President Barack Obama disclosed that US intelligence agencies believe Iran continues to be a year or more away from building a nuclear weapon, an assessment that is at odds with Israel, which contends Tehran is on a faster course toward a bomb.
Obama, in an interview with The Associated Press, expressed optimism about the blossoming diplomacy between his administration and Iran's new president, but said the US would not accept a "bad deal" on the Islamic republic's nuclear program.
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The president spoke to the AP on Friday.
Obama has launched a diplomatic outreach to Iran, aimed at resolving the dispute over Tehran's nuclear program. Last week, he spoke by phone with President Hassan Rohani, marking the first direct exchange between US and Iranian leaders in more than 30 years.
"Rohani 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?"
But Obama said Rohani 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, Ayotollah Ali Khamenei.
Khamenei said Saturday that some aspects of Rohani's trip to New York last month were "not appropriate," but reiterated his crucial support for the president's policy of outreach to the West.
The comments by Khamenei, summarized on his website, came after hard-liners criticized the 15-minute phone conversation between Rohani and Obama.
Hard-liners, including commanders in the powerful Revolutionary Guard, have said the president went too far with the phone call in reaching out to the US.
But Rohani's outreach has received broad support from Iranian legislators and it appears popular at a time when Iran is facing crippling economic sanctions due to the nuclear impasse.
Khamenei also said the US was "untrustworthy." He has previously said he's not opposed to direct talks with the US to resolve Iran's nuclear standoff with the West but is not optimistic.
"We are skeptical of Americans and have no trust in them at all. The American government is untrustworthy, arrogant, illogical and a promise-breaker. It's a government captured by the international Zionism network," said Khamenei, who has final say on all matters of state.
Given Khamenei's broad influence, some countries, most notably Israel, have questioned whether Rohani actually represents real change in Iran or just new packaging of old policies.
Obama also 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 being able to build a bomb, while Obama said Tehran was a year or more away.
But Obama said, "Our assessment continues to be a year or more away. And in fact, actually, our estimate is probably more conservative than the estimates of Israeli intelligence services."
The president used the same timetable in March, before traveling to Israel. The US and Israel contend that Iran's nuclear program is aimed at building a bomb, while Tehran says it is enriching uranium for peaceful purposes.
On the 12-year war in Afghanistan, Obama said he would consider keeping some American forces on the ground after the conflict formally ends next year, but acknowledged that doing so would require an agreement from the Afghan government. He suggested that if no agreement can be reached, he would be comfortable with a full pullout of US troops.
"If in fact we can get an agreement that makes sure that US troops are protected, makes sure that we can operate in a way that is good for our national security, then I'll certainly consider that," he said. "If we can't, we will continue to make sure that all the gains we've made in going after al-Qaeda we accomplish, even if we don't have any US military on Afghan soil."
All US forces left Iraq at the end of 2011 after no deal could be reached to keep some there longer.
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