Monday, March 2, 2015

Exclusive: Full text of Reuters interview with Obama

Reuters White House Correspondent Jeff Mason interviewed President BarackObama on Monday on topics including U.S.-Israel relations, Iran, China and Russia. Here is a full transcript of the interview.
REUTERS - Mr. President, thanks very much for joining us.
OBAMA - Good to see you.
REUTERS - Let’s start right on Israel. Your administration has described Prime Minister Netanyahu’s plans to address Congress tomorrow on Iran as destructive. What damage has really been done?
OBAMA - Well, first of all, I think it’s important to realize the depth of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Under my administration, billions of dollars have gone to support Israel’s security, including the Iron Dome program that has protected them from missiles fired along their borders. The military intelligence cooperation is unprecedented and that’s not our estimation. That’s the estimation of the Netanyahu government. And that bond is unbreakable. So we need to make clear from the outset how strong our alliance with Israelis.
The second point is that we actually share a goal, which is making sure Iran does not have a nuclear weapon. That’s something that I committed to when I was still a senator. It is a solemn pledge I made before I was elected president and everything that I’ve done over the course of the last several years in relation to Iran has been in pursuit of that policy. There is a substantial disagreement in terms of how to achieve that. And what it boils down to is what’s the best way to ensure that Iran is not developing a nuclear weapon.
Prime Minister Netanyahu thinks that the best way to do that is either through doubling down on more sanctions or through military action, ensuring that Iran has absolutely no enrichment capabilities whatsoever. And there’s no expert on Iran or nuclear proliferation around the world that seriously thinks that Iran is going to respond to additional sanctions by eliminating its nuclear program.
What we’ve said from the start is by organizing a strong sanctions regime, what we can do is bring Iran to the table. And by bringing Iran to the table, force them to have a serious negotiation in which a) we are able to see exactly what’s going on inside of Iran b) we’re able to create what we call a breakout period, a timeline where we know if they were to try to get a nuclear weapon it would take them a certain amount of time.
And the deal that we’re trying to negotiate is to make sure that there’s at least a year between us seeing them try to get a nuclear weapon and them actually being able to obtain one.
And as long as we’ve got that one-year breakout capacity, that ensures us that we can take military action to stop them if they were stop it.
Now, we’re still in the midst of negotiations. What I’ve said consistently is, we should let these negotiations play out. If, in fact, Iran is agree, willing to agree to double-digit years of keeping their program where it is right now and, in fact, rolling back elements of it that currently exist …
REUTERS - Double digit years?
OBAMA - Double digit years. If we’ve got that and we’ve got a way of verifying that, there’s no other steps we can take that would give us such assurance that they don’t have a nuclear weapon.
Now, Iran may not agree to the rigorous inspection demands that we’re insisting on. They may not agree to the low levels of enrichment capabilities they would have to maintain to ensure that their breakout is at least a year. But if they do agree to it, it would be far more effective in controlling their nuclear program than any military action we could take, any military action Israel could take and far more effective than sanctions will be.
And we know that because during the period in which we applied sanctions for over a decade, Iran went from about 300 or a couple of hundred centrifuges to tens of thousands of centrifuges in response to sanctions.
REUTERS - Let’s talk a little bit specifically about the prime minister. Susan Rice said that what he has done by accepting the invitation to speak was destructive to the fabric of the relationship. Would you agree that it’s destructive? And if so, will there be any consequences for him or for Israel?
OBAMA - You know, I think that Prime Minister Netanyahu is sincere about his concerns with respect to Iran. And given Iran’s record and given the extraordinarily disruptive and dangerous activities of this regime in the region, it’s understandable why Israel is very concerned about Iran. We are too. But what we’ve consistently said is we have to stay focused on our ultimate goal, which is preventing Iran from having a nuclear weapon.
Now, as a matter of policy, we think it’s a mistake for the prime minister of any country to come to speak before Congress a few weeks before they are about to have an election. It makes it look like we are taking sides.
REUTERS - But aside from that, what about that is destructive?
OBAMA - I’m answering your question, Jeff. And the concern is, not only does it look like it politicizes the relationship but what’s also a problem is when the topic of the prime minister’s speech is an area where the executive branch – the U.S. president and his team – have a disagreement with the other side.
I think those who offered the invitation and some of the commentators who have said this is the right thing to do, it’s worth asking them whether, when George W. Bush had initiated the war in Iraq and Democrats were controlling Congress, if they had invited let’s say the president of France to appear before Congress to criticize or to air those disagreements, I think most people would say, well, that wouldn’t be the right thing to do. I guarantee you that some of the same commentators who are cheerleading now would have suggested that it was the wrong thing to do.
