President Barack Obama defended a tentative nuclear deal with Iran, calling it the best possible way to ensure the country doesn't pose a threat --- even as he acknowledged that the odds are 50/50 that a deal ultimately will be reached.
Speaking at the 10th annual Saban Forum a day before the deal's most prominent critic -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the group -- Obama said he wants to give diplomacy a chance to work.
"The best way for us to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapons is for a comprehensive, verifiable, diplomatic resolution," Obama said, noting that it would be done "without taking any other options off the table if we fail to achieve that."
He said it was "important" to test a diplomatic resolution over the next six months, "understanding that while we’re talking, they’re not secretly improving their position or changing circumstances on the ground inside of Iran.
"And if at the end of six months it turns out that we can’t make a deal," he said, "We’re no worse off, and in fact we have greater leverage with the international community to continue to apply sanctions and even strengthen them."
He noted that although new Iranian president Rouhani is "part of the Iranian establishment" and that it's likely "his ideology is one that is hostile to the United States and to Israel," his election also represents Iranian interest in a change of direction.
"And we should not underestimate or entirely dismiss a shift in how the Iranian people want to interact with the world," he said.
Still, Obama said he wasn't sure that the chances for a deal were all that encouraging.
"We have to not constantly assume that it’s not possible for Iran, like any country, to change over time," he said. "It may not be likely. If you asked me what is the likelihood that we’re able to arrive at the end state that I was just describing earlier, I wouldn’t say that it’s more than 50/50. But we have to try."
Members of Congress and Netanyahu, who will address the same forum by video from Israel on Sunday, have questioned the deal and Obama spent much of his remarks insisting that negotiators are not being naive about Iran's intentions.
"It’s not based on trust; it’s based on what we can verify," he said at one point.
He also sought to reassure Israelis -- whom polls show are dubious about the deal -- that Israeli security is a priority for the U.S., saying several times that military options would remain on the table if Iran doesn't comply with the deal.
"The one thing I will say to the people of Israel is that you can be assured whoever is in the office I currently occupy, Democrat or Republican, that your security will be uppermost on our minds.," he said.
Obama took a few questions from the audience, including from a man who identified himself as a former general in the Israeli Air Force and asked Obama what his "Plan B" is if the talks fail.
"If we cannot get the kind of comprehensive end state that satisfies us and the world community and the P5-plus-1, then the pressure that we’ve been applying on them and the options that I’ve made clear I can avail myself of, including a military option, is one that we would consider and prepare for," Obama said. "And we’ve always said that. So that does not change."