Obama Discusses Situations in Iran, Syria, Afghanistan

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)