I don’t think it’s permanently destructive. I think that it is a distraction from what should be our focus. And our focus should be,‘How do we stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon?’ Now keep in mind the prime minister, when we signed up for this interim deal that would essentially freeze Iran’s program, roll back its highly enriched uranium - its 20 percent highly enriched uranium - and so reduce the possibility that Iran might breakout while we were engaged in these negotiations, when we first announced this interim a deal, Prime Minister Netanyahu made all sorts of claims. This was going to be a terrible deal. This was going to result in Iran getting 50 billion dollars worth of relief. Iran would not abide by the agreement. None of that has come true.
It has turned out that, in fact, during this period we’ve seen Iran not advance its program. In many ways, it’s rolled back elements of its program. And we’ve got more insight into what they’re doing with more vigorous inspections than even the supporters of an interim deal suggested.
So the question is this: If in fact we are trying to finalize a deal, why not wait to see a) is there actually going to be a deal? Can Iran accept the terms that we’re laying out? If in factIran can accept terms that would ensure a one year breakout period for ten years or longer and during that period we know Iran is not developing a nuclear weapon - we have inspectors on the ground that give us assurances that they’re not creating a covert program - why would we not take that deal when we know the alternatives, whether through sanctions or military actions, will not result in as much assurance that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon?
There's no good reason for us not to let the negotiations play themselves out. Then we'll show, here - here's the deal that's been negotiated, does it make sense? And I am confident that if, in fact, a deal is arrived at, then it's going to be a deal that is most likely to preventIran from getting a nuclear weapon.
REUTERS - You obviously disagree about that. If the prime minister wins reelection, would you be able to work with him?
OBAMA - Absolutely. We're working with him now on a whole range of issues.
REUTERS - Would you meet with him?
OBAMA - Of course. As I've said before, the only reason that we didn't meet with him this time is a general policy we don't meet with somebody two weeks before an election. I've met with Prime Minister Netanyahu more than any other world leader. And given the strong relationship between the United States and Israel, I would expect that to continue.
REUTERS - Is it fair to say you're angry with him?
OBAMA - This is not a personal issue. I think that it is important for every country in its relationship with the United States to recognize that the U.S. has a process of making policy. And although we have separation of powers, ultimately, the interaction with foreign governments runs through the executive branch. That's true whether it's a Democratic president or a Republican president. And that's true regardless of how close the ally is.
REUTERS - Have Israel's actions been disruptive to the ability to get this deal?
OBAMA - I think that it's been a distraction. I think that in the meantime negotiators are going full speed ahead. Ultimately, what's been remarkable is the international unity we've been able to maintain in saying to Iran, you have to show the world that you are not pursuing a nuclear weapon. You can have very modest enrichment capabilities for peaceful use, so long as there's a vigorous enough inspection process that we have assurances that you are not obtaining breakout capacity. And the biggest challenge right now to getting a deal is for Iran to recognize this is its path in order to ultimately re-enter into the community of nations.
REUTERS - Have your communications with the Supreme Leader helped in this?
OBAMA - You know, I would say that most of the work has been done directly between the negotiators and Secretary Kerry, Foreign Minister Zarif of Iran, the expert teams that have worked together along with our P5+1 partners. They've done the lion's share of the work.
REUTERS – But has that been useful?
OBAMA – I think it’s been important for us to send a clear signal to all parties inside of Iranthat we are not the aggressors here. We are looking to resolve this diplomatically if we can. But given the history of Iran engaging in covert programs, given the history of Iranian sponsorship of terrorism in the region and around the world, given the rhetoric that's come out from the Iranian regime including anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements, it is important for them to understand that they have a high threshold that they have to meet in terms of proof and convincing the world that they're prepared to not pursue a nuclear program.
If they do that, and we have ways of measuring that, very concrete ways, if they do that, that's the best path for us to take. What we should not do is to try to jettison the talks, undermine the talks.
I'm less concerned, frankly, with Prime Minister Netanyahu's commentary than I am with Congress taking actions that might undermine the talks before they're complete. And what I've said to members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, is there will be plenty of time for us to reapply sanctions, strengthen sanctions, to take a whole range of other measures, if in fact we do not have a deal. But what we should not do is pre-judge the deal and initiate sanctions that might allow Iran to walk away and claim that the United States is the one that has eliminated the path to diplomacy.
REUTERS – How would you judge, what’s your assessment of the percentage likelihood now of this happening.
OBAMA - The likelihood of?
REUTERS - Of a deal coming through? You’ve said before less than 50 percent.
