Obama: ‘Substantial disagreement’ with Netanyahu won’t permanently damage relations


(JTA) —  President Barack Obama sought Monday to downplay his disagreements with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over U.S. efforts to conclude a nuclear deal with Iran, saying the disagreement is “not a personal issue.” But he acknowledged “substantial disagreement” with Netanyahu, who is due to convey his skepticism about the prospective deal in an address to Congress on Tuesday.

In an interview with Reuters, Obama said a verifiable deal that commits Iran to freezing its nuclear program for at least 10 years is the best way to ensure the country does not acquire a nuclear weapon.

“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,” Obama said.

Obama emphasized that the American objective is to formulate a deal that would ensure Iran needs at least a year to obtain a nuclear weapon should it decide to pursue one. Netanyahu has said he fears the deal would leave Iran on the threshold of a nuclear bomb. The disagreement, however, would not prove “permanently destructive” to U.S.-Israel relations.

The president also noted that Netanyahu had been wrong before, in 2013, in criticizing an interim deal reached 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 worth of relief. Iran would not abide by the agreement,” Obama said. “None of that has come true.

“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.”

Obama said it remained doubtful whether Iran would agree to rigorous inspections and keeping uranium enrichment at low levels.

“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,” Obama said.

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