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President Barack Obama stressed that the U.S. still has cards to play if the Iran nuclear deal doesn't work out and insisted his government will ensure nobody "messes" with Israel.
In an interview with the New York Times' Thomas Friedman, Obama defended the controversial pact as part of a broader foreign policy approach, not just towards Tehran but also towards countries like Cuba, of "engagement." The president said he believed that approach — dubbed by the columnist as the "Obama Doctrine" — better served American interests than sanctions and isolation.
"We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk. And that's the thing ... people don't seem to understand," Obama said. "You take a country like Cuba. For us to test the possibility that engagement leads to a better outcome for the Cuban people, there aren't that many risks for us... If it turns out that it doesn't lead to better outcomes, we can adjust our policies."
He added: "The same is true with respect to Iran, a larger country, a dangerous country, one that has engaged in activities that resulted in the death of U.S. citizens, but the truth of the matter is: Iran's defense budget is $30 billion. Our defense budget is closer to $600 billion. Iran understands that they cannot fight us."
Obama said he felt it was worth the attempt to see whether Iran would slow its march toward a nuclear weapon and that the U.S. retains “the most firepower” in case anything goes wrong.
“It’s not as if in all these conversations, I’m leaving all my, you know, rifles at the door,” the president said.
Critics have said the deal gives Iran too much for too little in return. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday called it "a dream deal for Iran, and it's a nightmare deal for the world."
Obama told Friedman that he respects Netanyahu's argument and acknowledged that Israelis have "every right to be concerned about Iran,” saying he would consider it a "fundamental failure of my presidency, if on my watch, or as a consequence of work that I had done, Israel was rendered more vulnerable.”
But when it comes to Israel, Obama told the columnist, the U.S. has "got their backs."
“This is our best bet by far to make sure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon,” the president told Friedman of negotiations. “What we will be doing even as we enter into this deal is sending a very clear message to the Iranians and to the entire region that if anybody messes with Israel, America will be there.”