On Tuesday afternoon, as President Obama was bringing an occasionally contentious but often illuminating hour-long conversation about the Middle East to an end, I brought up a persistent worry. “A majority of American Jews want to support the Iran deal,” I said, “but a lot of people are anxiety-ridden about this, as am I.” Like many Jews—and also, by the way, many non-Jews—I believe that it is prudent to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of anti-Semitic regimes. Obama, who earlier in the discussion had explicitly labeled the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, an anti-Semite, responded with an argument I had not heard him make before.

“Look, 20 years from now, I’m still going to be around, God willing. If Iran has a nuclear weapon, it’s my name on this,” he said, referring to the apparently almost-finished nuclear agreement between Iran and a group of world powers led by the United States. “I think it’s fair to say that in addition to our profound national-security interests, I have a personal interest in locking this down.”

The president—the self-confident, self-contained, coolly rational president—appears to have his own anxieties about the nuclear talks. Which isn’t a bad thing.

Jimmy Carter’s name did not come up in our Oval Office conversation, but it didn’t have to. Carter’s tragic encounter with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution, is an object lesson in the mysterious power of Iran to undermine, even unravel, American presidencies. Ronald Reagan, of course, also knew something of the Iranian curse. As Obama moves to conclude this historic agreement, one that will—if he is correct in his assessment—keep Iran south of the nuclear threshold not only for the 10- or 15-year period of the deal, but well beyond it, he and his administration have deployed a raft of national security-related arguments to buttress their cause. But Obama’s parting comment to me suggests he knows perfectly well that his personal legacy, and not just the future of global nuclear non-proliferation efforts (among other things), is riding on the proposition that he is not being played by America’s Iranian adversaries, and that his reputation will be forever tarnished if Iran goes sideways, even after he leaves office. Obama’s critics have argued that he is “kicking the can down the road” by striking this agreement with Iran. Obama, though, seems to understand that the can will be his for a very long time.

When we spoke on Tuesday, he mentioned, as he often has, his feelings of personal responsibility to Israel. In the period leading up to the June 30 Iran-negotiation deadline, Obama has been focused on convincing Arab and Jewish leaders—people he has helped to unite over their shared fear of Iran’s hegemonic ambitions—that the nuclear deal will enhance their security. Last week, he gathered leaders of the Gulf Arab states at Camp David in an attempt to provide such reassurance. On Friday, he will be visiting Washington’s Adas Israel Congregation, a flagship synagogue of Conservative Judaism (also, coincidentally, the synagogue I attend) ostensibly in order to give a speech in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month (whatever that is), but actually to reassure American Jews, particularly in the wake of his titanic battles with Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, that he still, to quote from my 2012 interview with him, “has Israel’s back.” (There are no plans, as best as I can tell, for Obama to meet with Netanyahu in the coming weeks; this appears to be a bridge too far for the White House, at least at the moment.)

A good part of our conversation on Tuesday concerned possible flaws in the assumptions undergirding the nuclear deal, at least as the deal’s provisional parameters and potential consequences are currently understood. (A full transcript of the conversation appears below.)

Obama also spoke about ISIS’s latest surge in Iraq, and we discussed the worries of Arab states, which remain concerned not only about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but about its regional meddling and its patronage of, among other reprehensible players, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Syria’s Assad regime. Tensions between the U.S. and the Gulf states, I came to see, have not entirely dissipated. Obama was adamant on Tuesday that America’s Arab allies must do more to defend their own interests, but he has also spent much of the past month trying to reassure Saudi Arabia, the linchpin state of the Arab Gulf and one of America’s closest Arab allies, that the U.S. will protect it from Iran. One thing he does not want Saudi Arabia to do is to build a nuclear infrastructure to match the infrastructure Iran will be allowed to keep in place as part of its agreement with the great powers. “Their covert—presumably—pursuit of a nuclear program would greatly strain the relationship they’ve got with the United States,” Obama said of the Saudis.

As in previous conversations I’ve had with Obama (you can find transcripts of these discussions here, here, and here), we spent the bulk of our time talking about a country whose future preoccupies him almost as much as it preoccupies me. In the wake of what seemed to have been a near-meltdown in the relationship between the United States and Israel, Obama talked about what he called his love for the Jewish state; his frustrations with it when it fails to live up to both Jewish and universal values; and his hope that, one day soon, its leaders, including and especially its prime minister, will come to understand Israel’s stark choices as he understands Israel’s stark choices. And, just as he did with Saudi Arabia, Obama issued a warning to Israel: If it proves unwilling to live up to its values—in this case, he made specific mention of Netanyahu’s seemingly flawed understanding of the role Israel’s Arab citizens play in its democratic order—the consequences could be profound.

Obama told me that when Netanyahu asserted, late in his recent reelection campaign, that “a Palestinian state would not happen under his watch, or [when] there [was] discussion in which it appeared that Arab-Israeli citizens were somehow portrayed as an invading force that might vote, and that this should be guarded against—this is contrary to the very language of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which explicitly states that all people regardless of race or religion are full participants in the democracy. When something like that happens, that has foreign-policy consequences, and precisely because we’re so close to Israel, for us to simply stand there and say nothing would have meant that this office, the Oval Office, lost credibility when it came to speaking out on these issues.”

