Return to Transcripts main page


Presiddent Obama Continues His News Conference. Aired 2-2:20p ET

Aired July 15, 2015 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:10] BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: But the legal authorities will still possess, and obviously we've got our own unilateral prohibitions and sanctions in place around non- nuclear issues like support for Hezbollah, and those remain in place.

Now, in terms of the larger issues that the Middle East, obviously that's a -- that's a longer discussion. I think my key goal when I turn over the keys to the president -- the next president, is that we are on track to defeat ISIL, that they are much more contained and we're moving in the right direction there, that we have jumpstarted a process to resolve the civil war in Syria, which is like an open sore in the region, and is giving refuge to terrorist organizations who are taking advantage of that chaos to make sure that in Iraq, not only have we pushed back ISIL, but we've also created an environment in which Sunni, Shia, and Kurd are starting to operate and function more effectively together, and to be in a conversation with all our partners in the region about how we have strengthened our security partnerships so that they feel they can address any potential threats that may come, including threats from Iran.

And that includes providing additional security assurances and cooperation to Israel, building on the unprecedented cooperation that we have already put in place, and the support that we've already put in place. It includes the work that we've done with the GCC up at Camp David, making sure that we execute that.

If we have done those things, then the problems in the Middle East will not be solved. And ultimately, it's not the job of the president of the United States to solve every problem in the Middle East.

The people in the Middle East are going to have to solve some of these problems themselves. But I think we can provide that next president at least a foundation for continued progress in these various areas.

The last thing I would say, and this is a longer-term issue, is we have to address the youth in the region with jobs and opportunity and a better vision for the future so that they are not tempted by the nihilistic, violent, dead-end that organizations like ISIL offer. Again, we can't do that entirely by ourselves, but we can partner with well-intentioned organizations, states, NGOs, religious leaders in the region. We have to do a better job of that than we've been doing so far.

All right.

Michael Crowley.

QUESTION: Thank you.

You alluded earlier to Iran's role in Syria. Just to focus on that for a moment, many analysts and some former members of your administration believe that the kind of negotiated political settlement that you say is necessary in Syria will require working directly with Iran in giving Iran an important role.

Do you agree, and is that a dialog you will be actively seeking? And what about the fight against ISIS? What would it take for there to be explicit cooperation between the U.S. and Iran?

OBAMA: I do agree that we're not going to solve the problems of Syria unless there's buy-in from the Russians, the Iranians, the Turks, our Gulf partners.

It's too chaotic. There are too many factions. There's too much money and too many arms flooding into the zone.

It's gotten caught up in both sectarian conflict and geopolitical jockeying, and in order for us to resolve it, there's going to have to be agreement among the major powers that are interested in Syria that this is not going to be won on the battlefield.

So Iran is one of those players, and I think that it's important for them to be part of that conversation.

I want to repeat what I said earlier. We have not, and I don't anticipate anytime in the near future, restored normal diplomatic relations with Iran, and so I do not foresee a formal set of agreements with Iran in terms of how we're conducting our counter-ISIL campaign.

But clearly, Iran has influence in Iraq. Iraq has a majority Shi'a population, they have relationships to Iran. Some are natural. We expect somebody like Prime Minister Abadi to meet with and negotiate and work with Iran as its neighbor. Some are less legitimate, where you see Iran financing Shi'a militias that in the past have killed American soldiers and in the future may carry out atrocities when they move into Sunni areas.

And so we're working with our diplomats on the ground as well as our military teams on the ground to assess where can we appropriately at least de-conflict and where can we work with Prime Minister Abadi around a overall strategy for Iraq to regain its sovereignty.

And where do we tell Abadi, you know what? What Iran's doing there is a problem. And we can cooperate in that area, for example, unless you get those folks out of there, because we're not going to have our troops even in an advisory or training role looking over their shoulders because they're not sure what might happen to them.

And those conversations have been ongoing. I think they will continue. The one thing you can count on is that any work that the U.S. government does or the U.S. military does in Iraq with other partners on the ground is premised on the idea that they are reporting to under the chain of command of the Iraqi government and Iraqi security forces. If we don't have confidence that ultimately Abadi is directing those soldiers, then it's tough for us to have any kind of direct relationship.

OK? Major Garrett?

