- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2015

In a new interview, President Obama defended his administration’s attempt to try to strike a deal on Iran’s nuclear program, saying the United States is powerful enough to test out new policies with countries like Cuba and Iran without putting America at risk.

“You take a country like Cuba. For us to test the possibility that engagement leads to a better outcome for the Cuban people, there aren’t that many risks for us. It’s a tiny little country. It’s not one that threatens our core security interests, and so [there’s no reason not] to test the proposition,” Mr. Obama told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in an interview published over the weekend.

“And if it turns out that it doesn’t lead to better outcomes, we can adjust our policies,” Mr. Obama said. “The same is true with respect to Iran, a larger country, a dangerous country, one that has engaged in activities that resulted in the death of U.S. citizens, but the truth of the matter is: Iran’s defense budget is $30 billion. Our defense budget is closer to $600 billion. Iran understands that they cannot fight us. … You asked about an Obama doctrine. The doctrine is: We will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities.”

Mr. Obama acknowledged the concerns of people like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a staunch opponent of the framework of a deal who said Sunday on ABC that Iran would use it to pump up its “terror machine” worldwide and “military machine” in the Middle East.

“And further, I completely understand Israel’s belief that given the tragic history of the Jewish people, they can’t be dependent solely on us for their own security,” Mr. Obama said. “But what I would say to them is that not only am I absolutely committed to making sure that they maintain their qualitative military edge, and that they can deter any potential future attacks, but what I’m willing to do is to make the kinds of commitments that would give everybody in the neighborhood, including Iran, a clarity that if Israel were to be attacked by any state, that we would stand by them. And that, I think, should be … sufficient to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see whether or not we can at least take the nuclear issue off the table.”

In exchange for relief from some economic sanctions, the framework of a deal would have Iran limit its uranium enrichment and the number of operating centrifuges, with a June deadline for a completed deal.

“What I would say to the Israeli people is … that there is no formula, there is no option, to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon that will be more effective than the diplomatic initiative and framework that we put forward — and that’s demonstrable,” Mr. Obama said.

Mr. Obama also said it’s been difficult for him to hear that his administration has not done everything it could to look out for Israel’s interest “and the suggestion that when we have very serious policy differences, that that’s not in the context of a deep and abiding friendship and concern and understanding of the threats that the Jewish people have faced historically and continue to face.”

“Look, Israel is a robust, rowdy democracy. … We share so much. We share blood, family. … And part of what has always made the U.S.-Israeli relationship so special is that it has transcended party, and I think that has to be preserved,” he said.

“There has to be the ability for me to disagree with a policy on settlements, for example, without being viewed as … opposing Israel. There has to be a way for Prime Minister Netanyahu to disagree with me on policy without being viewed as anti-Democrat, and I think the right way to do it is to recognize that as many commonalities as we have, there are going to be strategic differences. And I think that it is important for each side to respect the debate that takes place in the other country and not try to work just with one side. … But this has been as hard as anything I do because of the deep affinities that I feel for the Israeli people and for the Jewish people. It’s been a hard period.”

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