Though Obama’s goal in giving speeches like the one he is scheduled to give at Adas Israel is to reassure Jews of his love for Israel, he was adamant that he would not allow the Jewish right, and the Republican Party, to automatically define criticism of the Netanyahu government’s policies as anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. Referring to the most powerful Jewish figure in conservative America, Obama said that an “argument that I very much have been concerned about, and it has gotten stronger over the last 10 years ... it’s less overt than the arguments that a Sheldon Adelson makes, but in some ways can be just as pernicious, is this argument that there should not be disagreements in public” between the U.S. and Israel. (Obama raised Adelson’s name in part because I had mentioned his view of the president—Adelson’s non-subtle criticism is that Obama is going to destroy the Jewish state—earlier in the interview.)

I started the interview by asking Obama if—despite his previous assertion that ISIS was on the defensive—the United States was, in fact, losing the fight against the Islamic State terror group. When we spoke, the Iraqi city of Ramadi, in Anbar Province, had just fallen to ISIS; Palmyra, in Syria, would fall the day after the interview.

“No, I don’t think we’re losing,” he said. He went on to explain, “There’s no doubt there was a tactical setback, although Ramadi had been vulnerable for a very long time, primarily because these are not Iraqi security forces that we have trained or reinforced … [T]he training of Iraqi security forces, the fortifications, the command-and-control systems are not happening fast enough in Anbar, in the Sunni parts of the country.” When I asked about the continuing role Iraq plays in American politics—I was making a reference to Jeb Bush’s recent Iraq-related conniptions—Obama pivoted from the question to make the argument that Republicans still don’t grasp key lessons about the Iraq invasion ordered 12 years ago by Jeb’s brother.

“I know that there are some in Republican quarters who have suggested that I’ve overlearned the mistake of Iraq, and that, in fact, just because the 2003 invasion did not go well doesn’t argue that we shouldn’t go back in,” he said. “And one lesson that I think is important to draw from what happened is that if the Iraqis themselves are not willing or capable to arrive at the political accommodations necessary to govern, if they are not willing to fight for the security of their country, we cannot do that for them.”

I turned the conversation to Iran by quoting to him something he said in that 2012 interview (the same interview in which he publicly ruled out, for the first time, the idea of containing a nuclear Iran, rather than stopping it from crossing the nuclear threshold).

This is what he told me three years ago: “It is almost certain that other players in the region would feel it necessary to get their own nuclear weapons” if Iran got them. I then noted various reports suggesting that, in reaction to a final deal that allows Iran to keep much of its nuclear infrastructure in place, Saudi Arabia, and possibly Turkey and Egypt as well, would consider starting their own nuclear programs. This, of course, would run completely counter to Obama’s nuclear non-proliferation goals.

I asked Obama if the Saudis had promised him not to go down the nuclear path: “What are the consequences if other countries in the region say, ‘Well you know what, they have 5,000 centrifuges? We’re going to have 5,000 centrifuges.’”

Obama responded by downplaying these media reports, and then said, “There has been no indication from the Saudis or any other [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries that they have an intention to pursue their own nuclear program. Part of the reason why they would not pursue their own nuclear program—assuming that we have been successful in preventing Iran from continuing down the path of obtaining a nuclear weapon—is that the protection that we provide as their partner is a far greater deterrent than they could ever hope to achieve by developing their own nuclear stockpile or trying to achieve breakout capacity when it comes to nuclear weapons.”

He went on to say that the Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, appear satisfied that if the agreement works as advertised, it will serve to keep Iran from becoming a nuclear threat. “They understand that ultimately their own security and defense is much better served by working with us,” Obama said.

One of the reasons I worry about the Iran deal is that the Obama administration seems, on occasion, to be overly optimistic about the ways in which Iran will deploy the money it will receive when sanctions are relieved. This is a very common fear among Arabs and, of course, among Israelis. I quoted Jack Lew, the treasury secretary, who said in a recent speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that “most of the money Iran receives from sanctions relief will not be used to support” its terrorist-aiding activities. I argued to Obama that this seemed like wishful thinking.

Obama responded at length (please read his full answer below), but he began this way: “I don’t think Jack or anybody in this administration said that no money will go to the military as a consequence of sanctions relief. The question is, if Iran has $150 billion parked outside the country, does the IRGC automatically get $150 billion? Does that $150 billion then translate by orders of magnitude into their capacity to project power throughout the region? And that is what we contest, because when you look at the math, first of all they’re going to have to deliver on their obligations under any agreement, which would take a certain period of time. Then there are the mechanics of unwinding the existing restraints they have on getting that money, which takes a certain amount of time. Then [Iranian President] Rouhani and, by extension, the supreme leader have made a series of commitments to improve the Iranian economy, and the expectations are outsized. You saw the reaction of people in the streets of Tehran after the signing of the agreement. Their expectations are that [the economy is] going to improve significantly.” Obama also argued that most of Iran’s nefarious activities—in Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon—are comparatively low-cost, and that they’ve been pursuing these policies regardless of sanctions.

I also raised another concern—one that the president didn’t seem to fully share. It’s been my belief that it is difficult to negotiate with parties that are captive to a conspiratorial anti-Semitic worldview not because they hold offensive views, but because they hold ridiculous views. As Walter Russell Mead and others have explained, anti-Semites have difficulty understanding the world as it actually works, and don’t comprehend cause-and-effect in politics and economics. Though I would like to see a solid nuclear deal (it is preferable to the alternatives) I don’t believe that the regime with which Obama is negotiating can be counted on to be entirely rational.

