners and allies in the region, what we've said to them is that we can handle those issues if we are more consistent, better organized in the things that are required to deal with those non-nuclear threats, those more conventional or low-grade threats.

For example, dealing with cyberattacks, there are ways we can deal with those issues more effectively than we have. Dealing with a ballistic missile. Making sure that missile defense systems are integrated and working properly. Making sure that there are special forces and other ground operations that can be carried out to support stabilizing efforts in places like Yemen.

So there are a whole host of areas where we can work together, and we are in fact in the process of consulting with those countries as we speak.

INSKEEP: Should we expect the United States to push more forcefully against Iran and its support for groups like Hezbollah, for example?

OBAMA: Well, I think we've had a very consistent policy in opposition to it. I think that the challenges have typically had to do not with will, but have had to do with effectiveness. For example, to interdict arms shipments to Hezbollah by Iran, the problem is not that we don't have the authority to do it. The problem is not that we and Israelis want to stop that from happening, or Gulf allies want to stop that from happening. The problem is, is that sometimes it's challenging to do.

We have to have better intelligence. We have to have better interdiction capabilities. And so, you know, the issue here is not how much we spend or how hard we try; the issue is are we doing it the right way? Are we being smart about it?

I've said, for example, that the Gulf countries, their combined defense spending is eight times Iran's. So the issue is not even if Iran is putting in additional dollars as a consequence of sanctions relief and an improved economy, Iran will continue to be outspent.

The question is are those resources deployed effectively and appropriately?

But here's the point I don't want to get away from, though, Steve. It's that under any scenario our problems are greatly magnified if in fact Iran also has a nuclear weapon. And, you know, this is a situation of first things first, this deal accomplishes that, and it's as a consequence, worthy of support.

INSKEEP: This is what I'm driving at, though. As you know very well, Mr. President, your critics have argued that this deal, even whatever it does to the nuclear program, leaves Iran free to act in the region in ways the United States may well oppose. That's their argument.

OBAMA: Yeah, but — but — but — but Steve, that is not accurate because the notion that somehow Iran is untethered ignores the fact that, for example, we'll still have our sanctions in place with respect to non-nuclear activities like sponsorship of terrorism or violation of human rights. There will still be U.N. prohibitions on arming groups like Hezbollah.

And so there's no evidence. There's no logic to the notion that somehow we will let up on trying to prevent activities that Iran may engage in that would be contrary to our national security interests.

INSKEEP: So show me the alternative vision from what the critics have laid out, then. Do you foresee a world in which 10 or 15 years from now, when the provisions of this agreement begin to expire, some of them, that there is an opportunity by then to completely or substantially reshape the region or the security situation in the region?

OBAMA: What I've said is, is that this deal does not count on our fundamental relationship with Iran changing. It's not based on trust. It's not based on a warming of relations. It's based on hard, cold logic and our ability to verify that Iran's not pursuing a nuclear weapon.

Having said that, it is possible that as a consequence of this engagement, that as a consequence of Iran being able to recognize that what's happening in Syria for example is leading to extremism that threatens their own state and not just the United States; that some convergence of interests begins to lead to conversations between, for example, Saudi Arabia and Iran; that Iran starts making different decisions that are less offensive to its neighbors; that it tones down the rhetoric in terms of its virulent opposition to Israel. And, you know, that's something that we should welcome.

There is the possibility that if you look at what's going on in the Middle East right now, more and more states begin to recognize that their enemy is chaos and ISIL and disaffected young people, Shia and Sunni, who are attracted to, you know, ideologies that are in opposition to every regime there. And — and that's something that I think that we should be willing to help promote if in fact they can get there.

But again, that's not something that is guaranteed or even necessary for us to want to get this deal done so that Iran's not getting a nuclear weapon.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about two ways that, according to critics, this agreement might make the region less stable.

OBAMA: Mm-hmm.

INSKEEP: As you know very well, Iran's neighbors, many of them U.S. allies, have been skeptical of this deal, and the U.S., to reassure them, has among other things promised them more weapons.

