STEVE INSKEEP: So many of the concerns and questions about the Iran deal seem to me to focus on what kind of a country you think Iran is.
People are asking, "what will happen in 10 or 15 years as the deal starts to expire," or they're asking "what will Iran do in the region during the period of the deal?"
All of those concerns seem to get down to the nature of the government itself, which makes me begin this by asking: Do you believe that Iran's government is a government that is capable of changing its ways?
OBAMA: ... Let me flip the question, Steve...We're now in a position where Iran has agreed to unprecedented inspections and verifications of its program, providing assurances that it is peaceful in nature. You have them rolling back a number of pathways that they currently have available to break out and get a nuclear weapon. You have assurances that their stockpile of highly enriched uranium remains in a place where they cannot create a nuclear weapon.
And that lasts not only for the first 10 years, but the inspections and verifications that are unprecedented go for another decade after that.
Now, ideally, we would see a situation in which Iran, seeing sanctions reduced, would start focusing on its economy, on training its people, on reentering the world community, to lessening its provocative activities in the region.
But if it doesn't change, we are so much better if we have this deal in place than if we don't.
And so I'm not trying to avoid your question. I — I think that there are different trends inside of Iran.
I think there are hard-liners inside of Iran that think it is the right thing to do to oppose us, to seek to destroy Israel, to cause havoc in places like Syria or Yemen or Lebanon. And then I think there are others inside Iran who think that this is counterproductive. And it is possible that if we sign this nuclear deal, we strengthen the hand of those more moderate forces inside of Iran.
But the key point I want to make is, the deal is not dependent on anticipating those changes. If they don't change at all, we're still better off having the deal.
INSKEEP: But you raise a very interesting point there when you're talking about Iran's enriched uranium.
Most of its enriched uranium is supposed to be set off to the side and diluted; it may, however, remain inside Iran. Eventually, the deal expires. Perhaps the uranium is still there, which is why...
... where the regime changes is a significant question.
OBAMA: Actually, that's not how it works, Steve, because once you've diluted a process or...
INSKEEP: It can't be...
OBAMA ... stockpiles have — have maintained at 300 kilograms or below, they're not going to have been able to horde a bunch of uranium that somehow they then convert to weapons-grade uranium.
What is a more relevant fear would be that in year 13, 14, 15, they have advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero.
Keep in mind, though, currently, the breakout times are only about two to three months by our intelligence estimates. So essentially, we're purchasing for 13, 14, 15 years assurances that the breakout is at least a year ... that — that if they decided to break the deal, kick out all the inspectors, break the seals and go for a bomb, we'd have over a year to respond. And we have those assurances for at least well over a decade.
And then in years 13 and 14, it is possible that those breakout times would have been much shorter, but at that point we have much better ideas about what it is that their program involves. We have much more insight into their capabilities. And the option of a future president to take action if in fact they try to obtain a nuclear weapon is undiminished.
So, it's a hard argument to make that we're better off right now having almost no breakout period, no insight, and letting them rush towards a bomb, than saying, over the course of 15 years, we have very clear assurances that they're not going to do anything.
And at that, at the end of that period, maybe they've changed, maybe they haven't. If they haven't changed, we still have the options available to me — or available to a future president that I have available to me right now.
INSKEEP: Obviously, the tradeoff for the concessions on the nuclear program is the lifting of many sanctions against Iran.
A friend wrote to me this:
the President brought up the issue - the 13-year 0 breakout time scenario - as a way to dodge a question about letting Iran keep its stockpile. What could he possibly be so afraid of on the stockpile issue, that he would instead talk about how a decade from now Iran will be able to go nuclear at will?
Thirteen years, you know, marks a Bar Mitzva.