Obama reassures Israel on Iran nuclear deal

President Obama sought to reassure skeptical Israelis Saturday about the emerging deal regarding Iran’s nuclear program, saying that a final, comprehensive agreement to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon would remove “one more threat” from the host of dangers facing the Jewish state.

“Our commitment to Israel’s security is sacrosanct … but if we can negotiate on the nuclear program,” the president said, it would be a boon for Israel, America, and the world.

“It is in America’s national security interests – not just Israel’s national security interests or the region’s national security interests – to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” he said during a conversation at the Saban Forum with Haim Saban, an Israeli-American billionaire and prominent figure in the American Jewish community.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the deal almost as soon as it was announced at the end of November, dubbing it an “historic mistake,” but President Obama downplayed the daylight between the U.S. and Israel, telling Saban that he and Netanyahu have enjoyed almost “constant” consultation during his tenure in the White House.

Mr. Obama said it was “understandable” that the U.S. and Israel have different “tactical perspectives” on occasion, but he insisted they share the goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

The agreement, which was finalized in Geneva and will endure for six months while international negotiators seek a more comprehensive, long-term settlement, provides Iran modest relief from the sanctions that have dealt a heavy blow to its economy in exchange for a series of steps to prevent the Iranians from weaponizing nuclear technology. The president emphasized, as he has before, that the deal is not based on a misplaced sense of trust, and that it can be reversed if Iran reneges.

“If at the end of six months it turns out we can’t make a deal, we’re no worse off, and in fact we have greater leverage with the international community to continue to apply sanctions or even strengthen them,” he said.

The president also brushed aside a comparison to Pakistan and North Korea, both countries that ultimately secured a nuclear weapon despite past presidents' attempts to prevent such an outcome.

In Pakistan, he said, there were “never the kinds of inspection regimes and international sanctions” that have attended negotiations with Iran. And in North Korea, “By the time we got an agreement … they essentially already had a nuclear weapon.”

“We have been able to craft an international effort and verification mechanism around the Iran nuclear program that is unprecedented and unique,” he said. “That doesn’t mean it’s easy.”

He urged Israelis to measure the deal against the alternative instead of holding out for an ideal resolution. Many in Israel would like to dismantle “every nut and bolt” of Iran’s nuclear program, Mr. Obama said, but “that particular option is not available.”

Mr. Obama also briefly touched on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during his remarks, commending Israeli and Palestinian leaders for undertaking “courageous efforts that have led to very serious conversations” to resolve the longstanding dispute.

There are “not a lot of secrets or surprises at this point,” the president said. “We know what the outlines of a potential agreement might look like.” The question, he explained, is, “Are both sides willing to take the very tough political risks involved if their bottom lines are met?”

“I think it is possible over the next several months to arrive at a framework that does not address every single detail … but gets us to a point where everybody recognizes it’s better to move forward than to move backward,” the president said.