President Obama says US intelligence continues to believe that Iran is a year or more away from being able to produce a nuclear weapon -- an assessment at odds with Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that Iran is about six months away, but Obama in an interview with the Associated Press acknowledged that the U.S. estimate is "more conservative" than that of the Israeli intelligence service.
"We share a lot of intelligence with Israelis," Obama told the AP, adding that Netanyahu "understandably is very skeptical about Iran, given the threats that they've made repeatedly against Israel, given the aid that they've given to organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas that have fired rockets into Israel. If I were the Prime Minister of Israel, I would be very wary as well of any kind of talk from the Iranians."
But Obama said he's told Netanyahu that economic sanctions against the country were designed to "bring them to the table in a serious way to see if we can resolve this issue diplomatically. And we've got to test that. We're not going to take a bad deal. We are going to make sure that we verify any agreement that we might strike."
He called it "very much in not only the United States' interest but also Israel's interest to see if we can resolve this without some sort of military conflict. And so we now have the time to have those serious conversations, and we'll be able to measure how serious the Iranians are."
Obama, who has exchanged letters and talked on the phone with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, said Iranians have shown a "genuine interest in moving in a new direction, given the economic sanctions that have been imposed by the international community.
"I think Rouhani has staked his position on the idea that he can improve relations with the rest of the world," Obama said. "And so far, he's been saying a lot of the right things. And the question now is, can he follow through? The way the Iranian system works, he's not the only decision maker -- he's not even the ultimate decision maker.
Obama in the AP interview raised the possibility of keeping troops in Afghanistan after the U.S. ends combat operations there at the end of 2014.
"What I've said is that if, in fact, the Afghan government is interested and willing to work with us in a cooperative way that protects our troops and other coalition partners, we would consider a train-and-advise mission that would extend beyond 2014 -- greatly reduced from what we're doing now," he said.
He noted it would take a bilateral security agreement to make sure the troops were "fully protected and that the U.S. is in discussions with the Afghan government and President Hami Karzai.
"But no matter what, by the end of next year," he said, "We'll be finished with combat operations."
He said his preference would be that Afghans manage security on their own, "and that we don't see a return of al Qaeda or any other terrorist organization operating on Afghan soil," but said although "they're getting there; they're not quite there yet."