Obama responded to this theory by saying the following: “Well the fact that you are anti-Semitic, or racist, doesn’t preclude you from being interested in survival. It doesn’t preclude you from being rational about the need to keep your economy afloat; it doesn’t preclude you from making strategic decisions about how you stay in power; and so the fact that the supreme leader is anti-Semitic doesn’t mean that this overrides all of his other considerations. You know, if you look at the history of anti-Semitism, Jeff, there were a whole lot of European leaders—and there were deep strains of anti-Semitism in this country—”

I interjected by suggesting that anti-Semitic European leaders made irrational decisions, to which Obama responded, “They may make irrational decisions with respect to discrimination, with respect to trying to use anti-Semitic rhetoric as an organizing tool. At the margins, where the costs are low, they may pursue policies based on hatred as opposed to self-interest. But the costs here are not low, and what we’ve been very clear [about] to the Iranian regime over the past six years is that we will continue to ratchet up the costs, not simply for their anti-Semitism, but also for whatever expansionist ambitions they may have. That’s what the sanctions represent. That’s what the military option I’ve made clear I preserve represents. And so I think it is not at all contradictory to say that there are deep strains of anti-Semitism in the core regime, but that they also are interested in maintaining power, having some semblance of legitimacy inside their own country, which requires that they get themselves out of what is a deep economic rut that we’ve put them in, and on that basis they are then willing and prepared potentially to strike an agreement on their nuclear program.”

On Israel, Obama endorsed, in moving terms, the underlying rationale for the existence of a Jewish state, making a direct connection between the battle for African American equality and the fight for Jewish national equality. “There’s a direct line between supporting the right of the Jewish people to have a homeland and to feel safe and free of discrimination and persecution, and the right of African Americans to vote and have equal protection under the law,” he said. “These things are indivisible in my mind.”

In discussing the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe, he was quite clear in his condemnation of what has become a common trope—that anti-Zionism, the belief that the Jews should not have a state of their own in at least part of their ancestral homeland, is unrelated to anti-Jewish hostility. He gave me his own parameters for judging whether a person is simply critical of certain Israeli policies or harboring more prejudicial feelings.

“Do you think that Israel has a right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people, and are you aware of the particular circumstances of Jewish history that might prompt that need and desire?” he said, in defining the questions that he believes should be asked. “And if your answer is no, if your notion is somehow that that history doesn’t matter, then that’s a problem, in my mind. If, on the other hand, you acknowledge the justness of the Jewish homeland, you acknowledge the active presence of anti-Semitism—that it’s not just something in the past, but it is current—if you acknowledge that there are people and nations that, if convenient, would do the Jewish people harm because of a warped ideology. If you acknowledge those things, then you should be able to align yourself with Israel where its security is at stake, you should be able to align yourself with Israel when it comes to making sure that it is not held to a double standard in international fora, you should align yourself with Israel when it comes to making sure that it is not isolated.”

Though he tried to frame his conflict with Netanyahu in impersonal terms, he made two things clear. One is that he will not stop criticizing Israel when he believes it is not living up to its own founding values. And two—and this is my interpretation of his worldview—he holds Israel to a higher standard than he does other countries because of the respect he has for Jewish values and Jewish teachings, and for the role Jewish mentors and teachers have played in his life. After equating the creation of Israel with the American civil-rights movement, he went on to say this: “What is also true, by extension, is that I have to show that same kind of regard to other peoples. And I think it is true to Israel’s traditions and its values—its founding principles—that it has to care about … Palestinian kids. And when I was in Jerusalem and I spoke, the biggest applause that I got was when I spoke about those kids I had visited in Ramallah, and I said to a Israeli audience that it is profoundly Jewish, it is profoundly consistent with Israel’s traditions to care about them. And they agreed. So if that’s not translated into policy—if we’re not willing to take risks on behalf of those values—then those principles become empty words, and in fact, in my mind, it makes it more difficult for us to continue to promote those values when it comes to protecting Israel internationally.”

As I was listening to him speak about Israel and its values (we did not discuss the recent controversy over a now-shelved Israeli Defense Ministry plan to segregate certain West Bank bus lines, but issues like this informed the conversation), I felt as if I had participated in discussions like this dozens of times, but mainly with rabbis. I have probably had 50 different conversations with 50 different rabbis over the past couple of years—including the rabbi of my synagogue, Gil Steinlauf, who is hosting Obama on Friday—about the challenges they face in talking about current Israeli reality.

Many Reform and Conservative rabbis (and some Orthodox rabbis as well) find themselves anguishing—usually before the High Holidays—about how to present Israel’s complex and sometimes unpalatable reality to their congregants. (I refer to this sermon generically as the “How to Love a Difficult Israel” sermon.) Obama, when he talks about Israel, often sounds to me like one of these rabbis:

“My hope is that over time [the] debate gets back on a path where there’s some semblance of hope and not simply fear, because it feels to me as if ... all we are talking about is based from fear,” he said. “Over the short term that may seem wise—cynicism always seems a little wise—but it may lead Israel down a path in which it’s very hard to protect itself [as] a Jewish-majority democracy. And I care deeply about preserving that Jewish democracy, because when I think about how I came to know Israel, it was based on images of … kibbutzim, and Moshe Dayan, and Golda Meir, and the sense that not only are we creating a safe Jewish homeland, but also we are remaking the world. We’re repairing it. We are going to do it the right way. We are going to make sure that the lessons we’ve learned from our hardships and our persecutions are applied to how we govern and how we treat others. And it goes back to the values questions that we talked about earlier—those are the values that helped to nurture me and my political beliefs.”

