President Obama defends Iran nuclear deal

3:35 PM, Dec 7, 2013   |    comments
President Obama. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin, AP)
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(USA TODAY) -- President Obama defended nuclear diplomacy with Iran on Saturday, saying it is the best chance to deprive Tehran of the means to make nuclear weapons.

"We have to test out this proposition," Obama said during a Middle East forum in Washington, D.C.

According to a six-month deal struck last month, Iran has agreed to cap its nuclear activities while the U.S. and its allies slightly reduce some of the economic sanctions on the nation.

The temporary arrangement gives negotiators the time and space to discuss a long-term deal in which Iran would agree to forgo the ability to make nuclear weapons, and submit its program to international inspections, Obama said.

Obama said his bottom-line goal is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, but the best way to do that is "a comprehensive, verifiable, diplomatic resolution."

Administration aides have said the alternative could be some kind of military confrontation with Iran.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and some U.S. lawmakers have criticized the interim agreement, saying Iran cannot be trusted and is giving up little in exchange for sanctions relief.

Iran has consistently said its nuclear program is designed to produce civilian energy, not nuclear weapons.

During the forum at a Washington hotel, Obama said he and Netanyahu - "my friend Bibi" - have been in "constant consultation" on the Iran issue.

The United States remains committed to Israel's security, Obama said, and the two nations' military and intelligence cooperation "has never been stronger." (Obama also discussed efforts to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace during the forum.)

The White House opposes new congressional proposals to increase economic sanctions on Iran, saying they would scuttle the interim agreement and end hopes for a permanent one.

The president stressed that the United States and its allies are reducing sanctions only by some $7 billion - "we've turned the spigot slightly" - and the arrangement does not include "core sanctions" on oil, finance and banking.

Those sanctions can return and be strengthened if Iran is caught cheating on nuclear development, Obama said: "It is reversible."

Haim Saban, the host of the forum, pointed out during the discussion that long-ago diplomatic efforts did not prevent North Korea and Pakistan from obtaining nuclear weapons.

There's also no guarantee that the U.S. and its allies will be able to reach a final agreement with Iran, Obama said.

"We don't know yet," Obama said. "This is hard."

The odds may be no better than 50-50, he said at one point, "but we have to try."

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