OBAMA - You know, I would say that it's probably still more likely than not that Irandoesn't get to yes. But I think in fairness to them, they have been serious negotiators. And they've got their own politics inside of Iran. It is more likely that we could get a deal now than perhaps three or five months ago. But there are still some big gaps that have to be filled.
REUTERS - We're running short of time. So I'm going to ask you about Russia. A top opponent of President Putin was gunned down last week. What does this say about Vladimir Putin's Russia and do you believe that the Kremlin was not involved?
OBAMA - What I've called for is a full investigation and, hopefully, an independent investigation of what happened. Whether that can occur inside today’s Russia is not clear. The individual involved is somebody that I actually met with back in 2009.
This is an indication of a climate at least inside of Russia in which civil society, independent journalists, people trying to communicate on the Internet, have felt increasingly threatened, constrained, and increasingly the only information that the Russian public is able to get is through state-controlled media outlets. That is a problem. It's part of what has allowed, I think, Russia to engage in the sort of aggression that it is has against Ukraine.
REUTERS - You don't want to say whether or not the Kremlin was involved?
OBAMA - I have no idea at this point exactly what happened. What I do know is more broadly the fact that free - freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of information, basic civil rights and civil liberties inside of Russia are in much worse shape now than they were four or five, ten years ago.
REUTERS - Let me ask you about another area of the world, China. Are you concerned about how hard China is making it for U.S. tech companies to do business there?
OBAMA - I am concerned. This is something that I've raised directly with President Xi, and my entire foreign policy team as well as people like Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew and Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker have raised with them. They've got a couple of laws that are working their way through the system that would essentially force all foreign companies, including U.S. companies, to turn over to the Chinese government mechanisms where they could snoop and keep track of all the users of those services. And as you might imagine, tech companies are not going to be willing to do that.
Those kinds of restrictive practices I think would, ironically, hurt the Chinese economy over the long term because I don't think there's any U.S. or European firm, any international firm, that could credibly get away with that wholesale turning over of data, personal data, over to a government. And so we've made very clear to them that this is something they're going to have to change if they expect to do business with the United States.
REUTERS - Let me close with a lightning round of yes or no questions. Keystone veto just happened. How soon do you think we'll have a decision from the State Department and ultimately the White House - weeks, months or not before the end of your administration?
OBAMA – I think it will happen before the end of my administration.
REUTERS - Weeks or months?
OBAMA - Weeks or months.
REUTERS – O.K. and on Cuba, do you expect to have relations, diplomatic relations restored between Cuba and the United States before the Panama summit?
OBAMA - My hope is that we will be able to open an embassy, and that some of the initial groundwork will have been laid. Keep in mind that our expectation has never been that we would achieve full normalization immediately. There is a lot of work that still has to be done. But we are going down a path in which we can open up our relations to Cuba in a way that ultimately will prompt more change in Cuba. And we're already seeing it.
The very fact that since our announcement, the Cuban government has begun to discuss ways in which they are going to reorganize their economy to accommodate for possible foreign investment, that's already forcing a series of changes that promises to open up more opportunities for entrepreneurs, more transparency in terms of what's happening in theireconomy, and that's always been the premise of this policy. That after 50 years of a policy that didn't work, we need to try something new that encourages and ultimately I think forces the Cuban government to engage in a modern economy. And that will create more space for freedom for the Cuban people.
REUTERS - Very last question on domestic policy. The Supreme Court is seeing arguments on the Burwell v. King this week. Your administration has said it does not have a Plan B. Isn't that a little risky?
OBAMA - This should be a pretty straightforward case of statutory interpretation. If you look at the law, if you look at the testimony of those who were involved in the law, including some of the opponents of the law, the understanding was that people who joined the federal exchange were going to be able to access tax credits. Just like if they went to a state exchange. And you know what? The thing's working, exactly as intended. Which is why we signed up 11 million people to go through these exchanges.
And we're seeing more competition, lower prices, more choice, more shopping among people than even I expected, even proponents of it expected. And it's costing less than anybody expected. So the thing's working. And there's in our view not a plausible legal basis for striking it down. But, you know, we'll have to wait and see what the Supreme Court decides.
REUTERS - They could rule against you. Then what?
OBAMA - Well if they rule against us, we'll have to take a look at what our options are. But I'm not going to anticipate that. I'm not going to anticipate bad law. All right?
REUTERS - Mr. President thanks very much for your time.

