Speaking at The Wall Street Journal CEO Council annual meeting, a gathering of some of the nation's top corporate executives, the president said he has confidence Iran won't be able to take undue advantage of any eased sanctions because the toughest ones -- those on oil, banking and financial services -- "don't go anywhere."
"Essentially, what we do is we allow them to access a small portion of these assets that are frozen," he said. "So what we are -- what we are suggesting, both to the Israelis, to members of Congress here, to the international community, but also the Iranians is, let's look, let's test the proposition that over the next six months. We can resolve this in a diplomatic fashion, while maintaining the essential sanctions architecture and, as president of the United States, me maintaining all options to prevent them from getting nuclear weapons. I think that is a test that is worth conducting."
Obama said while sanctions have pressured Iran to return to the bargaining table, "I don't know if we'll be able to close a deal this week or next week."
He said he expects an interim agreement would accomplish "purchasing ourselves some time to see how serious the Iranian regime might be in re-entering membership in the world community and taking the yoke of these sanctions off the backs of their economy."
Earlier, Obama told members of the Senate any relief from economic sanctions for Iran would be "limited, temporary and reversible."
The president met at the White House with chairmen, ranking members and other members of the Senate Banking Committee, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senate Armed Services Committees and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Administration officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice, also participated in the discussion, one day before the five permanent U.N. Security Council members -- the United States Britain, France, Russia and China -- plus Germany are to meet with Iran in a new round of talks in Geneva, Switzerland.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. -- the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- said the meeting was "solely focused on Iran," which has been involved in discussions with the so-called P5-plus-1 on international economic sanctions intended to get Tehran to abandon its nuclear program. Some members of Congress recently began pushing for further sanctions but the Obama administration has said that would add to the difficulty of the negotiations.
Corker suggested Obama and Kerry "were very explicit about what they think they may be able to negotiate" when talks resume Wednesday.
"There is a much greater understanding of what is on the table," he said.
However, he said although some senators at the meeting were satisfied with what they heard, others were "very unsatisfied."
"The president noted that the relief we are considering as part of a first step would be limited, temporary, and reversible, and emphasized that we will continue to enforce sanctions during the 6-month period," the White House said in a statement. "He dispelled the rumors that Iran would receive $40 [billion] or $50 billion in relief, noting those reports are inaccurate."
Kerry downplayed hopes for a nuclear deal with Iran ahead of the meeting, and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said in an interview published Tuesday Iran had enough enriched uranium to make five nuclear bombs.
The talks in Geneva, billed as picking up where failed talks left off 10 days earlier, are to pursue a first-step, six-month agreement in which Iran freezes its nuclear program in return for a letup of economic sanctions. The agreement would give negotiators "breathing room" to work out a comprehensive agreement that would end a 10-year impasse over Iran's disputed nuclear program, diplomats say.
The United States, Israel and other allies maintain Iran is covertly trying to develop a capacity to build nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran denies, insisting its nuclear ambitions are limited to the peaceful generation of electricity and other civilian uses.
"I have no specific expectations with respect to the negotiation in Geneva, except that we will negotiate in good faith and we will try to get a first-step agreement," Kerry said at a State Department news conference.
Lawmakers and Israel argue more sanctions are needed to bring about a strong, accountable agreement with Tehran.
Adding new sanction layers on the Persian Gulf country would likely seriously complicate the Geneva talks, jeopardizing the chances of a deal, and strengthen hardliners in Tehran who want to see the collapse of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's diplomatic initiative, diplomats say.
Kerry said he hoped Iran would "understand the importance" of going to Geneva "prepared to create a document that can prove to the world that this is a peaceful program. That's always been our standard."
"Now, I'm not going to negotiate this in public," Kerry said at the news conference with his Turkish counterpart, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. "We all need to be respectful of each other's processes here and positions. And so I think it's best to leave that negotiation to the negotiating table."
He said he did not plan to participate in the talks and declined to discuss details of a proposal under discussion.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Kerry would go to Geneva only if "it would be advantageous to the negotiations."
French President Francois Hollande said in Israel Sunday he expected the P5-plus-1 talks with Iran would lead to an agreement -- a prospect Netanyahu has said he vehemently opposes because it would "gravely" hurt Israel's security.
Kerry told reporters Monday Netanyahu had "every right in the world to publicly state his position and defend what he perceives as his interests." But Kerry said the accord, if it is reached, would reduce Israel's security risk, not increase it.
Netanyahu, escalating his lobbying effort against an interim deal, told the German newspaper Bild Iran already possessed enough enriched uranium to make five nuclear bombs.
"The Iranians already have five bombs' worth of low-enriched uranium," he said in an interview published Tuesday.
"If you press the sanctions now, you might actually get a better deal," he said. "If you have a bad diplomatic solution -- what this appears to be -- you actually may get the consequences you want to avoid. That is, you would have no choice but to exercise a military option in the future."
Russian President Vladimir Putin told Rouhani by phone Monday he saw a "real chance" for a nuclear deal, the Kremlin said.
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