I sent these comments on Wednesday to Rabbi Steinlauf to see if he disagreed with my belief that Obama, when he talks about Israel, sounds like a rabbi in the progressive Zionist tradition. Steinlauf wrote back: “President Obama shares the same yearning for a secure peace in Israel that I and so many of my rabbinic colleagues have. While he doesn't speak as a Jew, his progressive values flow directly out of the core messages of Torah, and so he is deeply in touch with the heart and spirit of the Jewish people.”

I have to imagine that comments like Steinlauf’s may be understood by people such as Sheldon Adelson and Benjamin Netanyahu as hopelessly naive. But this is where much of the Jewish community is today: nervous about Iran, nervous about Obama’s response to Iran, nervous about Netanyahu’s response to reality, nervous about the toxic marriage between Obama and Netanyahu, and nervous that, once again, there is no margin in the world for Jewish error.

The transcript of my conversation with President Obama, including the contentious bits, is below. I’ve edited some of my baggier questions for clarity and concision. The president’s answers are reproduced in full.


The Middle East Interview

  1. The War Against ISIS in Iraq and Syria
  2. The Nuclear Deal With Iran
  3. The President’s Relationship With Israel and the Jewish People

Reuters / The Atlantic

The War Against ISIS in Iraq and Syria

Jeffrey Goldberg: You’ve argued that ISIS has been on the defensive. But Ramadi just fell. Are we actually losing this war, or would you not go that far?

President Barack Obama: No, I don’t think we’re losing, and I just talked to our CENTCOM commanders and the folks on the ground. There’s no doubt there was a tactical setback, although Ramadi had been vulnerable for a very long time, primarily because these are not Iraqi security forces that we have trained or reinforced. They have been there essentially for a year without sufficient reinforcements, and the number of ISIL that have come into the city now are relatively small compared to what happened in [the Iraqi city of] Mosul. But it is indicative that the training of Iraqi security forces, the fortifications, the command-and-control systems are not happening fast enough in Anbar, in the Sunni parts of the country. You’ve seen actually significant progress in the north, and those areas where the Peshmerga [Kurdish forces] are participating. Baghdad is consolidated. Those predominantly Shia areas, you’re not seeing any forward momentum by ISIL, and ISIL has been significantly degraded across the country. But—

Goldberg: You’ve got to worry about the Iraqi forces—

Obama: I’m getting to that, Jeff. You asked me a question, and there’s no doubt that in the Sunni areas, we’re going to have to ramp up not just training, but also commitment, and we better get Sunni tribes more activated than they currently have been. So it is a source of concern. We’re eight months into what we’ve always anticipated to be a multi-year campaign, and I think [Iraqi] Prime Minister Abadi recognizes many of these problems, but they’re going to have to be addressed.

Goldberg: Stay on Iraq. There’s this interesting conversation going on in Republican circles right now, debating a question that you answered for yourself 13 years ago, about whether it was right or wrong to go into Iraq. What is this conversation actually about? I’m also wondering if you think this is the wrong conversation to have in the following sense: You’re under virtually no pressure—correct me if I’m wrong—but you’re under virtually no pressure domestically to get more deeply involved in the Middle East. That seems to be one of the downstream consequences of the Iraq invasion 12 years ago.

Obama: As you said, I’m very clear on the lessons of Iraq. I think it was a mistake for us to go in in the first place, despite the incredible efforts that were made by our men and women in uniform. Despite that error, those sacrifices allowed the Iraqis to take back their country. That opportunity was squandered by Prime Minister Maliki and the unwillingness to reach out effectively to the Sunni and Kurdish populations.

Reuters / The Atlantic

But today the question is not whether or not we are sending in contingents of U.S. ground troops. Today the question is: How do we find effective partners to govern in those parts of Iraq that right now are ungovernable and effectively defeat ISIL, not just in Iraq but in Syria?

It is important to have a clear idea of the past because we don’t want to repeat mistakes. I know that there are some in Republican quarters who have suggested that I’ve overlearned the mistake of Iraq, and that, in fact, just because the 2003 invasion did not go well doesn’t argue that we shouldn’t go back in. And one lesson that I think is important to draw from what happened is that if the Iraqis themselves are not willing or capable to arrive at the political accommodations necessary to govern, if they are not willing to fight for the security of their country, we cannot do that for them. We can be effective allies. I think Prime Minister Abadi is sincere and committed to an inclusive Iraqi state, and I will continue to order our military to provide the Iraqi security forces all assistance that they need in order to secure their country, and I’ll provide diplomatic and economic assistance that’s necessary for them to stabilize.

But we can’t do it for them, and one of the central flaws I think of the decision back in 2003 was the sense that if we simply went in and deposed a dictator, or simply went in and cleared out the bad guys, that somehow peace and prosperity would automatically emerge, and that lesson we should have learned a long time ago. And so the really important question moving forward is: How do we find effective partners—not just in Iraq, but in Syria, and in Yemen, and in Libya—that we can work with, and how do we create the international coalition and atmosphere in which people across sectarian lines are willing to compromise and are willing to work together in order to provide the next generation a fighting chance for a better future?

Reuters / The Atlantic

The Nuclear Deal With Iran

Goldberg: Let me do two or three on Iran, and then we’ll move to Israel and Jews. All of the fun subjects. By the way, you’re coming to my synagogue to speak on Friday.

Obama: I’m very much looking forward to it.

Goldberg: This is the biggest thing that’s happened there since the last Goldberg bar mitzvah.

