Obama: Disagreement Won't Destroy Ties

President Obama says the disagreement with Israel about Iran won't be permanently destructive" to relations between the countries.

Elad Benari ,

President Obama speaks during an exclusive interview with Reuters
President Obama speaks during an exclusive interview with Reuters

President Barack Obama said on Monday that the odds are still against reaching a final agreement with Iran over its nuclear program.

The comments came in a special interview with the Reuters news agency, in which Obama also downplayed the rift over Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's planned speech to Congress opposing the Iran deal on Tuesday.

Obama admitted there is a "substantial disagreement" between his administration and the Israeli government over how to achieve their shared goal of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, but also said the disagreement would not be "permanently destructive" to U.S.-Israeli ties.

“If, in fact, Iran is willing to agree to double-digit years of keeping their program where it is right now and, in fact, rolling back elements of it that currently exist ... if we’ve got that, and we’ve got a way of verifying that, there’s no other steps we can take that would give us such assurance that they don’t have a nuclear weapon," he told Reuters.

The U.S. goal is to make sure "there’s at least a year between us seeing them try to get a nuclear weapon and them actually being able to obtain one," Obama said.

He then sought to downplay the long-term damage from the row over Netanyahu's speech to Congress, saying the rift was not personal and stressing that he would meet Netanyahu again if he wins Israel's March 17 election.

"This is not a personal issue. I think that it is important for every country in its relationship with the United States to recognize that the U.S. has a process of making policy," Obama said.

Obama, as Secretary of State John Kerry said last week, added that Netanyahu had been wrong before with his opposition to a 2013 interim deal with Iran.

"Netanyahu made all sorts of claims. This was going to be a terrible deal. This was going to result in Iran getting 50 billion dollars worth of relief. Iran would not abide by the agreement. None of that has come true,” the President told Reuters.

"It has turned out that in fact, during this period we’ve seen Iran not advance its program. In many ways, it’s rolled back elements of its program," he continued.

Asked about the prospects for a final deal with Iran, which has a June 30 deadline, Obama said that a key doubt was whether Iran would agree to rigorous inspection demands and the low levels of uranium enrichment capability they would have to maintain.

"But if they do agree to it, it would be far more effective in controlling their nuclear program than any military action we could take, any military action Israel could take and far more effective than sanctions will be," he said.

The comments in Obama’s interview followed ones by other officials in Washington who took a more conciliatory tone when discussing Netanyahu’s speech.

Kerry, who has made several jabs at Netanyahu and Israel in the past week, toned down his rhetoric on Sunday and said that  "the Prime Minister of Israel is welcome to speak in the United States."

On Monday, the Secretary of State defended Israel against the UN Human Rights Council’s bias toward the Jewish state.

Later Monday, the White House denied rumors that American aid to Israel will be curbed in response to a disagreement over Netanyahu's opposition to a deal with Iran.

"The report is false," said National Security spokesperson Bernadette Meehan.