Somewhere in Asia

The White House press corps actually asked President Obama two good questions at his APEC press conference in Hawaii (“here in Asia,” according to el presidente) earlier this week. Obama’s answers to the questions are worth a look.

AP reporter Ben Feller led off the press conference with this question:

Q I’d like to ask you about Iran. Did you get any specific commitments from Russia or China on tightening sanctions? Did you move them at all? And do you fear the world is running out of options short of military intervention to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons?

Here is Obama’s answer

PRESIDENT OBAMA: One of the striking things over the last three years since I came into office is the degree of unity that we’ve been able to forge in the international community with respect to Iran. When I came into office, the world was divided and Iran was unified around its nuclear program. We now have a situation where the world is united and Iran is isolated. And because of our diplomacy and our efforts, we have, by far, the strongest sanctions on Iran that we’ve ever seen. And China and Russia were critical to making that happen. Had they not been willing to support those efforts in the United Nations, we would not be able to see the kind of progress that we’ve made.

And they’re having an impact. All our intelligence indicates that Iran’s economy is suffering as a consequence of this. And we’re also seeing that Iran’s influence in the region has ebbed, in part because their approach to repression inside of Iran is contrary to the Arab Spring that has been sweeping the Middle East.

So we are in a much stronger position now than we were two or three years ago with respect to Iran. Having said that, the recent IAEA report indicates what we already knew, which is, although Iran does not possess a nuclear weapon and is technically still allowing IAEA observers into their country, that they are engaging in a series of practices that are contrary to their international obligations and their IAEA obligations. And that’s what the IAEA report indicated.

So what I did was to speak with President Medvedev, as well as President Hu, and all three of us entirely agree on the objective, which is making sure that Iran does not weaponize nuclear power and that we don’t trigger a nuclear arms race in the region. That’s in the interests of all of us.

In terms of how we move forward, we will be consulting with them carefully over the next several weeks to look at what other options we have available to us. The sanctions have enormous bite and enormous scope, and we’re building off the platform that has already been established. The question is, are there additional measures that we can take. And we’re going to explore every avenue to see if we can solve this issue diplomatically.

I have said repeatedly and I will say it today, we are not taking any options off the table, because it’s my firm belief that an Iran with a nuclear weapon would pose a security threat not only to the region but also to the United States. But our strong preference is to have Iran meet its international obligations, negotiate diplomatically, to allow them to have peaceful use of nuclear energy in accordance with international law, but at the same time, forswear the weaponization of nuclear power.

And so we’re going to keep on pushing on that. And China and Russia have the same aims, the same objectives, and I believe that we’ll continue to cooperate and collaborate closely on that issue.

It seems to me that just about every element of this response is false, including Obama’s ludicrous characterization of the IAEA report — see Dore Gold’s précis. To take the Russian thread, for example, I commend to your attention James Kirchick’s devastating Wall Street Journal column. As for “what we already knew,” does that include the CIA? Obama’s response is incredibly misleading and perfunctory.

With a timeout for Dan Lothian’s four-Lewinsky question, Norah O’Donell followed up on the subject of Iran’s nuclear program:

Q If I could continue on that, the Republicans did have a debate on CBS last night. A lot of it was about foreign policy, and they were very critical of your record —

PRESIDENT OBAMA: That’s shocking. (Laughter.)

Q So if I could get you to respond to something that Mitt Romney said. He said your biggest foreign policy failure is Iran. He said that if you are reelected Iran will have a nuclear weapon. Is Mitt Romney wrong?

I think it’s unfortunate that O’Donnell resorted to Mitt Romney to pose the question. It’s a question that goes to the heart of one of our most critical national security issues. Obama himself has on previous occasions characterized Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons as “unacceptable.” Why not just ask the question whether Iran is on the verge of success in its program? In any event, here is Obama’s answer:

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I am going to make a practice of not commenting on whatever is said in Republican debates until they’ve got an actual nominee. But as I indicated to Ben in the earlier question, you take a look at what we’ve been able to accomplish in mobilizing the world community against Iran over the last three years and it shows steady, determined, firm progress in isolating the Iranian regime, and sending a clear message that the world believes it would be dangerous for them to have a nuclear weapon.

Now, is this an easy issue? No. Anybody who claims it is, is either politicking or doesn’t know what they’re talking about. But I think not only the world, but the Iranian regime understands very clearly how determined we are to prevent not only a nuclear Iran but also a nuclear arms race in the region, and a violation of nonproliferation norms that would have implications around the world, including in the Asia Pacific region where we have similar problems with North Korea.

And that is it. Observant readers may note that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons is not even alleged to be “unacceptable” anymore.

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