Obama Backs Dempsey: Iranian Leaders ‘Make Decisions Based On Trying To Avoid Bad Outcomes’

Right-wing hawks have been incensed since Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria last month that Iran is a “rational actor.” Dempsey and Obama administration officials have faced increasing hostility from the right for their views, backed by IAEA reports and U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, that sanctions and diplomacy are effective tools in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. In fact, the Joint Chiefs chairman, when pressed by Republicans in separate Senate and House hearings this week, stood by his claim that Iran makes cost-benefit calculations.

In an interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg published today, President Obama said that it is “unacceptable” for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons and said that he would authorize military force if necessary to prevent that. “I don’t bluff,” Obama said.

The President also noted that the diplomatic and sanctions tracks have been effective. “We have a sanctions architecture that is far more effective than anybody anticipated,” he said, adding that the United States wanted to solve the Iranian nuclear crisis “permanently.” “They are self-interested,” Obama said of the Iranian leadership, and later backed Dempsey’s assessment:

OBAMA: [O]ur argument is going to be that it is important for us to see if we can solve this thing permanently, as opposed to temporarily. And the only way, historically, that a country has ultimately decided not to get nuclear weapons without constant military intervention has been when they themselves take [nuclear weapons] off the table. That’s what happened in Libya, that’s what happened in South Africa. And we think that, without in any way being under an illusion about Iranian intentions, without in any way being naive about the nature of that regime, they are self-interested. […]

GOLDBERG: Last week, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. referred to the Iranian leadership as “rational.” Where do you fall on this continuum? Do you feel that the leaders of Iran might be so irrational that they will not act in what we would understand to be their self-interest? … Do you think they [the Iranian leaders] are messianic?

OBAMA: I think it’s entirely legitimate to say that this is a regime that does not share our worldview or our values. I do think, and this is what General Dempsey was probably referring to, that as we look at how they operate and the decisions they’ve made over the past three decades, that they care about the regime’s survival. … They are able to make decisions based on trying to avoid bad outcomes from their perspective.

It’s unclear what Obama meant by a “temporary” solution to resolving the Iran nuclear impasse. However, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in November that using military force would only delay Iran’s nuclear progress. When asked if he agreed with his predecessor’s evaluation that “bombing would at most delay that program or derail it up to two or three years at most,” Panetta responded: “I see no change in the assessments.”

While the IAEA has expressed serious concerns about possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program, neither the IAEA nor U.S. intelligence reports have asserted that Iran has restarted its nuclear weapons program.