Obama to Iran and Israel: 'As President of the United States, I Don't Bluff'

Dismissing a strategy of "containment," the president tells me it's "unacceptable" for the Islamic Republic to have a nuclear weapon.

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At the White House on Monday, President Obama will seek to persuade the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to postpone whatever plans he may have to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities in the coming months. Obama will argue that under his leadership, the United States "has Israel's back," and that he will order the U.S. military to destroy Iran's nuclear program if economic sanctions fail to compel Tehran to shelve its nuclear ambitions.

In the most extensive interview he has given about the looming Iran crisis, Obama told me earlier this week that both Iran and Israel should take seriously the possibility of American action against Iran's nuclear facilities. "I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don't bluff." He went on, "I also don't, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say."

"When I say this is in the U.S. interest, I'm not saying this is something we'd like to solve. I'm saying this is something we have to solve."

The 45-minute Oval Office conversation took place less than a week before the president was scheduled to address the annual convention of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group, and then meet, the next day, with Prime Minister Netanyahu at the White House. In the interview, Obama stated specifically that "all options are on the table," and that the final option is the "military component." But the president also said that sanctions organized by his administration have put Iran in a "world of hurt," and that economic duress might soon force the regime in Tehran to rethink its efforts to pursue a nuclear-weapons program.

"Without in any way being under an illusion about Iranian intentions, without in any way being naive about the nature of that regime, they are self-interested," Obama said. "It is possible for them to make a strategic calculation that, at minimum, pushes much further to the right whatever potential breakout capacity they may have, and that may turn out to to be the best decision for Israel's security."  

The president also said that Tehran's nuclear program would represent a "profound" national-security threat to the United States even if Israel were not a target of Iran's violent rhetoric, and he dismissed the argument that the United States could successfully contain a nuclear Iran.

"You're talking about the most volatile region in the world," he said. "It will not be tolerable to a number of states in that region for Iran to have a nuclear weapon and them not to have a nuclear weapon. Iran is known to sponsor terrorist organizations, so the threat of proliferation becomes that much more severe." He went on to say, "The dangers of an Iran getting nuclear weapons that then leads to a free-for-all in the Middle East is something that I think would be very dangerous for the world."

The president was most animated when talking about the chaotic arms race he fears would break out if Iran acquired a nuclear weapon, and he seemed most frustrated when talking about what he sees as a deliberate campaign by Republicans to convince American Jews that he is anti-Israel. "Every single commitment I have made to the state of Israel and its security, I have kept," he told me. "Why is it that despite me never failing to support Israel on every single problem that they've had over the last three years, that there are still questions about that?"

Though he struck a consistently pro-Israel posture during the interview, Obama went to great lengths to caution Israel that a premature strike might inadvertently help Iran: "At a time when there is not a lot of sympathy for Iran and its only real ally, [Syria,] is on the ropes, do we want a distraction in which suddenly Iran can portray itself as a victim?"

He also said he would try to convince Netanyahu that the only way to bring about a permanent end to a country's nuclear program is to convince the country in question that nuclear weapons are not in its best interest. "Our argument is going to be that it is important for us to see if we can solve this thing permanently, as opposed to temporarily," he said, "and the only way historically that a country has ultimately decided not to get nuclear weapons without constant military intervention has been when they themselves take [nuclear weapons] off the table. That's what happened in Libya, that's what happened in South Africa."

And though broadly sympathetic to Netanyahu's often-stated fear that Iran's nuclear program represents a Holocaust-scale threat to the Jewish state, and the Jewish people, Obama suggested strongly that historical fears cannot be the sole basis for precipitous action: "The prime minister is head of a modern state that is mindful of the profound costs of any military action, and in our consultations with the Israeli government, I think they take those costs, and potential unintended consequences, very seriously."

But when I asked the president if he thought Israel could damage its reputation among Americans with an attack on Iran -- an attack that could provoke Iranian retaliation against American targets, and could cause massive economic disruption -- he said, "I think we in the United States instinctively sympathize with Israel." President Obama also shared fascinating insights about his sometimes tension-filled relationship with Netanyahu -- and spoke at length about Syria -- but for that, you'll have to read the entire interview. Here is a transcript of our conversation:

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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