Obama: [Laughs]

Goldberg: So in 2012 you told me, when we were talking about Iran, “It is almost certain that other players in the region would feel it necessary to get their own nuclear weapons if Iran got them.” Now we’re in this kind of weird situation in which there’s talk that Saudi Arabia, maybe Turkey, maybe Egypt would go build nuclear infrastructures come the finalization of this deal to match the infrastructure that your deal is going to leave in place in Iran. So my question to you is: Have you asked the Saudis not to go down any kind of nuclear path? What have they told you about this? And what are the consequences if other countries in the region say, “Well you know what, they have 5,000 centrifuges? We’re going to have 5,000 centrifuges.”

Obama: There’s been talk in the media, unsourced—

Goldberg: Well, [Saudi Arabia’s] Prince Turki said it publicly

Obama: Well, he’s not in the government. There has been no indication from the Saudis or any other [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries that they have an intention to pursue their own nuclear program. Part of the reason why they would not pursue their own nuclear program—assuming that we have been successful in preventing Iran from continuing down the path of obtaining a nuclear weapon—is that the protection that we provide as their partner is a far greater deterrent than they could ever hope to achieve by developing their own nuclear stockpile or trying to achieve breakout capacity when it comes to nuclear weapons, and they understand that.

What we saw at the GCC summit was, I think, legitimate skepticism and concern, not simply about the Iranian nuclear program itself but also the consequences of sanctions coming down. We walked through the four pathways that would be shut off in any agreement that I would be signing off on. Technically, we showed them how it would be accomplished—what the verification mechanisms will be, how the UN snapback provisions [for sanctions] might work. They were satisfied that if in fact the agreement meant the benchmarks that we’ve set forth, that it would prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and given that, they understand that ultimately their own security and defense is much better served by working with us. Their covert—presumably—pursuit of a nuclear program would greatly strain the relationship they’ve got with the United States.

Goldberg: Stay with Iran for one more moment. I just want you to help me square something. So you’ve argued, quite eloquently in fact, that the Iranian regime has at its highest levels been infected by a kind of anti-Semitic worldview. You talked about that with Tom [Friedman]. “Venomous anti-Semitism” I think is the term that you used. You have argued—not that it even needs arguing—but you’ve argued that people who subscribe to an anti-Semitic worldview, who explain the world through the prism of anti-Semitic ideology, are not rational, are not built for success, are not grounded in a reality that you and I might understand. And yet, you’ve also argued that the regime in Tehran—a regime you’ve described as anti-Semitic, among other problems that they have—is practical, and is responsive to incentive, and shows signs of rationality. So I don’t understand how these things fit together in your mind.

Obama: Well the fact that you are anti-Semitic, or racist, doesn’t preclude you from being interested in survival. It doesn’t preclude you from being rational about the need to keep your economy afloat; it doesn’t preclude you from making strategic decisions about how you stay in power; and so the fact that the supreme leader is anti-Semitic doesn’t mean that this overrides all of his other considerations. You know, if you look at the history of anti-Semitism, Jeff, there were a whole lot of European leaders—and there were deep strains of anti-Semitism in this country—

Goldberg: And they make irrational decisions—

Obama: They may make irrational decisions with respect to discrimination, with respect to trying to use anti-Semitic rhetoric as an organizing tool. At the margins, where the costs are low, they may pursue policies based on hatred as opposed to self-interest. But the costs here are not low, and what we’ve been very clear [about] to the Iranian regime over the past six years is that we will continue to ratchet up the costs, not simply for their anti-Semitism, but also for whatever expansionist ambitions they may have. That’s what the sanctions represent. That’s what the military option I’ve made clear I preserve represents. And so I think it is not at all contradictory to say that there are deep strains of anti-Semitism in the core regime, but that they also are interested in maintaining power, having some semblance of legitimacy inside their own country, which requires that they get themselves out of what is a deep economic rut that we’ve put them in, and on that basis they are then willing and prepared potentially to strike an agreement on their nuclear program.

Reuters / The Atlantic

Goldberg: One of the other issues that’s troubling about this is—and I’m quoting [Treasury Secretary] Jack Lew here, who said a couple of weeks ago at the Washington Institute when talking about Iran’s various nefarious activities, he said, “Most of the money Iran receives from sanctions relief will not be used to support those activities.” To me that sounds like a little bit of wishful thinking—that [Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps] is going to want to get paid, Hezbollah is going to see, among other groups, might see a little bit of a windfall from these billions of dollars that might pour in. I’m not assuming something completely in the other direction either, but I just don’t know where your confidence comes from.

Obama: Well I don’t think Jack or anybody in this administration said that no money will go to the military as a consequence of sanctions relief. The question is, if Iran has $150 billion parked outside the country, does the IRGC automatically get $150 billion? Does that $150 billion then translate by orders of magnitude into their capacity to project power throughout the region? And that is what we contest, because when you look at the math, first of all they’re going to have to deliver on their obligations under any agreement, which would take a certain period of time. Then there are the mechanics of unwinding the existing restraints they have on getting that money, which takes a certain amount of time. Then [Iranian President] Rouhani and, by extension, the supreme leader have made a series of commitments to improve the Iranian economy, and the expectations are outsized. You saw the reaction of people in the streets of Tehran after the signing of the agreement. Their expectations are that [the economy is] going to improve significantly. You have Iranian elites who are champing at the bit to start moving business and getting out from under the restraints that they’ve been under.

