Obama says Iran at least a year from getting bomb

Cautions that new leader’s clout is limited

President Obama said Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, has “been saying a lot of the right things. And the question now is, can he follow through?”
Charles Dharapak/Associated Press/file
President Obama said Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, has “been saying a lot of the right things. And the question now is, can he follow through?”

WASHINGTON — President Obama said US intelligence agencies believe Iran is still ‘‘a year or more’’ away from producing a nuclear weapon, an assessment he acknowledged was at odds with Israel.

‘‘Our estimate is probably more conservative than the estimates of Israeli intelligence services,’’ Obama said in a wide-ranging interview last week with the Associated Press.

Obama’s comments came amid signs that long-standing tensions between the United States and Tehran might be easing. In late September, Obama spoke by phone with President Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new, more-moderate sounding leader. The 15-minute call marked the first direct exchange between US and Iranian leaders in more than 30 years.


‘‘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?’’

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But Obama said Rouhani is not Iran’s only ‘‘decision-maker. He’s not even the ultimate decision-maker,’’ a reference to the control wielded by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Given the supreme leader’s broad influence, some countries, most notably Israel, have questioned whether Rouhani actually represents real change in Iran or just new packaging of old policies.

Khamenei said Saturday that he supported Rouhani’s outreach to the West, but at the same time called the US government ‘‘untrustworthy, arrogant, illogical, and a promise-breaker,’’ according to comment summarized on his website.

Obama put distance between US and Israeli assessments of when Iran might have the capacity to build a nuclear weapon. Israeli officials have said Iran is just months away from having the capacity and knowledge to build a bomb, while Obama said Tehran was a year or more away.


Israel’s justice minister, Tzipi Livni, played down the differences.

‘The question isn’t the timetable, the question is how we get that result,’’ Livni told Israel’s Channel 10 TV.

Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, disputed Obama’s comments, repeating Iran’s assertion that it is not seeking a nuclear weapon. Tehran says it is enriching uranium for peaceful purposes.

On the war in Afghanistan, the president said he is considering keeping some American forces there after the war formally ends in late 2014, if an agreement can be reached with the Afghan government. He tried to do the same in Iraq but was unable to reach an agreement with its government.

Obama spoke on Friday, four days into the partial shutdown of the federal government. He reiterated his opposition to negotiating with House Republicans to end the shutdown or raise the nation’s debt ceiling.


‘‘There are enough votes in the House of Representatives to make sure that the government reopens today,’’ he said. ‘‘And I’m pretty willing to bet that there are enough votes in the House of Representatives right now to make sure that the United States doesn’t end up being a deadbeat.’’

The start of the shutdown coincided with the opening of sign-ups for the insurance exchanges at the heart of Obama’s health care law. Some House Republicans are seeking changes to the law in exchange for reopening the government.

Obama said he would be willing to negotiate with Republicans on health care, deficit reduction, and spending — but only if House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, holds votes to reopen the government and increase the nation’s borrowing limit.

The Treasury Department says the nation will hit its borrowing limit around Oct. 17. Obama didn’t specifically rule out taking action on his own if Congress fails to increase the debt ceiling.

Obama, who successfully ran for president as a first-term senator, also spoke critically about first-term Republican senators, such as Ted Cruz of Texas, who have been leading efforts to shut the government if Republicans can’t extract concessions from the White House.

The president said that when he was in the Senate, he ‘‘didn’t go around courting the media. And I certainly didn’t go around trying to shut down the government.’’

‘‘I recognize that in today’s media age, being controversial, taking controversial positions, rallying the most extreme parts of your base, whether it’s left or right, is a lot of times the fastest way to get attention and raise money,’’ he said. ‘‘But it’s not good for government.’’