Barack Obama defends Iran nuclear deal

President Barack Obama strongly defended last week's preliminary agreement with Iran as a "once in a lifetime opportunity" to curb the spread of nuclear weapons in a dangerous region while reassuring critics that he would keep all options available if Tehran ultimately cheated.

Obama emphasised to Israel that "we've got their backs" in the face of Iranian hostility. And he suggested that he could accept some sort of vote in Congress if it did not block his ability to carry out the agreement.

"This is our best bet by far to make sure Iran doesn't get a nuclear weapon," Obama said in an interview with Thomas L. Friedman, an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times, published Sunday. "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."

Obama provided new details about how international inspectors would try to access suspected covert nuclear sites and about the sequence that would lead to sanctions being lifted. Both were major issues in the last days of negotiations in Switzerland, and Obama's descriptions differed in key respects from Iran's interpretations.

That gap suggested the hardest moments in the negotiations may yet be ahead, given that commitments made last week must still be enshrined in a written document signed by all parties by June 30. But Obama seemed to gain breathing space as Republicans signaled they would give him until then to see what the final deal looks like before directly intervening.

The president's comments came as the White House embarked on a campaign to sell a preliminary agreement that he hopes will transform security in the Middle East. Under the framework, negotiated with the United States and five other world powers, Iran agreed to scale back its nuclear program significantly for 10 to 15 years and accept intense international inspections. In exchange, the United States and the international community would lift sanctions that have punished the Iranian economy.

While in theory preventing Iran from being able to quickly build a bomb, the agreement leaves it with a nuclear program in place, even if much diminished, drawing criticism from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Republican leaders in Congress as well as skepticism from Arab allies and many Democrats.

"Not a single centrifuge is destroyed," Netanyahu said Sunday on CNN's State of the Union.

"Not a single nuclear facility is shut down, including the underground facilities that they build illicitly. Thousands of centrifuges will keep spinning, enriching uranium. That's a very bad deal."

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 - The New York Times

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