Won't more weapons in the hands of countries that may be allies, but also have their own agendas, create the possibility of more instability over time?

OBAMA: Well first — first of all, the — our defense support of these countries is not automatically premised on more weapons. It's premised on them being more effective with their defense budgets.

So, just to give you an example, the Gulf countries, if they were coordinating their missile defense systems, would be more effective than each of them, in a siloed fashion, operating their own missile defense systems. They don't have to spend more money to get that done; they just have to do a better job integrating what they're doing.

So, the notion that somehow we are going to be safer by rejecting a deal that prevents Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and instead leave — leaves Iran the option of installing more and more advanced centrifuges, shrinking their breakout time, that that somehow is going to make our neighbors more secure, I think is kind of a — well, it doesn't make any sense.

I think what is much more likely is if we reject this deal and Iran's pursuing breakout times that are shrinking because they're installing more and more advanced centrifuges and stockpiling more and more highly enriched uranium is that some of those neighbors who feel threatened by Iran start thinking maybe they should be pursuing their own nuclear program. And that's exactly the kinds of scenarios that we need to prevent.

In those scenarios, we will then be confronted, either me or the next president, or the president after that, would be confronted with a pretty stark decision.

If we don't want to see a nuclear arms race, if we're seeing Iran getting closer and closer to breakout capacity, and we have before the entire world rejected what every serious nuclear expert who looks at this says is a serious deal to constrain their nuclear program, then in fact that leaves one option, and that is some form of military strike.

That may be the preference of some who are on the other side of this debate. But I think the one thing that we should have learned from over a decade now of war in the Middle East is, is that, you know, even limited military actions end up carrying with them great costs and unintended consequences.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned breakout times, Mr. President. And we should define that for people. That's the length of time Iran would need to go for a bomb ...

OBAMA: Right.

INSKEEP: ... if they decided to go for a bomb.

OBAMA: Right.

INSKEEP: The agreement makes that time longer ...

OBAMA: Yes.

INSKEEP: ... for a period.

Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel has argued that as the agreement begins to expire, 13, 14, 15 years from now, the breakout time goes back down to near zero.

OBAMA: Yeah.

INSKEEP: And in saying that, he quotes you in an interview with us, in which you made a statement that was later clarified.

OBAMA: Yeah.

INSKEEP: I just want to be absolutely clear on this: 15 years from now, as some provisions expire, what is Iran's breakout time going to be?

OBAMA: Well, it shrinks back down to roughly where it is now.

INSKEEP: Which is close to zero?

OBAMA: Well, which is a matter of months. Because keep in mind that theoretical breakout times don't match up with practical breakout times.

You know, you don't just get one nuclear weapon. You have to, you know, test, weaponize, miniaturize, mount on top of missiles, you know, it's a complicated piece of business.

And the point is, is that we will know when they are doing it in such a way that we can respond. But this argument that's been made also doesn't make sense. If in fact the breakout times now are a few months, and we're able to push that breakout time out to a year so that we have more time and space to see whether or not Iran is cheating on an agreement, kicking out inspectors, going for a nuclear weapon; if the breakout time is extended for 15 years and then it goes back to where it is right now, why is that a bad deal?

Why are we better off with a breakout time entirely shrunk in six months or nine months, where we have no inspectors on the ground, we have less insight into their program, we have shattered international unity, because the perception now is that the United States, having painstakingly arrived at an agreement and mobilized the entire world community behind it, has seen its Congress rejected? In what sense are we better off in that scenario than we would be having set up a situation where 15 years from now, that breakout time is approximately where it is now, but we now have an entire infrastructure that's been built to keep track of exactly what Iran's doing, and we had the entire international community behind us?

This is the challenge that I've had over the last several weeks, Steve, as I've listened to the critics: Some of them, who announced their opposition before they'd even read the bill or read the agreement, and that is that they will put forward arguments that, you know, after a few minutes, can be shown as illogical or based on the wrong facts, and then you ask them, "All right, what's your alternative?" and there's a deafening silence.

