WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama said that while progress in nuclear talks with Iran has been made, gaps in the negotiating positions remain.
Obama said “unprecedented transparency” and verification will be required for a deal. He added that if Tehran is not willing to accept such constraints, the U.S. and its negotiating partners would “walk away.”
In a pre-recorded interview aired Sunday on U.S. television, Obama said Iran has negotiated seriously because of what he called some of the toughest sanctions ever put in place.
"We have made progress in narrowing the gaps, but those gaps still exist. And, I would say, over the next month or so, we’re going to be able to determine whether or not their system is able to accept what would be an extraordinarily reasonable deal if, in fact, as they say they are only interested in peaceful nuclear programs," the president said.
"If we have unprecedented transparency in that system, if we are able to verify that, in fact, they are not developing weapons systems, then there is a deal to be had. But that’s going to require them to accept the kind of verification and restraints on their program that, so far, at least, they have not been willing to say yes to," Obama said.
Since an interim agreement was reached in November 2013, Iran has abided by its terms, he said, adding Tehran has not advanced its nuclear program and has rolled back its 20 percent highly enriched uranium development.
At the same time, Obama said, the international community has had unprecedented access into what the Iranians are doing. But, he said if there is no agreement, the U.S. and its other P5+1 negotiating partners are prepared to walk away.
"If we cannot verify that they’re not going to obtain a nuclear weapon, but there’s a breakout period so that, even if they cheated, we would have enough time to take action, if we don’t have that kind of a deal, then we’re not going to take it," Obama said.
The P5+1 partners and Iran hope to reach a “framework agreement” by month’s end with a comprehensive agreement reached by another self-imposed deadline of June 30.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to meet his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, for the next round of talks March 15.
'Hide and cheat'
Appearing on the same program Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who addressed a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress last week and warned the agreement is a bad deal, said he disagrees with the Obama administration on how to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
"I do not trust inspections with totalitarian regimes. It didn’t work with North Korea. They violated it and played a good game of ‘hide and cheat.’ It didn’t work with Iran," Netanyahu said.
"They’ve cheated and bamboozled inspectors. Under the nose of inspectors, they built two underground bunkers that the inspectors didn’t know about and we, the intelligence agencies of the U.S., Israel, Britain, didn’t know about for years. So, I‘d be a lot more circumspect. In fact, what I’m suggesting is you contract Iran’s nuclear program so there’s less to inspect," he said.
The Israeli leader said that under the current negotiations, Iran is able to maintain a vast nuclear infrastructure and, thus, a very short breakout time to obtain a bomb.
Netanyahu said it also lifts a decade worth of sanctions allowing it to have, in his words, "an arsenal of many, many bombs." And, he added, it allows Iran to pursue development of intercontinental ballistic missiles on which to deliver such weapons.
He said a better deal would lengthen the breakout period, limit Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, link a lifting of sanctions to a change in its behavior of aggression toward its neighbors and support of global terrorism, and halt its threat of annihilating Israel.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, on the same program, said he hopes Obama submits any nuclear agreement with Iran to the Senate for a debate and vote.
"Look, I think we need to, as the prime minister pointed out, know who we’re dealing with here. The Iranians are fomenting trouble in Syria, in Lebanon, in Gaza, in Yemen. All over the Middle [East], they’re on the march. They have enhanced influence in Iraq," McConnell said.
"We can’t ignore all of their other behavior in looking at the potential nuclear deal. What we do know about the deal is that it looks like it will leave the [nuclear] infrastructure in place in one of the worst regimes in the world. The fact that the president doesn’t seem to want Congress to participate in this underscores what a bad deal it is because I think he’s afraid that we might not approve it," he said.
McConnell said he hopes he can get 67 of 100 senators to assert the Senate’s “historic role” in looking at matters of this magnitude.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said a nuclear agreement is necessary to prevent a breakout by Iran.
Appearing on U.S. television Sunday, Feinstein also criticized the Israeli leader’s address to Congress calling it a “huge error in judgment” by the No. 1 U.S. ally in the region to denounce the nuclear agreement before it is completed.