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. As you well know, there are four Americans in Iran, three held on trumped-up charges that, according to your administration, one whereabouts unknown.

Can you tell the country, sir, why you are content, with all the fanfare around this deal, to leave the conscience of this nation, the strength of this nation, unaccounted for in relation to these four Americans?

And last week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said under no circumstances should there be any relief for Iran in terms of ballistic missiles or conventional weapons. It is perceived that was a last-minute capitulation in these negotiations.

Many in the Pentagon feel you've left the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff high out to dry. Could you comment?

OBAMA: I've got to give you credit, Major, for how you craft those questions.

The notion that I am content as I celebrate with American citizens languishing in Iranian jails, Major, that's nonsense, and you should know better. I've met with the families of some of those folks. Nobody's content. And our diplomats and our teams are working diligently to try to get them out.

Now, if the question is why we did not tie the negotiations to their release, think about the logic that that creates. Suddenly, Iran realizes you know what? Maybe we can get additional concessions out of the Americans by holding these individuals. Makes it much more difficult for us to walk away if Iran somehow thinks that a nuclear deal is dependent in some fashion on the nuclear.

And by the way, if we had walked away from the nuclear deal, we'd still be pushing them just as hard to get these folks out. That's why those issues are not connected. But we are working every single day to try to get them out, and won't stop until they're out and rejoined with their families.

With respect to the chairman's testimony, to some degree, I already answered with Carol (ph). We are not taking the pressure off Iran with respect to arms and with respect to ballistic missiles.

As I just explained, not only do we keep in place for five years the arms embargo under this particular new U.N. resolution, not only do we maintain the eight years on the ballistic missiles under this particular U.N. resolution, but we have a host of other multilateral and unilateral authorities that allow us to take action where we see Iran engaged in those activities, whether it's six years from now or 10 years from now.

So we have not lost those legal authorities, and in fact, part of my pitch to the GCC countries, as well as to Prime Minister Netanyahu, is we should do a better job making sure that Iran's not engaged in sending arms to organizations like Hezbollah. And as I just indicated, that means improving our intelligence capacity and our interdiction capacity with our partners.

OK. April Ryan.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. I want to change the subject a bit.

Earlier this year, on the flight to Selma, you said on matters of race, as president, your job is to close remaining gaps that are left in state and federal government.

Now, how does criminal-justice reform fit into that equation, and what gaps remain for you in the -- towards the end of your president?

And also, what does it mean to travel to Kenya, your father's homeland in the next couple weeks as president of the United States?

And lastly, would you revoke the Medal of Freedom for Bill Cosby?

OBAMA: You stuffed a lot in there, April. You know what...

QUESTION: I learned from my colleagues.

OBAMA: Who'd you learn from? Jonathan Karl? Is that what you said?


The -- on criminal-justice reform, obviously, I gave a lengthy speech yesterday, but this is something that I've been thinking about a lot, been working first with Eric Holder and now Loretta Lynch about -- we've been working along with other prosecutors of the -- the U.S. Attorney's Office. It's an outgrowth of the task force that we put together post-Ferguson and the Garner case in New York.

And I don't think that the criminal-justice system is, obviously, the sole source of racial tension in this country or the key institution to resolving the opportunity gap. But I think it is a part of the broader set of challenges that we face in creating a more perfect union.

And the good news is -- is that this is one of those rare issues where we've got some Republican and Democratic interests as well as federal, state and local interest in solving the problem.

I think people recognize that there are violent criminals out there, and they've got to be locked up. We've got to have tough prosecutors. We have to support our law enforcement officials. Police are in a tough job, and -- and they are helping to keep us safe, and we are grateful and thankful to them. But what we also know is this huge spike in incarcerations is also driven by nonviolent drug offenses where the sentencing is completely out of proportion with the crime. And that costs taxpayers enormous amounts of money, it is debilitating communities, who are seeing huge proportions of the young men in their communities finding themselves with a criminal record, rendering them oftentimes unemployable. So it compounds problems that these communities already have.

And so I am very appreciative of -- of folks like Dick Durbin and Cory Booker alongside Mike Lee and Rand Paul and other folks in the House, who are working together to see if we can both reduce some of these mandatory minimums around nonviolent drug offenses, because again, I tend not to have a lot of sympathy when it comes to violent crime. But when it comes to non-violent drug offenses, is there work that we can do to reduce mandatory minimums, create more diversion programs like drug courts, then can we do a better job on the rehabilitation side inside of prisons so that we are preparing these folks who are eventually going to be released to reenter the workforce.