And what is also true is that the IRGC right now, precisely because of sanctions, in some ways are able to exploit existing restrictions to have a monopoly on what comes in and out of the country, and they’ve got their own revenue sources that they’ve been able to develop, some of which may actually lessen as a consequence of sanctions relief. So I don’t think this is a science, and this is an issue that came up with the GCC countries during the summit. The point we simply make to them is: It is not a mathematical formula whereby [Iranian leaders] get a certain amount of sanctions relief and automatically they’re causing more problems in the neighborhood. What makes that particularly important is, in the discussion with the GCC countries, we pointed out that the biggest vulnerabilities that they have to Iran, and the most effective destabilizing activities of the IRGC and [Iran’s] Quds Force are actually low-cost. They are not a threat to the region because of their hardware. Ballistic missiles are a concern. They have a missile program. We have to think about missile-defense systems and how those are integrated and coordinated. But the big problems we have are weapons going in to Hezbollah, or them sending agents into Yemen, or other low-tech asymmetric threats that they’re very effective at exploiting, which they’re already doing—they’ve been doing despite sanctions. They will continue to do [this] unless we are developing greater capacity to prevent them from doing those things, which is part of what our discussion was in terms of the security assurances with the GCC countries.

You know, if you look at a situation like Yemen, part of the problem is the chronic, endemic weakness in a state like that, and the instability that Iran then seeks to exploit. If you had GCC countries who were more capable of maritime interdiction, effective intelligence, cutting off financing sources, and are more effective in terms of working and training with allied forces in a place like Yemen, so that Houthis can’t just march into Sana’a, well, if all those things are being done, Iran having some additional dollars from sanctions relief is not going to override those improvements and capabilities, and that’s really where we have to focus. Likewise with respect to Hezbollah. Hezbollah has a certain number of fighters who are hardened and effective. If Iran has some additional resources, then perhaps they’re less strained in trying to make payroll when it comes to Hezbollah, but it’s not as if they can suddenly train up and successfully deploy 10 times the number of Hezbollah fighters that are currently in Syria. That’s not something that they have automatic capacity to do. The reason that Hezbollah is effective is because they’ve got a core group of hardened folks that they’ve developed over the last 20-30 years, and—

Goldberg: You could buy more rockets and put them in south Lebanon.

Obama: Well, and the issue though with respect to rockets in south Lebanon is not whether [Iran has] enough money to do so. They’ve shown a commitment to doing that even when their economy is in the tank. The issue there is: Are we able to interdict those shipments more effectively than we do right now? And that’s the kind of thing that we have to continue to partner with Israel and other countries to stop.

Reuters / The Atlantic

The President’s Relationship With Israel and the Jewish People

Goldberg: Let me go to these questions related to Israel and your relationship to the American Jewish community. So a number of years ago, I made the case that you’re America’s first Jewish president. And I made that assessment based on the depth of your encounters with Jews: the number of Jewish mentors you’ve had—Abner Mikva, Newton Minow, and so on—teachers, law professors, fellow community organizers, Jewish literature, Jewish thought, and of course your early political base in Chicago. There are obviously Jews in America who are immune to the charms of this argument, led by Sheldon Adelson but not only him.

Here’s a quote from Adelson which always struck me as central to the way your Jewish opponents understand you: “All the steps he’s taken”—“he” meaning you—“against the State of Israel are liable to bring about the destruction of the state.”

I have my own theories about why there’s this bifurcation in the American Jewish community, and we’ve discussed this in past interviews, but what is going on? Is this the byproduct of well-intentioned anxiety about Iran, about the explosive growth of anti-Semitism in Europe? Something else?

Obama: Let me depersonalize it a little bit. First of all, there’s not really a bifurcation with respect to the attitudes of the Jewish American community about me. I consistently received overwhelming majority support from the Jewish community, and even after all the publicity around the recent differences that I’ve had with Prime Minister Netanyahu, the majority of the Jewish American community still supports me, and supports me strongly.

Goldberg: It was 70 percent in the last election.

Obama: 70 percent is pretty good. I think that there are a lot of crosscurrents that are going on right now. There is no doubt that the environment worldwide is scary for a lot of Jewish families. You’ve mentioned some of those trends. You have a Middle East that is turbulent and chaotic, and where extremists seem to be full of enthusiasm and momentum. You have Europe, where, as you’ve very effectively chronicled, there is an emergence of a more overt and dangerous anti-Semitism. And so part of the concern in the Jewish community is that, only a generation removed from the Holocaust, it seems that anti-Semitic rhetoric and anti-Israeli rhetoric is on the rise. And that will make people fearful.

What I also think is that there has been a very concerted effort on the part of some political forces to equate being pro-Israel, and hence being supportive of the Jewish people, with a rubber stamp on a particular set of policies coming out of the Israeli government. So if you are questioning settlement policy, that indicates you’re anti-Israeli, or that indicates you’re anti-Jewish. If you express compassion or empathy towards Palestinian youth, who are dealing with checkpoints or restrictions on their ability to travel, then you are suspect in terms of your support of Israel. If you are willing to get into public disagreements with the Israeli government, then the notion is that you are being anti-Israel, and by extension, anti-Jewish. I completely reject that.

Goldberg: Is that a cynical ploy by somebody?

Obama: Well I won’t ascribe motives to them. I think that some of those folks may sincerely believe that the Jewish state is consistently embattled, that it is in a very bad neighborhood and either you’re with them or against them, and end of story. And they may sincerely believe it. My response to them is that, precisely because I care so deeply about the State of Israel, precisely because I care so much about the Jewish people, I feel obliged to speak honestly and truthfully about what I think will be most likely to lead to long-term security, and will best position us to continue to combat anti-Semitism, and I make no apologies for that precisely because I am secure and confident about how deeply I care about Israel and the Jewish people.

