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Obama Says Deal Is 'Best Means' For Preventing Iranian Nuclear Weapons


President Obama is defending the Iranian nuclear deal as the best feasible alternative for preventing that country from developing a nuclear weapon. In a White House news conference today, he tried to answer critics of the deal both in Congress and in the Middle East. Mr. Obama challenged opponents to spell out what they would do if the deal is not completed. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama says he expects a robust debate of the nuclear agreement, and he tried to get a head start with today's news conference, harrying questions from reporters and, in some cases, raising opponents arguments himself just so he could take a stab at shooting them down. Obama insists the nuclear agreement satisfies a long-held goal of Democrats, Republicans and American allies in the Middle East.


BARACK OBAMA: This deal is our best means of assuring that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon. And from the start, that has been my number one priority - our number one priority.

HORSLEY: Obama offered a warning to those who argue the U.S. should hold out for a better deal. He says the crippling international sanctions that forced Iran to the bargaining table will quickly unravel if the deal is rejected by Congress.


OBAMA: We don't have diplomatic leverage to eliminate every vestige of a peaceful nuclear program in Iran. What we do have the leverage to do is to make sure they don't have a weapon. That's exactly what we've done.

HORSLEY: Obama says the nuclear deal includes a vigorous inspection regime with round-the-clock monitoring of Iran's known nuclear sites. Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, warns Iran could still elude inspectors with covert activity, but Obama counters there would be tell-tale traces.


OBAMA: This is not something you hide in the closet. This is not something you put on a dolly and kind of wheel off somewhere.

HORSLEY: The president acknowledged critics have legitimate concerns with Iran's non-nuclear weapons. The deal calls for lifting an embargo on conventional arms sales after five to eight years. Obama says he's tried to reassure Middle East allies there are other tools to combat those weapons.


OBAMA: And that's why I've said to them, let's double down and partner much more effectively to improve our intelligence capacity and our interdiction capacity so that fewer of those arms shipments are getting through the net.

HORSLEY: Obama also concedes that easing sanctions will put more money in the hands of Iran's government which could find its way to U.S. adversaries like Hezbollah or Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. But he argues that additional support for hostile regimes will be incremental, not a game-changer.


OBAMA: Is that more important than preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon? No.

HORSLEY: The nuclear deal does not address the fate of three Americans who've been held prisoner in Iran or a fourth who went missing in that country. Administration sources say they repeatedly raised the issue on the sidelines of the nuclear talks. Obama bristled this afternoon when a reporter suggested the prisoners had been overlooked.


OBAMA: I've met with the families of some of those folks. Nobody's content. And our diplomats and our teams are working diligently to try to get them out.

HORSLEY: Obama was also asked today about his push for criminal justice reform and the mounting allegations against comedian Bill Cosby. The president typically tries to avoid commenting on open legal disputes, but he did say this.


OBAMA: If you give a woman - or a man, for that matter - without his or her knowledge, a drug and then have sex with that person without consent, that's rape.

HORSLEY: Obama says the U.S. should have no tolerance for rape. But despite calls from some quarters, he says there's no mechanism for revoking Cosby's Presidential Medal of Freedom. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.