June 17, 2019

Obama in landmark interview: Hezbollah will be a focus of post-Iran deal

A focus of security enhancement once the Iran nuclear deal goes through will be neutralizing Hezbollah’s threat to Israel, President Barack Obama said in a landmark interview with The Forward.

“As soon as this debate is over, we will, I think, be able to invigorate what has been an ongoing conversation with the Israelis about how we can do even more to enhance the unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation that we have with them, and to see, are there additional capabilities that Israel may be able to use to prevent Hezbollah, for example, from getting missiles,” Obama said in the interview published Monday — the first with the Jewish media since he became president.

“Where Iran has been effective in its destabilizing activities, it’s not because it’s had a lot of money,” Obama said, countering criticism that the sanctions relief for nuclear restrictions deal that will unfreeze $50 billion in funds will increase Iran’s capacity for disruption.

“It’s because they’ve effectively used proxies; it’s because they’ve invested in places like Lebanon for decades and become entrenched,” the president said. “And the reason we haven’t done a better job of stopping that is not because they’re outspending us. The reason is, is because we haven’t been as coordinated, had as good intelligence and been as systematic in pushing back as we need to be.”

Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based militia, has stockpiled tens of thousands of missiles on Lebanese territory since its 2006 war with Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who vigorously opposes the Iran nuclear deal, has rejected Obama administration efforts to coordinate post-deal defense strategies regarding Iran, preferring to wait until he is certain that Congress will not reject the deal.

Republicans mostly oppose the deal, so there has been a concerted effort by both sides to win over Democrats, in part by appeals to the Jewish community, a key constituency of the party. Congress has until late September to consider whether to reject the deal reached July 14 between Iran and six major powers.

Obama spoke on Friday, the same day he gave the Forward the interview, to a webcast jointly sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“This deal blocks every way, every pathway Iran might take to obtain a nuclear weapon,” said Obama during the 50-minute webcast, which was filmed live from the White House. “We’re not giving away anything in this deal in terms of our capacity to respond if they chose to cheat.”

In additions to concerns about how Iran will spend its unfrozen funds, Netanyahu and other opponents, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, say the expiration dates for some of the deal’s components, in 10, 15 and 25 years, will leave Iran a nuclear threshold state.

In his Forward interview, Obama said that tensions between the Israeli and U.S. governments surrounding the deal would not last.

“People will look back and say as long as we implemented it with care and precision that it was the right thing to do,” he said. “The one thing I do want to make sure is that your readers and everybody who cares about the U.S.-Israeli relationship retain the understanding that I think is one of the foundations of this relationship, which is, is that this is not a partisan issue; the bipartisan support of Israel is critical to a strong U.S.-Israeli relationship.”