Washington, D.C. (May 21, 2015)— The Atlantic’s national correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg sat down with President Barack Obama on Tuesday for an exclusive Oval Office interview on the Middle East. In light of recent developments across the region, the President assessed progress in the fight against ISIS and addressed regional concerns over a nuclear deal with Iran moving forward. When it comes to Israel and his relationship with the Jewish people, the President reaffirmed his fundamental support despite reported drama between the two governments, though he rejected the notion that disagreeing publicly with the Israeli government is tantamount to being anti-Israel.
Goldberg’s analysis of his conversation with the president and an extended transcript of the interview are now available online and a selection of highlighted excerpts follow below. Please credit all quotes to The Atlantic.
On the Fight Against ISIS in Iraq and Syria:
When asked if the U.S. is actually losing the fight against ISIS, in light of recent territorial gains in Ramadi, President Obama said: “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… 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.”
On the future of the U.S.-Iraqi cooperation: 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.
On the Nuclear Deal With Iran:
When asked to make sense of how Iran can make rational decisions when it is known to have anti-semitism at the highest levels of its government: “…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… so the fact that the supreme leader is anti-Semitic doesn’t mean that this overrides all of his other considerations.”
When asked about whether Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states would want to pursue their own nuclear programs to mirror Iran’s under the deal, the president said: “There has been no indication from the Saudis or any other 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 …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. … 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.”
When asked to address concerns by Iran’s neighbors that lifting of sanctions will see more money go to nefarious activities, including Hezbollah, the president said: “The point we simply make to them [other neighboring countries] 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.”
On the Iran nuclear deal and legacy: “Look, twenty years from now, I’m still going to be around, God willing. If Iran has a nuclear weapon, it’s my name on this, 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.”
On His Relationship With Israel and the Jewish People:
On next steps and priorities in the U.S.-Israel relationship: “...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.”
When asked to respond to the administration’s recent public criticisms of Israel, the president argued that the two countries should be allowed to publicly disagree on certain issues without being labelled as “anti-Israel”: “…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… but you can’t equate people of good will who are concerned about those issues with somebody who is hostile towards Israel.”
On his rooted support Israel and the Jewish people: “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.”
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