President Obama listens to a question during a wide-ranging interview Oct. 4 with The Associated Press in the White House library in Washington four days into a partial shutdown of the federal government. (Charles Dharapak / AP)
WASHINGTON — President Obama says U.S. 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 with The Associated Press.
The president spoke to the AP 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.
The rollout of the insurance exchanges has been shaky, with government-run websites plagued by glitches. Despite the problems, Obama told frustrated Americans they “definitely shouldn’t give up.”
“Folks are working around the clock and have been systematically reducing the wait times,” he said.
Obama blamed the error messages and long wait times on public interest that exceeded the government’s expectations. However, he said he didn’t know how many people had so far managed to sign up for insurance.
Administration officials have said they do not plan to release real-time data on the number of people enrolling, though some states running their own exchange websites are doing so.
The federal gateway website was taken down for repairs over the weekend, again hindering people from signing up for insurance.
On other points, Obama:
■ Contrasted his tenure as a senator with the current crop of first-term Republican senators, saying he “didn’t go around courting the media” or “trying to shut down the government” while he was in the Senate.
■ Said he’s considering keeping some American forces in Afghanistan 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.
■ Suggested that the owner of the Washington Redskins football team consider changing its name because, the president said, the current name offends “a sizable group of people.”
Obama’s comments on Iran came amid signs that long-standing tensions between the U.S. 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 U.S. 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?”
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 U.S. government “untrustworthy, arrogant, illogical and a promise-breaker,” according to comment summarized on his website.
Obama also put distance between U.S. 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.
Israeli 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.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif disputed Obama’s comments, repeating Iran’s claims that it is not seeking a nuclear weapon.
The U.S. 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 domestic issues, Obama said he would be willing to negotiate with Republicans on health care, deficit reduction and spending — but only if House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, 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, but said he doesn’t expect to get to that point.
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.”
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 U.S. troops.
“If in fact we can get an agreement that makes sure that U.S. 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-Qaida we accomplish, even if we don’t have any U.S. military on Afghan soil.”
All U.S. forces left Iraq at the end of 2011 after no deal could be reached to keep some there longer.
Obama, an avid sports fan, also weighed in on the controversy surrounding the Redskins as the name of Washington’s NFL football team. The name has faced a new barrage of criticism for being offensive to Native Americans.
The president said he doesn’t think Redskins’ fans mean any offense by using the name. But he added: “If I were the owner of the team and I knew that the name of my team, even if they’ve had a storied history, that was offending a sizable group of people, I’d think about changing it.”
Associated Press writers Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran contributed.