President Obama on Tuesday said the international community needs to impose fresh sanctions if Iran fails to come clean on its nuclear program by this spring, injecting a new sense of urgency into the push to reel in that nation’s suspected weapons program.
In a joint appearance with visiting French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Mr. Obama said the U.S. and its allies are “working diligently” on the matter in the wake of an expired deadline for action he set for Tehran last year.
“I’m not interested in waiting months for a sanctions regime to be in place — I’m interested in seeing that regime in place in weeks,” Mr. Obama told reporters gathered in the East Room of the White House. “This is not simply an issue of trying to isolate Iran. It has enormous implications for the safety and security of the entire region.”
Mr. Obama also warned that a nuclear arms race in the Middle East in response to Iran’s program could destabilize the world economy just “when it’s just coming out of a very deep recession.”
But the administration’s sanctions push, strongly backed by the French leader, has faced resistance from China and Russia, both of which have vetoes on the Security Council. In what sounded like a veiled criticism, Mr. Obama said sanctions advocates need to focus on those countries with economic ties to Iran.
“Let’s be honest: Iran is an oil producer and there are a lot of countries around the world that, regardless of Iran’s offenses, are thinking that their commercial interests are more important to them than these long-term geopolitical interests. And so we have to continue to apply pressure not just on Iran, but we have to make sure that we are communicating very clearly that this is very important to the United States,” he said.
Earlier Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton predicted that new sanctions would be forthcoming and hinted that China and Russia eventually would come along. At the conclusion of an international summit on the Arctic in Quebec, Mrs. Clinton cited a growing alarm around the world about the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran, according to an Associated Press report.
After weeks dominated by his successful push for health care legislation — which Mr. Sarkozy said the French were “glad” to see succeed — Mr. Obama has been pivoting in recent days to international affairs, including the contentious talks with Iran, concluding an arms control treaty with Russia and preparing for international gatherings on the world economy and nuclear proliferation.
With France set to take over the chairmanship of the Group of Eight and the Group of 20 in 2011, Mr. Sarkozy said he expects Mr. Obama’s administration to work with him “hand in glove in order to go even further in regulating world capitalism and, in particular, raising the issue of a new world monetary order.”
But Mr. Obama gave no sign at the joint briefing Tuesday that he was prepared to go as far as the French leader has urged in regulating capital markets.
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The two heads of state seemed personally at ease with each other, despite the language barrier and contrasting demeanors — the calm Mr. Obama said he admires Mr. Sarkozy’s “legendary energy” — and both leaders reaffirmed the strength of the Franco-American relationship. Mr. Obama even joked of Mr. Sarkozy’s visit earlier that day to Ben’s Chili Bowl, the legendary Washington eatery favored by the president.
Even when the two nations don’t agree on something, Mr. Sarkozy praised the candor of the discussions.
“This is a novelty from the point of view of Europe when we look at the United States, that everything is put on the table, anything can be discussed, everything can be discussed,” he said.
One area where they share agreement is on pushing Iran — an issue on which Mr. Sarkozy has been out in front.
Mr. Sarkozy echoed Mr. Obama’s sharp remarks and promised the support of Europe, saying “the time has come to take decisions” on Iran.
At the end of the brief session, a French reporter asked Mr. Obama whether he’d be willing to let a European aerospace consortium, Airbus, compete for a $40 billion Pentagon contract to build tanker aircraft for the U.S. military.
European officials had complained after an earlier deal with Northrop Grumman and Airbus’ parent company was scrapped and the rules for the new contract appeared to favor Boeing. The European officials said it seemed that the U.S. was trying to keep manufacturing jobs at home.
“The process will be free and fair,” Mr. Obama said, though he added that the decision will be made by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and the president will “maintain an arms-length approach.”
Mr. Sarkozy said he was willing to accept Mr. Obama’s word on the matter.
Turning to his American counterpart, Mr. Sarkozy said, “If you say to me that the request for proposals, the call for tenders will be free, fair and transparent, then we say [the Airbus team] will bid and we trust you.”
After a brief press appearance, the two leaders had a private dinner at the White House with their wives.