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Tue 3 Mar 2015 12:26 PM

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Obama says Iran must halt key nuclear work for at least a decade

Says US-Israel ties strong, issue with Netanyahu not personal

Obama says Iran must halt key nuclear work for at least a decade
U.S. President Barack Obama. (Getty Images)

Iran must commit to a verifiable freeze of at least
10 years on sensitive nuclear activity for a landmark atomic deal to be
reached, but the odds are still against sealing a final agreement, US President
Barack Obama told Reuters on Monday.

Interviewed at the White House, Obama moved to dial
back tensions over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's planned speech
to Congress on Tuesday opposing the Iran deal, saying it was a distraction that
would not be "permanently destructive" to US Israeli ties.

But he strongly criticized Netanyahu's stance and
stressed there was a "substantial disagreement" between them over how
to achieve their shared goal of preventing Israel's arch foe from acquiring
nuclear weapons.

Talks between major powers and Iran to restrict
Tehran's nuclear capabilities in exchange for an easing of sanctions have
reached a critical stage ahead of an end of March deadline for a framework deal
and a June 30 date for a final agreement.

Obama's comment about the time frame for a freeze
represents one of the US government's strongest signals yet of its red line for
a successful deal.

"If, in fact, Iran is willing to agree to
double-digit years of keeping their program where it is right now and, in fact,
rolling back elements of it that currently exist ... if we've got that, and
we've got a way of verifying that, there's no other steps we can take that
would give us such assurance that they don't have a nuclear weapon," he

The US goal is to make sure "there's at least
a year between us seeing them try to get a nuclear weapon and them actually
being able to obtain one," Obama said in the interview, carefully timed by
the White House a day ahead of Netanyahu's polarizing speech to Congress.

Obama's robust defense of a possible deal with Iran
comes as his administration faces criticism from some quarters that it is being
too eager to complete a deal, at the risk of allowing Iran to eventually become
a nuclear state.

The White House last week denied a report that the
United States and Iran were exploring a possible 10-year deal that would initially
freeze Iran's nuclear program but gradually allow it to increase activities
that could enable it to produce nuclear arms in the last years of the

In the interview, Obama again criticized a plan by
Republicans and some Democrats in the US Senate to impose additional sanctions
on Iran if no deal is reached by June 30, saying it could undermine the
delicate talks.

"I'm less concerned, frankly, with Prime
Minster Netanyahu's commentary than I'm with Congress taking actions that might
undermine the talks before they're completed."

Despite recent progress in the talks, Obama
suggested there had been little change in his assessment that the negotiations
have less than a 50 percent chance of success.

"I would say that it is probably still more
likely than not that Iran doesn't get to 'yes,' but I think that, in fairness
to them, they have been serious negotiators and they've got their own politics
inside of Iran. It is more likely that we could get a deal now than perhaps
three or five months ago," he said.

An Iran nuclear deal would be a potential signature
achievement for Obama whose foreign policy legacy is mixed with just two years
left in office.

Seemingly intractable challenges, from Russian
separatists in Ukraine to ISIL militants in Syria, have overshadowed successes
such as the killing of Osama bin Laden and the tentative opening up of
relations with Cuba.

Israel fears that Obama's Iran diplomacy will still
allow Iran to develop an atom bomb. Tehran denies it is seeking nuclear weapons.

Netanyahu has spoken scathingly about a possible
deal, saying negotiators appear to have given up on a pledge to prevent Iran
from acquiring nuclear weapons. He says a nuclear-armed Iran would pose an
existential threat to the Jewish state.

US officials have said the "politicized"
nature of Netanyahu's address, at the invitation of the Republican
congressional leadership, threatens to undermine the close bilateral

In a speech on Monday to the American Israel Public
Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the largest US pro-Israel lobby, Netanyahu again
warned that a nuclear deal could threaten Israel's survival while insisting the
US-Israeli relationship was "stronger than ever."

Obama said the rift with Netanyahu, with whom he
has already had frosty ties, was not personal and that he would meet the
Israeli leader again if he wins Israel's March 17 election. In a nod to Israeli
concerns, he acknowledged that Iran's government had a history of
"anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements."

But he reiterated the administration's criticism of
Netanyahu's address and said the Israeli leader had been wrong before with his
opposition to a 2013 interim deal with Iran.

"Netanyahu made all sorts of claims. This was
going to be a terrible deal. This was going to result in Iran getting 50
billion dollars worth of relief. Iran would not abide by the agreement. None of
that has come true.

"It has turned out that in fact, during this
period we've seen Iran not advance its program. In many ways, it's rolled back
elements of its program."

Israeli officials traveling with Netanyahu had no
immediate comment.

Obama said that a key doubt was whether Iran would
agree to rigorous inspection demands and the low levels of uranium enrichment
capability they would have to maintain.

"But if they do agree to it, it would be far
more effective in controlling their nuclear program than any military action we
could take, any military action Israel could take and far more effective than
sanctions will be," Obama said.

Turning to ties with Asia's largest economy, Obama
sharply criticized China's plans for new rules on US tech companies, urging
Beijing to change the policy if it wants to do business with the United States
and saying he had raised it with President Xi Jinping.

"This is something that I've raised directly
with President Xi," Obama said. "We have made it very clear to them
that this is something they are going to have to change if they are to do
business with the United States."

On what could be another landmark foreign policy
achievement, Obama said he hoped the United States will open an embassy in Cuba
by the time of a Western Hemisphere summit in Panama in mid-April.

Washington and Havana announced on December 17
that they planned to restore diplomatic relations following 18 months of secret
face-to-face talks. "There's a lot of work that still has to be
done," Obama added.

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