On the back end, are we doing more to link them up with reentry programs that are effective? And you know, this may be an area where we could have some really significant bipartisan legislation that doesn't eliminate all the other challenges we've got. Because the most important goal is keeping folks from getting in the criminal justice system in the first place, which means early childhood education, and good jobs, and making sure that we're not segregating folks in -- in impoverished communities that have no contact with opportunity.

But this can make a difference. You know, I met these four ex- offenders, as I said yesterday. And what was remarkable was how they had turned their lives around. And these were some folks who had been some pretty tough criminals. I mean, one of them had served 10 years. Another was a repeat offender that had served a lot of time. And -- and in each instance, somebody intervened at some point in their lives, once they had already been in the criminal justice system, once they had already gotten in trouble, and said you know what, I think you can live a different way, and I'm willing to help you.

And -- and that one person, an art teacher or a GED teacher, or somebody who's willing to offer a guy a job, I want to give a shot out to Five Guys, because one of the guys there was an ex-felon, and Five Guys gave him a job. And he ended up becoming a manager at the store and was able to completely turn his life around.

But the point was, somebody reached out that person and gave them a chance. And so part of our question should be how about somebody reaching out to these guys when they're 10 or 11 or 12 or eight, as opposed to waiting until they've already gone through a criminal justice program? That's part of why we're doing my brother's keeper.

But -- but this is an area where I feel modestly optimistic. I think in the meantime, we've got to stay on top of keeping the crime rate down, because part of the reason I think there's a conversation taking place is, violent crime has significantly dropped. Last year, we saw both incarcerations and the crime rate drop. And you know, this can always turn if we start seeing renewed problems in terms of violent crime. And there's parts of the country where violent crime is still a real problem, including my hometown of Chicago, and in Baltimore, and you know part of what I've asked Attorney General Lynch to do is to figure out how can we refocus attention if we're going to do a package of criminal justice reforms?

Part of it would be actually having a greater police presence and more law enforcement in the communities that are really getting hit hard, and haven't seen some of the drops in violent crime that we've seen in places like Manhattan, for example.

With respect to the visit to Kenya, it's obviously something I am looking forward to. I will be honest with you, visiting Kenya as a private citizen is probably more meaningful to me than visiting as president, because I can actually get outside of the hotel room or a conference center.

And just the logistics of visiting a place are always tough as president. But it's obviously symbolically important, and my hope is, is that we can deliver a message that the U.S. is a strong partner, not just for Kenya, but for sub-Saharan Africa, generally: build on the progress that's been made around issues of health and education, focus on counter-terrorism issues that are important in East Africa because of Al-Shabaab and some of the tragedies that have happened inside of Kenya, and continue to encourage democracy and the reduction of corruption inside that country that sometimes has held back this incredibly -- this incredibly gifted and blessed country.

And with respect to the Medal of Freedom, there is no precedent for revoking a medal. We don't have that mechanism. And as you know, I tend to make it a policy not to comment on the specifics of -- of cases where there might still be, if not criminal, then civil issues involved.

I'll say this. If you give a woman, or a man, for that matter, without his or her knowledge, a drug and then have sex with that person without consent, that's rape, and I think this country, any civilized country, should have no tolerance for rape.

Alright. Have we exhausted Iran questions here? I -- I think there's a helicopter that's coming. But -- but I really am enjoying this Iran debate.

Topics that may not have been touched upon, criticisms that you've heard that I did not answer, the -- I just -- go ahead. Go ahead.

I know Josh is getting a little stressed here, but...


.. I just -- I just want to make sure that we're not leaving any stones unturned here. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks, Mr. President. I'll be brief. The argument has been made that Iran now has a cash windfall, billions to spend. Your people seem confident they're going to spend it at home. Why are you confident they're not going to spend it on arming Hezbollah, arming Bashr al-Assad, et cetera?

OBAMA: I -- I think that's a great question, and I'm -- I'm glad you brought it up. I think it is a mistake to -- to characterize our belief that they will just spend it on daycare centers and -- and -- and roads and -- and paying down debt. We think that they have to do some of that, because Rouhani was elected specifically on the premise of improving the economic situation inside of Iran. That economy has tanked since we imposed sanctions.