OBAMA - Thank you so much.

Video - Rice: A bad deal with Iran is worse than no deal

Video - Obama: Deal with Iran more likely now, still gaps

Video - Obama says Netanyahu's speech on Iran is a mistake

Video - Netanyahu: No disrespect to President Obama for visit

Pakistan - Anti-polio campaigns postponed Balochistan due to a lack of security guards

Anti-polio campaigns, which were to be held in the Quetta, Zhob and Shirani districts of Balochistan on Monday, have been postponed once again due to a lack of security guards available to guard vaccinators.

In Quetta, the same anti-polio campaign was postponed in mid-February, as a majority of the police were engaged in providing security to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and other VIPs who had visited Quetta.
According to an official of the Emergency Operation Center (EOC) Balochistan, anti-polio drives could not be initiated in three high-risk districts — Quetta, Qila Abdullah and Shirani — while anti-polio campaigns are under way in five other districts — Jhal Magsi, Jaffarabad, Nasirabad and Pishin.
“There was no security personnel available to guard the anti-polio vaccinators, which is why we had to postpone the campaign,” an official said.
According to sources, security personnel and police were deployed for the security of politicians and senior government officials.
The Quetta district was divided in two zones, and a campaign was launched in one zone a month ago. However, an anti-polio campaign was postponed in another zone twice due to the lack of availability of security forces.

