Obama On Iran Deal: 'Attitudes Will Change' : It's All Politics In an interview with NPR, President Obama said once people see the nuclear deal in action, they will "recognize that whatever parade of horribles was presented in opposition have not come true."

Obama On Iran Deal: 'Attitudes Will Change'

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

President Obama says his deal with Iran will look better in years to come. The agreement over Iran's nuclear program faces fierce criticism now with a contentious vote in Congress coming in September. And as he prepared to leave town on vacation, the president defended the deal in an interview with our colleague, Steve Inskeep, at the White House.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: The president shook hands and settled in for his final interview before boarding a flight to Martha's Vineyard.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

BARACK OBAMA: You're standing in the way of my vacation, so I don't mind.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm happy to do that.

We were sitting in the White House room where the president usually meets his cabinet. Afternoon light fell through a bank of windows.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

OBAMA: Tell me when you guys are ready.

INSKEEP: We spoke beneath portraits of Truman and Washington and Theodore Roosevelt. The president's tone was restrained but not his words. He's expressing no patience for opponents of the Iran nuclear deal.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

OBAMA: This is the challenge that I've had over the last several weeks, Steve, as I've listened to the critics.

INSKEEP: He says their arguments are, quote, "illogical."

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

OBAMA: Or based on the wrong facts. And then you ask them, all right, what's your alternative? And there's a deafening silence.

INSKEEP: The president said his critics need to, quote, "pull out of the immediate politics" and consider, quote, "the right thing to do for the country." Republicans have led the opposition, though critics are not purely partisan. Shortly after our interview, two leading Democrats announced their opposition. Sen. Chuck Schumer and Congressman Eliot Engel are prominent supporters of Israel. Israeli leaders say the deal doesn't do enough to restrain Iran. In answer to such opponents, the president offers a stark choice. He's been saying if Congress kills the deal, it will risk war. In our conversation, we challenged the president to talk about something else. We asked what the world would look like if the deal is approved.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

INSKEEP: 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 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.

INSKEEP: With that issue resolved, the president said, the U.S. can try to stop Iran from shipping weapons to Hezbollah. That militant group threatens Israel and supports the government of Syria's Bashar al-Assad. The president says the U.S. can also collaborate in new ways with Iran's neighbors to develop missile defense systems. That would reduce any future threat of an Iranian missile strike.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

OBAMA: But here's the point I don't want to get away from, though, Steve - is 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.

OBAMA: Yeah, but...

INSKEEP: That's their argument...

OBAMA: 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 is 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.

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, 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.

INSKEEP: Greater cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Iran - you can hear how cautiously the president mentions that even as a distant possibility. The two countries are bitter rivals now, often seen as leaders in a greater divide between the two main branches of Islam. The president's long-term hope is that many states in the region may recognize, quote, "their enemy is chaos," and that they can work together against threats like the self-described Islamic State.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

OBAMA: And that's something that I think that we should be willing to help promote, if, in fact, they can get there.

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

INSKEEP: The United States wants Iran's neighbors to collaborate more fully for their own defense. Here's a second way the nuclear deal could be destabilizing, according to critics. Ten to 15 years from now, some key limitations on Iran's nuclear program expire. We will hear the president's response to that vital issue tonight on All Things Considered. The president argues the deal is still much better than having no limitations.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

OBAMA: The notion that somehow we are going to be safer by rejecting a deal that prevents Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and instead 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, (laughter) I think is kind of a - well, it doesn't make any sense.

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...

OBAMA: Right.

INSKEEP: ...Meaning that you can get your way...

OBAMA: Right.

INSKEEP: ...Ultimately even if a majority of Congress votes...

OBAMA: Right.

INSKEEP: ...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 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.

INSKEEP: That's what President Obama predicted in our talk at the White House.

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