So the notion that they're just immediately going to turn over $100 billion to the IRGC or the Quds Force, I think runs contrary to all the intelligence that we've seen and the commitments that the Iranian government has made.

Do we think that with the sanctions coming down, that Iran will have some additional resources for its military and for some of the activities in the region that are a threat to us and a threat to our allies? I think that is a likelihood that they've got some additional resources.

Do I think it's a game-changer for them? No.

They are currently supporting Hezbollah, and there is a ceiling, a pace at which they could support Hezbollah even more, particularly in the chaos that's taking place in Syria.

So can they potentially try to get more assistance there? Yes.

Should we put more resources into blocking them from getting that assistance to Hezbollah? Yes.

Is the incremental additional money that they've got to try to destabilize the region or send to their proxies -- is that more important than preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon? No. Alright?

So -- so I think, again, this is a matter of us making a determination of what is our priority. The other problem with the argument that folks have been making about, "Oh, this is a windfall," and suddenly Iran's flushed with cash and they're going to take over the world -- and I say that not tongue in cheek, because if you look at some of the statements by some of our critics, you would think that Iran is, in fact, going to take over the world as a consequence of this deal, which I think would be news to the Iranians.

What -- that -- that argument is also premised on the notion that if there is no deal, if Congress votes down this deal, that we're able to keep sanctions in place with the same vigor and effectiveness as we have right now, and that, I can promise you, is not true. That is absolutely not true. I want to repeat: we're not writing Iran a check. This is Iran's money that we're able to block from them having access to. That required the cooperation of countries all around the world: many of whom really want to purchase oil from Iran. The imposition of sanctions, their cooperation with us has cost them billions of dollars, made it harder for them. They've been willing to do that because they believe we were sincere about trying to resolve the nuclear issue peacefully, and they consider that a priority, a high enough priority that they were willing to cooperate with us on sanctions.

If they saw us walking away, or more specifically, if they saw the U.S. Congress effectively vetoing the judgment of 99 percent of the world community, that this is a deal that resolves the Iranian weapons program, nuclear weapons program, in a equitable way, the sanctions system unravels.

And so we could still maintain some of our unilateral sanctions, but it would be far less effective, as it was before we were able to put together these multi-lateral sanctions.

So maybe they don't get $100 billion dollars. Maybe they get $60 billion or $70 billion instead. The price for that, that we've paid, is that now Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon. We have no inspectors on the ground. We don't know what's going on. They're still getting some cash windfall. We have lost credibility in the eyes of the world. We will have effectively united Iran and divided ourselves from our allies: a terrible position to be in.

OK. I'm just going to look -- I made some notes about many of the arguments -- the other arguments that I've heard here.

QUESTION: What about the (inaudible) deal?

OBAMA: OK. Yeah, that's a good one. The notion...

QUESTION: At the end of the deal, they could go back...

OBAMA: Right. Well, so -- so let's address this issue of -- because that's the other big argument that's been made. All right. Let's assume that the deal holds for 10 years. Iran doesn't cheat. Now, at the end of 10 years, some of the restrictions have been lifted, although remember, others stay in place for 15 years. So for example, they've still got to keep their stockpiles at a minimal level for 15 years.

The inspections don't go away. Those are still in place 15, 20 years from now. Their commitment under the Non-Proliferation Treaty does not go away. That's still in place. The additional protocol that they have to sign up for under this deal, which requires a more extensive inspection and verification mechanism, that stays in place.

So, there is no scenario in which a U.S. president is not in a stronger position 12, 13, 15 years from now, if in fact Iran decided at that point they still wanted to get a nuclear weapon.

Keep in mind, we will have maintained a one-year breakout time. We will have rolled back their program, frozen their facilities, kept them under severe restrictions, had observers. They will have made international commitments supported by countries around the world. And -- and hold on a second.

And if at that point, they've finally decided, you know what, we're going to cheat, or not even cheat, at that point they decide openly, "We're now pursuing a nuclear weapon," they're still in violation of this deal and the commitments they've made internationally.

And so we are still in a position to mobilize the world's community to say, "no, you can't have a nuclear weapon."

And they're not in a stronger position to get a nuclear weapon at that point. They are in a weaker position than they are today.