Pakistan - Balochistan’s Miners

Following the recent disaster in a coal mine in Dukki, which led to the death of seven miners, Balochistan’s 60,000 miners are gearing up to launch a countrywide protest against injustices faced by labourers. Shamsur Rehman Swati, head of the National Labour Federation, has said that the campaign would be launched on 7th March after which a Labour Convention would be held on 10th March in Lahore that would demand safety and security measures at the workplace. Coal miners in Balochistan are forced to work under extremely difficult conditions which violate all standards including those set by International Labour Organisation (ILO). According to a report published in this paper, “hundreds of coal miners have died in about 150 explosions inside mines caused by the accumulation of Methane gas during last ten years.” Speaking on the issue, President Balochistan Geoscientist Association, Abdul Razaq Khilji, said, “The Mines and Mineral Department has failed to convince the mine owners, responsible, to establish a gas system particularly methane detectors and a proper ventilation system”.
There is also a problem in the legislation related to miners. The 1923 Mine Act proscribes a penalty of just Rs 40,000 and six months imprisonment for mine owners and contractors found guilty of committing violations that often lead to accidents and deaths of miners. Clearly, there is a need to introduce fresh legislation which covers all labourers , makes it mandatory for owners, contractors and relevant authorities to implement safety procedures and proposes strict punishments for violators. Be it the provincial or the federal government – everyone is aware of the hazardous working conditions coal miners are forced to work under but they have chosen to do absolutely nothing to rectify the situation because coal is apparently more valuable than the lives of people who dig it from the earth. How many workers have contracted respiratory and other diseases from work? How many bereaved families are still owed compensation? How are mine owners and contractors able to regularly defy laws and escape governmental oversight and accountability? All these questions must be answered. The blatant exploitation of miners and other labourers ought to be curbed. Making a living is hard, and it doesn’t have to be a walk in the park, but labourers in Pakistan are made to pay too heavy a price and receive far too little in return. Meanwhile, employers keeping growing richer along with members of relevant authorities who are supposed to keep a check on them and protect labourers from abuse. Alone, the miners cannot take on powerful owners and complicit members of the relevant departments. It is incumbent upon the people and conscientious lawmakers to join them in their protest and make efforts to rescue them from corrupt officials and greedy entrepreneurs.

Pakistan - Punjab Govt's Roads obsession

The Punjab government's obsession with the construction and widening of roads is getting out of control as it is bent upon facilitating a small section of citizens — vehicle owners — at the cost of the environment by cutting trees and dismantling public property and heritage. A full bench of the Lahore High Court the other day, while allowing over one hundred petitions, scrapped the elevated expressway project from Qartaba Chowk to Liberty in Gulberg. The court has ordered the Punjab government to follow proper guidelines before launching the project and acquiring land and property for the purpose post haste. The counsel for the Punjab government argued that it was a public welfare project but he failed to justify why utmost urgency was being paid to the completion of this road. The construction of a signal-free corridor at the cost of Rs 27 billion while showing apathy to more important sectors like health and education provides some insight into the government's priorities. In its urgency to get the project completed, the government has put all rules and regulations on the backburner, leading to the suspicion of the involvement of some vested interests. Despite the construction of a large number of underpasses, signal-free corridors, excessively wide roads and an elevated expressway on the Ferozepur Raod, there is no end to traffic gridlock on almost all city roads. A lack of proper planning and inherent flaws have made all this infrastructural development less than beneficial. The traffic in Lahore remains clogged up as no methodology and scientific studies have been followed while designing road patterns to resolve the issue of transportation on a permanent basis.

Some serious efforts are needed to make the government aware of the consequences of unregulated urban sprawl and development at the cost of the environment. It is critical to apply scientific methods to resolve traffic problems due to increasing urbanisation. The widening of roads to cater for an ever increasing population is only a temporary and not the best solution. For the city of Lahore that is facing a massive influx of people from the rural areas, a mass transit system is the only option. Another solution is the establishment of twin cities and development of satellite towns that must be equipped with all the necessities of modern life in order to discourage the trend of migration of people from rural to urban areas. The government must understand that the concept of a modern city has changed. Instead of focusing on short term solutions, the government should make future planning on scientific lines. The launching of the Metro Bus Service in Lahore, which is considered the least efficient mode of travel all over the world, has already proved a wastage of money. Every new development project must be initiated after taking stock of all the pros and cons and future needs.