And what that tells me is that there may be ideological opposition to doing any business with Iran. There may be skepticism with any diplomatic initiative with a regime that is admittedly antagonistic toward us, anti-Semitic, a sponsor of terrorism. And that's an honest argument.

If you just say, "We don't think you should deal with Iran," then that at least has a logic to it. If you're saying, though, that this is an issue that can't be resolved diplomatically and you share my view that Iran can't get a nuclear weapon, then you really are narrowing your choices at that point.

INSKEEP: When we talk about the congressional debate, we should explain to people that it's being considered under rules where Congress has to affirmatively vote against the deal, meaning that you can get your way ultimately even if a majority of Congress votes against it.

Seems likely a majority of Congress will vote against it.

OBAMA: Right.

INSKEEP: Are you entirely comfortable going forward with a historic deal knowing that most of the people's representatives are against it?

OBAMA: Well, what I know is, is that, unfortunately, a large portion of the Republican Party, if not a near unanimous portion of Republican representatives, are going to be opposed to anything that I do, and I have not oftentimes based that on a judgment on the merits, but have based that on their politics.

That's true in health care, that's true in, you know, budget negotiations. That's been true on a whole host of things.

And I don't think that's a surprise to anybody. What I do know, though, is, is that when this agreement is implemented and we've seen centrifuges coming out of facilities like Fordow and Natanz, and we've got inspectors on the ground and it becomes clear that Iran in fact is abiding by this agreement, then attitudes will change, because people will recognize that, in fact, whatever parade of horribles was presented in opposition have not come true.

That, instead, what we've seen is an effective way to bind Iran to a commitment not to have nuclear weapons and, in that scenario, it'll probably be forgotten that Republicans uniformly opposed it.

Keep in mind that this is not unique to me, either, by the way. You know, when Ronald Reagan began discussions with Gorbachev, his conservative supporters wrote some really rough stuff about him as appeasing the evil empire, and this is a disaster, and we're giving America's power away.

And, to his credit, he had reversed himself from a — a previously much more rigid position that had helped to define his political career.

So — so my main interest right now is solving a problem, which is making sure Iran doesn't get a nuclear weapon, and I am confident that, as we see implementation, we will see, in fact, more and more folks pull out of the immediate politics of it and judge it on the basis of whether it was the right thing to do for the country.

INSKEEP: People will know that you've also solved what you saw as problems with the Republican Congress by taking a variety of executive actions on issues like the environment and immigration.

I'd like to know, as you look long-term at that trend, as someone who's been a constitutional scholar, if you think there is something about the rules of our political system that ought to change over time.

OBAMA: I think that there are real problems with how we are electing our representatives. I think political gerrymandering has resulted in a situation in which — with 80 percent Democratic districts or 80 percent Republican districts and no competition, that that leads to more and more polarization in Congress, and it gets harder and harder to get things done.

I think that the Senate filibuster process and the 60-vote requirement to break a filibuster is making it harder and harder to govern at a time where there is polarization.

I think the influence of superPACs and the ability of a handful of billionaires to dictate who can compete or not compete, for example, in a Republican primary, with the debate coming up — you know, that's a problem.

So I think there are a whole range of systems problems that we have to resolve, but, you know, having said all that, I tend to be still pretty optimistic about the future of the American political process and our democracy.

We go through these phases where things seem just dysfunctional and bottled up and folks get frustrated, and [inaudible] ...

INSKEEP: Do you feel like it'll change, just when you're gone? That that will change things, alone?

OBAMA: Well, these trends, actually, have been developing. They preceded me, you know, I — I always enjoy watching Republicans compliment Bill Clinton now, because at the time, I'm sure he didn't feel a lot of the love.

You know, obviously, George Bush was a polarizing president as well, and — and each successive president over the last several — you — you're seeing more and more of — of — of this kind of party divide take place.

