President Barack Obama acknowledged Tuesday that despite his full-court press for tough sanctions aimed at persuading Iran to abandon its suspected nuclear weapons program, he could not promise that China and other major powers would go along.
“I am going to push as hard as I can to make sure that we get strong sanctions that have consequences for Iran as it’s making calculations about its nuclear program and that those are done on a timely basis,” Obama said during a news conference at the end of the 47-nation summit he convened in Washington to address the dangers of nuclear terrorism.
The president met Monday with Chinese President Hu Jintao, and afterward White House aides portrayed China’s willingness to discuss the mechanics of a sanctions plan as a major development and a sign of international unity on the issue. But Tuesday, the president himself was more sanguine about the prospect of stiff sanctions.
Obama said he was “mindful” that many countries have trade and energy ties to Iran that could be disrupted but that “a strong number of nations” on the United Nations Security Council support sanctions.
But he was quick to add, “I’m not going to speculate beyond that in terms of where we are.”
Obama also left open the possibility that the sanctions won’t be successful. “Sanctions are not a magic wand,” he said. “What sanctions can do … is to hopefully change the calculus of a country like Iran.”
The president called the Nuclear Security Summit “enormously productive” overall, explaining that commitments it produced for greater safeguards and centralization of dangerous nuclear materials would make it much harder for Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations to build a nuclear device.
“Because of the steps we’ve taken … the American people will be safer and every nation will be more secure,” Obama said.
The summit’s official communiqué called for all so-called loose nukes, bomb-grade separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium, to be locked down within four years.
The document is nonbinding, but Obama said he was confident that Ukraine, Mexico and other countries would follow through on promises to give up their bomb-grade nuclear materials.
Still, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) was not impressed.
“The summit’s purported accomplishment is a nonbinding communiqué that largely restates current policy and makes no meaningful progress in dealing with nuclear terrorism threats or the ticking clock represented by Iran’s nuclear weapons program,” he said in a statement after the summit.
And he had similarly dismissive words for Obama’s drive for tough sanctions against Iran.
“Despite the talk at the security summit, it appears we are no closer to tough sanctions or a meaningful Security Council resolution today, seven months after the president said that the regime would face sanctions,” Kyl said. “The president’s policy to deal with Iran is failing.”
The Obama administration has generally sought to step back from what officials describe as an overreliance on fear by George W. Bush’s administration. But some analysts noted that Obama was clearly willing to bring that emotion to bear Tuesday when he described the looming threat.
“Just the smallest amount of plutonium — about the size of an apple — could kill and injure hundreds of thousands of innocent people,” Obama warned.
“The fear that people like [Donald] Rumsfeld and [Dick] Cheney enunciated is exactly the fear that Obama has enunciated — that the greatest threat the nation faces is the confluence of nuclear weapons and terrorism,” said Alan Kuperman, a former Senate aide on nuclear policy now at the University of Texas at Austin. “The massive increase in spending on this actually began during the Bush administration.”
The summit’s achievements were important, Kuperman said, but ultimately secondary to what happens with Iran.
“It’s great that Obama did this summit. It’s great that Obama did a new START treaty,” Kuperman said. “But if he accomplishes those two things and Iran gets nuclear weapons, on net, I’m not sure we’re in a safer world.”