Pakistan - 145 Khyber Pakhtunkhwa seminaries classified 'highly sensitive' in govt report

A report compiled by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government has revealed that 145 madrassas in the province fall in the 'highly sensitive' category.
A document titled 'District-wise details of Madaris' obtained by DawnNews maintains that of the 3,010 seminaries in the terror-hit province, 26% are unregistered.
It also reveals that in the KP region, 57% of the Category B (highly sensitive) madrassas are in Tank district, which has a total of 123 madrassas.Madrassas in KP are classified as either Category B 'highly sensitive' or Category C 'sensitive'. There are no seminaries falling into either Category A 'potential threat' or Category D 'non extremist' madrassas.
Bannu has the largest number of madrassas in the province at 241, while Peshawar comes in at second place on the list with 232 madrassas. Out of the 4,608 foreign students in KP, 2,454 study in madrassas in Peshawar which also has the highest number of foreign teachers in KP at 53.
The government plans to bring all of its religious seminaries under the national education system within one year following a landmark security policy aimed at combating extremism.KP Information Minister Mushtaq Ahmed Ghani, while talking to Dawn, said the government will not tolerate unregistered madrassas in the province. Speaking of which, Ghani said that KP Home Department has already been notified to take action against such unregistered seminaries.
The provincial information minister further informed that only those foreigner students — whether Afghan or other nationals — will be allowed to study who possess proper legal documents. “Action will be taken against illegal foreigner students,” he asserted.
The first “National Internal Security Policy” released last year said that some of the country's 22,000 madrassas are responsible for spreading extremism.
Senators and a federal minister in December lashed out at the government for what they called its “inaction” after a deadly attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar left 145 people — most of them children — dead. The attack shook the country's conscience and intensified the military and government's campaign to uproot terrorist networks across the country, giving birth to a 'National Action Plan' (NAP) that includes the formation of military courts to try terrorists as well as close monitoring of seminaries.
The government has admitted that despite the presence of laws monitoring the working of religious seminaries, it often becomes difficult to trace the money transacted to madrassas from abroad.
“Some madrassas are receiving financial support from Muslim countries. However, it is often difficult to trace the transaction of such remittances,” Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said last month.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif recently directed the provincial governments to implement the NAP and take stern action against terrorist organisations and proceed speedily on those death penalty cases in which mercy petitions have been rejected.
Presiding over a meeting of the Balochistan Apex Committee held here on Wednesday, he said religious seminaries and organisations involved in terrorist activities should be identified and proceeded against.

Pakistan - Govt has given up to control load shedding

The fanfare announcement of Punjab Chief Minister regarding the commissioning of 1000 mw capacity power plant at Shaikhupura will meet the same ill-fate as was the case of building power plants in Okara and other locations adding with regret nothing has happened on ground as these only exist in the vivid memory of the people, said Tanvir Ashraf Kaira, Secretary General PPP Central Punjab, in a statement issued from here today.
He argued that the people no more take him and his words seriously, and were of the view that the power generation by the Shaikhupura surreal power project would remain a far-fetched cry like the disaster of Nandipur Power project that had turned out to be a white elephant of appalling proportion.
He observed that the Punjab Government under the Chief Minister was on the trajectory of enrolling itself in the Guinness Book of Record for not fulfilling its promises made to the people in proving relief by narrowing down the gap between demand and supply of electricity in months. The unabated yawing gap between demand and supply of electricity speaks volumes of the government’s inaptness, indifference and mismanagement, he added.
He heralded in the past that he would control the load shedding of electricity within months not years and now merely contended with by holding out new commitments after the lapse of two years. Who will believe his words now after what had happened to his similar tall claims made earlier, he asked?
He forewarned the people that they should be prepared to brace the load shedding of electricity they had not experienced yet in the coming summer season because this government had not added a single mw of electricity in the national grid. The albatross of circular debt of more than 550 billions rupees is also choking the government to paralysis, he argued.
Tanvir Ashraf Kaira said that the people do consider the period of PPP previous government much better than this because the load shedding of electricity was less than what they were facing today. It seems that the government has given up because it is not seen doing anything to rectify the situation, he stated.
He pointed out that the people’s patience would run out during this summer and they would protest right across the country to take on the government and that might put its future in jeopardy.
He said that the PPP government added more than 3000 mw in the national grid and was actively pursuing the mega projects for power generation but no progress had been reported since then except the platitudes by the representatives of this government.