WASHINGTON, March 6, 2012 — President Barack Obama took questions from reporters at a press conference this afternoon on his administration’s policies and intentions on situations in Iran, Syria and Afghanistan.
“When I came into office, Iran was unified, on the move, had made substantial progress on its nuclear program, and the world was divided in terms of how to deal with it,” the president said.
Over the past three years, he added, “we’ve been able to … mobilize unprecedented, crippling sanctions on Iran. Iran is feeling the bite of these sanctions in a substantial way. The world is unified; Iran is politically isolated.”
Obama said the United States will not countenance Iran getting a nuclear weapon.
“My policy is not containment. My policy is to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon because … that could trigger an arms race in the region or give terrorists access to such a weapon,” Obama said, adding that the United States has been in close consultation with its allies on the strategy, including Israel.
Obama met yesterday at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss Iran and other issues.
“The argument that we’ve made to the Israelis is that we have made an unprecedented commitment to their security. There is an unbreakable bond between our two countries,” the president said.
“But one of the functions of friends is to make sure that we provide honest and unvarnished advice in terms of what is the best approach to achieve a common goal, particularly one in which we have a stake,” he added.
If action is taken prematurely against Iran, Obama said, there will be consequences for Israel, for the United States and for the region.
“I do think that any time we consider military action, the American people understand that there is going to be a price to pay,” Obama said. “Sometimes it’s necessary, but we don’t do it casually.”
Sanctions are starting to have a significant effect inside Iran, the president added, ” … and because the sanctions are going to be even tougher in the coming months, because they’re now starting to affect [Iran’s] oil industry [and] their central bank, and because we’re now seeing noises about them returning to the negotiating table … it is deeply in everybody’s interests — the United States, Israel and the world’s — to see if this can be resolved in a peaceful fashion.”
The United States will continue to apply pressure, he told reporters.
“To resolve this issue will require Iran to come to the table and discuss in a clear and forthright way how to prove to the international community that the intentions of their nuclear program are peaceful,” the president said. “They know how to do that. This is not a mystery.”
On the topic of Syria, where the government is killing its own people in an attempt to quell a year-long popular uprising of citizens who call for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad, Obama called the violence there “heartbreaking and outrageous.”
The international community has mobilized against the Assad regime, he added, and it’s not a question of if Assad leaves, but when.
For the United States “to take military action unilaterally, as some have suggested, or to think that somehow there is some simple solution, I think is a mistake,” the president said.
“What we’ve done is to work with key Arab states, key international partners — [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton was in Tunisia [recently] — to come together and to mobilize and plan” how to support the opposition, provide humanitarian assistance, and continue the political and economic isolation, Obama said.
“We are going to continue to work on this project with other countries,” he added, “and it is my belief that ultimately this dictator will fall, as dictators in the past have fallen.”
The notion that the way to solve every problem is to deploy the U.S. military is incorrect, the president said.
“We’ve got to think through what we do through the lens of what’s going to be effective,” he added, “but also what’s critical for U.S. security interests.”
Taking a question about the inadvertent Quran-burning incident by U.S. troops in Kabul on Feb. 20, Obama said the situation concerns him.
“I think that it is an indication of the challenges in that environment, and it’s an indication that now is the time for us to transition,” he said.
The violence directed at International Security Assistance Force service members is unacceptable, Obama said, and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, who is nonetheless eager for more responsibility on the Afghan side, acknowledged that.
“We’re going to be able to find a mechanism whereby Afghans understand their sovereignty is being respected and that they’re going to be taking a greater and greater role in their own security,” Obama said.
“That, I think, is in the interests of Afghans. It’s also in our interests. And I’m confident that we can execute [that], but it’s not going to be a smooth path. There are going to be bumps along the road, just as there were in Iraq,” he added.
None of this is easy, he said, and it never has been.
“I think that President Karzai understands that we are interested in a strategic partnership with the Afghan people and the Afghan government,” Obama said.
“We are not interested in staying there any longer than is necessary to assure that al-Qaida is not operating there,” he added, “and that there’s sufficient stability that it doesn’t end up being a free-for-all after ISAF has left.”
Afghanistan and the United States “share interests here,” the president said. “It will require negotiations, and there will be times where things don’t look as smooth as I’d like. That’s kind of the deal internationally on a whole range of these issues.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)