NEW YORK | The White House claimed a key victory Wednesday in its effort to create momentum toward sanctions against Iran for its pursuit of nuclear weapons, saying that comments by Russian President
Dmitry Medvedev after a meeting with President Obama represented a shift toward favoring punitive action.
“Sanctions rarely lead to productive results. But in some cases sanctions are inevitable,” Mr. Medvedev said after a meeting with Mr. Obama that White House advisers said focused almost exclusively on Iran’s march toward a nuclear bomb.
Iran’s leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, spoke Wednesday evening at the United Nations, where he accused Jews of dominating the world and said they were responsible for “inhuman policies” against the Palestinians.
In response, many foreign diplomats left the chamber.
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Michael McFaul, the president’s top Russia adviser, called Mr. Medvedev’s statement on Iran “a very big change in [Russia’s] position.” He said that the administration’s decision last week to drop a missile-defense plan that had angered the Kremlin had increased the odds of a change.
“We’re at a different place in U.S.-Russia relations,” he said.
Stephen Sestanovich, who was a White House adviser on Russia to President Reagan and a top State Department official under President Clinton, said that “Medvedev’s statement has a nice menacing undertone, but you can’t take undertones to the bank.”
“If the White House is trumpeting this, it may be because Medvedev made a firmer commitment behind closed doors,” Mr. Sestanovich said. “It doesn’t have to be made public to be significant, but it does have to be communicated to the Iranians themselves.”
The developments came at the end of a day when Mr. Obama, in his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly, delivered a tough challenge to the body that implied it faces irrelevance if it cannot take action against rogue nations such as Iran.
In his speech, Mr. Obama emphasized his administration’s ongoing talks with Russia over a new nuclear arms reduction agreement, and argued that because the U.S. is now abiding by international norms, agreements such as the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty should gain legitimacy and force.
Mr. Obama will chair the U.N. Security Council on Thursday — the first time a U.S. president has ever done so — and the panel is expected to adopt a resolution strengthening the treaty, which the president said states that “nations with nuclear weapons have the responsibility to move toward disarmament; and those without them have the responsibility to forsake them.”
The president said that his effort to strengthen and enforce the treaty was “not about singling out individual nations” but that Iran, along with North Korea, “must be held accountable” if they continue to pursue nuclear weapons.
“Those nations that refuse to live up to their obligations must face consequences,” he said.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Medvedev discussed a range of “coercive actions” toward Iran that did not go beyond sanctions, though other types of enforcement actions are on the table in the broader discussion, Mr. McFaul said, declining to give details.
Representatives of the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain, Germany and the European Union are scheduled to meet with Iranian representatives Oct. 1, though Tehran has indicated it will talk about nuclear proliferation broadly without discussion of its own nuclear program.
Russia and China are the two key members of the U.N. Security Council that have stood in the way of increasing pressure on Tehran. Mr. Obama met with Chinese President Hu Jintao during a meeting here Tuesday, and pressed the case on Iran with him as well.
But China’s trade relationship with Iran remains strong. Beijing recently began supplying up to a third of Tehran’s daily gasoline imports after U.S. and Indian companies stopped selling fuel to the Iranian regime, the Financial Times reported Wednesday. Iran, a major oil producer, relies on imported gasoline because of its lack of refining capacity.
Iran is close to having enough low-enriched uranium to convert to fuel for a weapon and has the technical knowledge on how to do so, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported last week. The IAEA said that
Tehran is working on technology to weaponize such a bomb by making it small enough to fit on a warhead.
The White House said that time was growing short for the world to deal with such issues.
“Time is not on our side,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. “The time for talking about some of these problems has passed. The time for acting on these problems is now.”
Mr. Ahmadinejad attended Mr. Obama’s speech. Neither he nor anyone in his delegation applauded for Mr. Obama.
Mr. Obama received overall a warm and enthusiastic welcome both before and after his 37-minute speech, which he delivered to a packed hall.
He acknowledged that the world has changed and that problems must be solved with a “new era of engagement.”
His administration has pointedly rejected the Bush administration’s disdain for the U.N. as a toothless organization.
But the president also called for an end to “reflexive anti-Americanism.”
“Make no mistake: This cannot solely be America’s endeavor,” he said. “Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world’s problems alone.”
He also said the United Nations must “redouble” efforts to move beyond being “a venue for playing politics and exploiting grievances.”
“It is easy to walk up to this podium and to point fingers and stoke division,” Mr. Obama said.
Yet, his warning that the United Nations “struggles to enforce its will” and must come together to change comes at a time when American power is being viewed with new levels of skepticism.
Moments after he finished speaking, Mr. Obama was followed at the podium by Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi, who delivered a rambling, nearly two-hour address in which, among other points, he said capitalist countries have made the swine flu to enrich drug companies and argued that the United Nations should be moved out of the United States because too many people listening to his speech were asleep because of jet lag.
Mr. Obama in his speech also restated a hard line against expansion of Jewish settlements in contested territory, one day after meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on the sidelines of the U.N. gathering.
“America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements,” Mr. Obama said, also calling on the Palestinians to “end incitement against Israel.”
However, Mr. Obama told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday that an Israeli offer to freeze the building of new settlements for six to nine months, allowing continued expansion of existing settlements, was “enough to get going” on restarting peace talks.
Mr. Obama ended the day by hosting, along with first lady Michelle Obama, a reception for heads of state at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mr. Ahmadinejad and Col. Gadhafi were not invited, the White House said.