Iran "would be a very successful regional power" if it made a deal with President Obama on nuclear weapons, Obama told NPR in an interview posted online this morning.
Obama also left open the possibility of opening an embassy in Iran, just like he did recently with Cuba, but he insisted a deal on the nuclear issue must come first.
"If we can get a deal on making sure that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon, and that deal is possible," Obama told NPR's Steve Inskeep in and interview recorded before the president left for Hawaii, "then my hope would be that that would serve as the basis for us trying to improve relations over time."
Inskeep also invoked Hillary Clinton's recent comments about the need to empathize with our enemies, and asked Obama if he had "sufficient empathy for the Iranians." This "empathy" question is what prompted Obama's "very successful regional power" response. From the interview:
Do you feel that you have sufficient empathy for the Iranians, meaning do you feel you understand what it is they need to get a deal done and is it possible?
I think we do, because if you look at the negotiations as they've proceeded, what we've said to the Iranians is that we are willing to recognize your ability to develop a modest nuclear power program for your energy needs — that there's a way of doing that that nevertheless gives the world assurances that you don't have breakout capacity.
And, you know, Iran suffered from a terrible war with Iraq in which millions of their countrymen were lost. They have legitimate defense concerns, but those have to be separated out from the adventurism, the support of organizations like Hezbollah, the threats they've directed towards Israel.
And so on the one hand, you need to understand what their legitimate needs and concerns are. On the other end, you don't need to tolerate or make excuses for positions that they've taken that violate international law, are contrary to U.S. interests, are contrary to the interests of our allies. They've got a chance to get right with the world. This is not just about us.
I mean, there's a reason why we've been able to get this far in the negotiations. We mobilized the international community at the start of my presidency — a classic example of American leadership. The sanctions worked because we didn't just get our usual allies' support of this; we got China in support of it; we have Russia that still is supportive of the position that the P5+1 has taken in negotiations.
So, when I came into office, the world was divided and Iran was in the driver's seat. Now the world's united because of the actions we've taken, and Iran's the one that's isolated.
They have a path to break through that isolation and they should seize it. Because if they do, there's incredible talent and resources and sophistication inside of — inside of Iran, and it would be a very successful regional power that was also abiding by international norms and international rules, and that would be good for everybody. That would be good for the United States, that would be good for the region, and most of all, it would be good for the Iranian people.
You can read the full interview here.