U.S. President Barack Obama said on Monday that Iran should commit to a verifiable freeze of at least 10 years on its nuclear activity for a landmark atomic deal to be reached, but that the odds were still against sealing a final agreement.
In an interview with Reuters at the White House, Obama said that a rift over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's planned speech to Congress opposing the Iran deal on Tuesday was a distraction that would not be "permanently destructive" to U.S.-Israeli ties.
Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.
But he said there was a "substantial disagreement" between his administration and the Israeli government over how to achieve their shared goal of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. “If, in fact, Iran is willing to agree to double-digit years of keeping their program where it is right now and, in fact, rolling back elements of it that currently exist ... if we’ve got that, and we’ve got a way of verifying that, there’s no other steps we can take that would give us such assurance that they don’t have a nuclear weapon," he said.
Israel fears that Obama's Iran diplomacy, with an end-of-March deadline for a framework nuclear agreement, will still allow its arch-foe to develop an atom bomb. Tehran denies it is seeking nuclear weapons. Netanyahu has spoken scathingly about a possible deal, saying negotiators appear to have given up on a pledge to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. He says a nuclear-armed Iran would pose an existential threat to the Jewish state.
Obama sought to downplay the long-term damage from the row over Netanyahu's speech to Congress, saying the rift was not personal and that he would meet the Israeli leader again if he wins Israel's March 17 election.
Asked about the prospects for a final deal with Iran, which has a June 30 deadline, Obama said a key doubt was whether Iran would agree to rigorous inspection demands and the low levels of uranium enrichment capability they would have to maintain. A comprehensive nuclear deal is seen as crucial to reducing the risk of a wider Middle East war, at a time when Iran is deeply involved in conflicts in Syria and Iraq.