I said in a previous interview and I meant it: I think it would be a moral failing for me as president of the United States, and a moral failing for America, and a moral failing for the world, if we did not protect Israel and stand up for its right to exist, because that would negate not just the history of the 20th century, it would negate the history of the past millennium. And it would violate what we have learned, what humanity should have learned, over that past millennium, which is that when you show intolerance and when you are persecuting minorities and when you are objectifying them and making them the Other, you are destroying something in yourself, and the world goes into a tailspin.

And so, to me, being pro-Israel and pro-Jewish is part and parcel with the values that I've been fighting for since I was politically conscious and started getting involved in politics. There’s a direct line between supporting the right of the Jewish people to have a homeland and to feel safe and free of discrimination and persecution, and the right of African Americans to vote and have equal protection under the law. These things are indivisible in my mind. But what is also true, by extension, is that I have to show that same kind of regard to other peoples. And I think it is true to Israel’s traditions and its values—its founding principles—that it has to care about those Palestinian kids. And when I was in Jerusalem and I spoke, the biggest applause that I got was when I spoke about those kids I had visited in Ramallah, and I said to a Israeli audience that it is profoundly Jewish, it is profoundly consistent with Israel’s traditions to care about them. And they agreed. So if that’s not translated into policy—if we’re not willing to take risks on behalf of those values—then those principles become empty words, and in fact, in my mind, it makes it more difficult for us to continue to promote those values when it comes to protecting Israel internationally.

Reuters / The Atlantic

Goldberg: You’re not known as an overly emotive politician, but there was a period in which the relationship between you and the prime minister, and therefore the U.S. government and the Israeli government, seemed very fraught and very emotional. There was more public criticism coming out of this administration directed at Israel than any other ally, and maybe at some adversaries—

Obama: Yeah, and I have to say, Jeff, I completely disagree with that assessment, and I know you wrote that. And I objected to it. I mean, the fact of the matter is that there was a very particular circumstance in which we had a policy difference that shouldn’t be papered over because it goes to the nature of the friendship between the United States and Israel, and how we deal government to government, and how we sort through those issues.

Now, a couple of things that I’d say at the outset. In every public pronouncement I’ve made, I said that the bedrock security relationships between our two countries—these are sacrosanct. Military cooperation, intelligence cooperation—none of that has been affected. I have maintained, and I think I can show that no U.S. president has been more forceful in making sure that we help Israel protect itself, and even some of my critics in Israel have acknowledged as much. I said that none of this should impact the core strategic relationship that exists between the United States and Israel, or the people-to-people relations that are so deep that they transcend any particular president or prime minister and will continue until the end of time.

But what I did say is that when, going into an election, Prime Minister Netanyahu said a Palestinian state would not happen under his watch, or there [was] discussion in which it appeared that Arab-Israeli citizens were somehow portrayed as an invading force that might vote, and that this should be guarded against—this is contrary to the very language of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which explicitly states that all people regardless of race or religion are full participants in the democracy. When something like that happens, that has foreign-policy consequences, and precisely because we’re so close to Israel, for us to simply stand there and say nothing would have meant that this office, the Oval Office, lost credibility when it came to speaking out on these issues.

And when I am then required to come to Israel’s defense internationally, when there is anti-Semitism out there, when there is anti-Israeli policy that is based not on the particulars of the Palestinian cause but [is] based simply on hostility, I have to make sure that I am entirely credible in speaking out against those things, and that requires me then to also be honest with friends about how I view these issues. Now that makes, understandably, folks both in Israel and here in the United States uncomfortable.

But the one argument that I very much have been concerned about, and it has gotten stronger over the last 10 years ... it’s less overt than the arguments that a Sheldon Adelson makes, but in some ways can be just as pernicious, is this argument that there should not be disagreements in public. So a lot of times the criticism that was leveled during this period—including from you, Jeff—was not that you disagreed with me on the assessment, but rather that it’s dangerous or unseemly for us to air these disagreements—

Goldberg: I don’t think I ever—

Obama: You didn’t make that argument—

Goldberg: I didn’t make that argument. I spend half my life airing those arguments.

Obama: Fair enough. But you understand what I’m saying, Jeff. I understand why the Jewish American community, people would get uncomfortable. I would get letters from people saying, “Listen, Mr. President, I completely support you. I agree with you on this issue, but you shouldn’t say these things publicly.” Now the truth of the matter is that what we said publicly was fairly spare and mild, and then would be built up—it seemed like an article a day, partly because when you get in arguments with friends it’s a lot more newsworthy than arguments with enemies. Well, and it’s the same problem that I’m having right now with the trade deals up on Capitol Hill. The fact that I agree with Elizabeth Warren on 90 percent of issues is not news. That we disagree on one thing is news. But my point, Jeff, is that we are at enough of an inflection point in terms of the region that trying to pretend like these important, difficult policy questions are not controversial, and that they don’t have to be sorted out, I think is a problem. And one of the great things about Israel is, these are arguments that take place in Israel every day.

Goldberg: It’s a 61/59 country right now.