But, you know, just because those have been the trends doesn't mean that we can't reverse them, and I do think that, with some modest changes, you know, some of which could be done even at the state level — for example, California moved to a non-, nonpartisan process for determining Congressional districts — that you can encourage a little more thoughtfulness, a little bit more interest in, you know, appealing to the, the basic common sense and goodness and decency of the American people, rather than just an — a narrow sliver of your base.

And — and that is, I think, ultimately, what a lot of folks are looking for.

INSKEEP: I wanna inquire about something else, Mr. President.

Michael Eric Dyson wrote the other day in the New York Times about your presidency, and began his article with this sentence: "We finally have the president we thought we elected: one who talks directly and forcefully about race and human rights."

Now, it could be that you're talking more about these issues simply because of the news of the past year, so, a series of shootings. But I'd like to know if you think there is something else that is prompting you to hold forth more or hold back less on that issue.

OBAMA: You know, I — you know, I — I think I've been pretty consistent, if you look at my statements throughout my presidency. Some of it, I think, is events.

In my first two years, people were very interested in making sure we didn't sink into a great depression, so I had a lot of commentary on the economy, and on the financial system and on the need for Wall Street reform, and — and that occupied a lot of — a lot of sound bites.

We still had two wars that we were in the midst of, and — and so there's a lot of big business that I've had to do.

What is true is that there has been an awakening around the country to some problems in race relations, in police-community relations, that aren't new — they date back for decades — because of smartphones and cameras and, you know, social media, I think people have become more aware of them, both black and white.

And that gives me an opportunity, I think, then, to try to help to constructively shape the debate.

INSKEEP: Were you looking for that opportunity all along?

OBAMA: Yeah, I — I think that one of the things I've learned about being president is that we'll work on issues for long periods of time, sometimes in obscurity.

For example, on the issue of criminal justice reform, I had a conversation with Eric Holder when I came into office.

INSKEEP: Your former attorney general?

OBAMA: My former attorney general, about how could we address the issue of these ridiculous mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses that are filling up our jails, and we did a whole bunch of work without getting a lot of attention, with U.S. attorneys around the country changing incentives so that they didn't feel as if being a good prosecutor meant always slapping the longest sentence on people.

And, in part because of some of those changes in practices, we saw, last year, for the first time in 40 years, a drop in both the number of people incarcerated and the crime rate.

I think what we've seen is the possibility, now, of having a — a broader public conversation, and this is one area where I've been pleasantly surprised to see some bipartisan interest.

I mean, there are some sincere efforts on the part of some Republicans in Congress to deal with the problems of mandatory minimums in sentencing and rehabilitation and — and — and I think that, wherever I see an opportunity these days, with only 18 months to go, I intend to seize it.

INSKEEP: But is this also an issue where the first black president just couldn't attack it very hard in the first term, because other things had to be dealt with first, other ground had to be covered first? For political reasons, if not — nothing else?

OBAMA: Well, yeah, see, that I don't buy. I — I — I think it's fair to say that if, in my first term, Ferguson had flared up, as president of the United States, I would have been commenting on what was happening in Ferguson.

So here's one thing I will say — is that I feel a great urgency to get as much done as possible, and there's no doubt that, after over six and a half years on this job, I probably have an easier time juggling a lot of different issues, and it may be that my passions show a little bit more, just because I've been around this track now for a while.

And I — I think I can keep — and — and frankly, we've done a pretty good job on some big pieces of business, which then allows me also to focus on some issues that we might have been working on quietly but weren't getting as much attention.

But the main — the — you know, the main thing that may have changed is instead of having a year and a half behind me and six and a half years in front of me, I now have six and a half years behind me and a year and a half in front of me, so I gotta — I gotta keep moving.

I — you know, it's like — what'd Satchel Paige say? "Don't look — don't look behind you; you don't know what might be catching up." Yeah, you know, you just wanna keep on — keep on running.

INSKEEP: Mr. President, thanks very much.

OBAMA: Thank you so much. Appreciate it.