President Obama declared that the United States is still prepared to act militarily to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons despite the decision to pursue a diplomatic deal and not strike Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons.
He also acknowledged that his approach to the Syria crisis has been uneven, but defended it as producing the right results.
Obama spoke in an interview broadcast Sunday on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos,” taped Friday before the United States and Russia agreed on a plan to bring Syrian chemical weapons under international control in order to avoid military strikes.
But Obama said Iran should not interpret the diplomatic response — coming after he threatened to use strikes — as suggesting that the United States wouldn’t attack Iran to stop the development of nuclear weapons.
“I think what the Iranians understand is that the nuclear issue is a far larger issue for us than the chemical weapons issue, that the threat . . . against Israel that a nuclear Iran poses is much closer to our core interests,” Obama said. “My suspicion is that the Iranians recognize they shouldn’t draw a lesson that we haven’t struck [Syria] to think we won’t strike Iran.”
Obama said, however, that what the Iranians should draw from this episode is that it is possible to resolve this type of disagreement diplomatically.
“My view is that if you have both a credible threat of force, combined with a rigorous diplomatic effort, that, in fact you can . . . strike a deal,” he said, confirming that he had communicated with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani by letter.
Obama also defended his approach to the Syrian crisis, acknowledging that it has been turbulent, but insisting that it has achieved the right results.
The comments come after a number of lawmakers and foreign policy experts on both sides of the aisle have criticized Obama for first making the case to go to war in Syria, then deciding to ask Congress for approval, and then making the case for strikes to a prime-time audience while also announcing that he would first give a Russian diplomatic proposal a chance to work.
In response to those criticisms, Obama said he is less interested in style than results.
“I think that folks here in Washington like to grade on style. And so had we rolled out something that was very smooth and disciplined and linear, they would have graded it well, even if it was a disastrous policy. We know that, because that’s exactly how they graded the Iraq war,” Obama said.
He added, “I’m much more concerned about getting the policy right. . . . As a consequence of the steps that we’ve taken over the last two weeks to three weeks, we now have a situation in which Syria has acknowledged it has chemical weapons, has said it’s willing to join the convention on chemical weapons, and Russia, its primary sponsor, has said that it will pressure Syria to reach that agreement. That’s my goal. And if that goal is achieved, then it sounds to me like we did something right.”
Obama also played down differences with Russian President Vladimir Putin as Russia and the United States work together to resolve the Syria standoff.
“Mr. Putin and I have strong disagreements on a whole range of issues,” Obama said. “But I can talk to him. We have worked together on important issues. . . . This is not the Cold War. This is not a contest between the United States and Russia.”
Obama plans to pivot back to a focus on the economy this week ahead of major fiscal battles in Congress, and he said he could change the direction of the economy — including the upward path of inequality — if Congress would let him.
Asked if a president just couldn’t stop inequality, he responded, “I think the president can stop it. The problem is that there continues to be a major debate here in Washington.”
While he acknowledged that government can’t overcome every trend in the market, policy that invests in the economy “pushes against these trends. And the problem that we’ve got right now is you’ve got a portion of Congress whose policies don’t just want to you know, leave things alone; they actually want to accelerate these trends.”