Obama: If you sit down in some cafe in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, you’re hearing far more contentious arguments, and that’s healthy. That’s part of why Americans love Israel, it’s part of the reason why I love Israel—because it is a genuine democracy and you can express your opinions. But the most important thing, I think, that we can do right now in strengthening Israel’s position is to describe very clearly why I have believed that a two-state solution is the best security plan for Israel over the long term; for me to take very seriously Israel’s security concerns about what a two-state solution might look like; to try to work through systematically those issues; but also, at the end of the day, to say to any Israeli prime minister that it will require some risks in order to achieve peace. And the question you have to ask yourself then is: How do you weigh those risks against the risks of doing nothing and just perpetuating the status quo? My argument is that the risks of doing nothing are far greater, and I ultimately—it is important for the Israeli people and the Israeli government to make its own decisions about what it needs to secure the people of that nation.

But my hope is that over time that debate gets back on a path where there’s some semblance of hope and not simply fear, because it feels to me as if ... all we are talking about is based from fear. Over the short term that may seem wise—cynicism always seems a little wise—but it may lead Israel down a path in which it’s very hard to protect itself—

Goldberg: As a Jewish-majority democracy.

Obama: —As a Jewish-majority democracy. And I care deeply about preserving that Jewish democracy, because when I think about how I came to know Israel, it was based on images of, you know—

Goldberg: We talked about this once. Kibbutzim, and—

Obama: Kibbutzim, and Moshe Dayan, and Golda Meir, and the sense that not only are we creating a safe Jewish homeland, but also we are remaking the world. We’re repairing it. We are going to do it the right way. We are going to make sure that the lessons we’ve learned from our hardships and our persecutions are applied to how we govern and how we treat others. And it goes back to the values questions that we talked about earlier—those are the values that helped to nurture me and my political beliefs. It’s interesting, when I spoke to some leaders of Jewish organizations a few months back, I said to them, it’s true, I have high expectations for Israel, and they’re not unrealistic expectations, they’re not stupid expectations, they’re not the expectations that Israel would risk its own security blindly in pursuit of some idealistic pie-in-the-sky notions.

Reuters / The Atlantic

Goldberg: But you want Israel to embody Jewish values.

Obama: I want Israel, in the same way that I want the United States, to embody the Judeo-Christian and, ultimately then, what I believe are human or universal values that have led to progress over a millennium. The same values that led to the end of Jim Crow and slavery. The same values that led to Nelson Mandela being freed and a multiracial democracy emerging in South Africa. The same values that led to the Berlin Wall coming down. The same values that animate our discussion on human rights and our concern that people on the other side of the world who may be tortured or jailed for speaking their mind or worshipping—the same values that lead us to speak out against anti-Semitism. I want Israel to embody these values because Israel is aligned with us in that fight for what I believe to be true. And that doesn’t mean there aren’t tough choices and there aren’t compromises. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have to ask ourselves very tough questions about, in the short term, do we have to protect ourselves, which means we may have some choices that—

Goldberg: Hard decisions.

Obama: —And hard decisions that in peace we will not make. Those are decisions that I have to make every time I deploy U.S. forces. Those are choices that we make with respect to drones, and with respect to our intelligence agencies. And so when I spoke to Prime Minister Netanyahu, for example, about can we come up with a peace plan, I sent out our top military folks to go through systematically every contingency, every possible concern that Israel might have on its own terms about maintaining security in a two-state agreement, and what would it mean for the Jordan Valley, and what would it mean with respect to the West Bank, and I was the first one to acknowledge that you can’t have the risk of terrorists coming up right to the edge of Jerusalem and exposing populations. So this isn’t an issue of being naive or unrealistic, but ultimately yes, I think there are certain values that the United States, at its best, exemplifies. I think there are certain values that Israel, and the Jewish tradition, at its best exemplifies. And I am willing to fight for those values.

Goldberg: On this question, which is an American campus question, and which is a European question as well: Hollande’s government [in France]—Manuel Valls, the prime minister—David Cameron [in the U.K.] … we were talking about the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. And I know that you’ve talked about this with Jewish organizations, with some of your Jewish friends—how you define the differences and the similarities between these two concepts.

Obama: You know, I think a good baseline is: Do you think that Israel has a right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people, and are you aware of the particular circumstances of Jewish history that might prompt that need and desire? And if your answer is no, if your notion is somehow that that history doesn’t matter, then that’s a problem, in my mind. If, on the other hand, you acknowledge the justness of the Jewish homeland, you acknowledge the active presence of anti-Semitism—that it’s not just something in the past, but it is current—if you acknowledge that there are people and nations that, if convenient, would do the Jewish people harm because of a warped ideology. If you acknowledge those things, then you should be able to align yourself with Israel where its security is at stake, you should be able to align yourself with Israel when it comes to making sure that it is not held to a double standard in international fora, you should align yourself with Israel when it comes to making sure that it is not isolated.

But you should be able to say to Israel, we disagree with you on this particular policy. We disagree with you on settlements. We think that checkpoints are a genuine problem. We disagree with you on a Jewish-nationalist law that would potentially undermine the rights of Arab citizens. And to me, that is entirely consistent with being supportive of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. Now for someone in Israel, including the prime minister, to disagree with those policy positions—that’s OK too. And we can have a debate, and we can have an argument. But you can’t equate people of good will who are concerned about those issues with somebody who is hostile towards Israel. And you know, I actually believe that most American Jews, most Jews around the world, and most Jews in Israel recognize as much. And that’s part of the reason why I do still have broad-based support among American Jews. It’s not because they dislike Israel, it’s not because they aren’t worried about Iran having a nuclear weapon or what Hezbollah is doing in Lebanon. It’s because I think they recognize, having looked at my history and having seen the actions of my administration, that I’ve got Israel’s back, but there are values that I share with them that may be at stake if we’re not able to find a better path forward than what feels like a potential dead-end right now.