By Stephen Kaufman
IIP Staff Writer
President Obama says it is in every country’s interest that widespread concerns that Iran is developing nuclear weapons under the cover of a civilian program are resolved diplomatically. “We have a window of opportunity where this can still be resolved diplomatically,” he said.
Speaking at a press conference at the White House March 6, Obama said Iran’s leaders know that to resolve the issue they will need to return to talks and “discuss in a clear and forthright way … how to prove to the international community that the intentions of their nuclear program are peaceful.”
“There are steps that they can take that would send a signal to the international community and that are verifiable, that would allow them to be in compliance with international norms, in compliance with international mandates, abiding by the Nonproliferation Treaty, and provide the world an assurance that they’re not pursuing a nuclear weapon,” he said.
Earlier March 6, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, announced that she had offered to resume discussions with the Iranians. Ashton represents Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States — collectively known as the P5+1 — as their point of contact concerning Iran’s nuclear activities.
“I don’t expect a breakthrough in a first meeting. But I think we will have a pretty good sense fairly quickly as to how serious they are about resolving the issue,” Obama said.
In previous discussions with the P5+1, the Iranian government “has been hemming and hawing and stalling and avoiding the issues in ways that the international community has concluded were not serious,” he said.
But over the past three years, the United States has been able to mobilize “unprecedented, crippling sanctions“ on the country and now “Iran is feeling the bite of these sanctions in a substantial way. The world is unified. Iran is politically isolated,” the president said.
The sanctions will only grow tougher in the coming months as they start to affect Iran’s oil industry and its central bank, and Iran’s leaders “understand that the world community means business,” he said.
The United States will continue to apply pressure on Iran, while at the same time providing “a door for the Iranian regime to walk through where they could rejoin the community of nations,” he said.
Asked about the chances of U.S. military action in Syria as a response to Bashar al-Assad’s brutal repression of protesters, Obama said U.S. policymakers need to “think through what we do through the lens of what’s going to be effective, but also what’s critical for U.S. security interests.”
The situation in Syria is “much more complicated” than when the United States joined NATO and Arab states in enforcing a no-fly zone and arms embargo in Libya in response to Muammar al-Qadhafi’s attacks on Libyan civilians, he said.
“What happened in Libya was we mobilized the international community, had a U.N. Security Council mandate, had the full cooperation of the region, Arab states, and we knew that we could execute very effectively in a relatively short period of time,” he said.
The United States has joined the international community’s mobilization against the Assad regime through political and economic isolation, and is discussing ways to support the Syrian opposition and provide humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people, he said.
“We are going to continue to work on this project with other countries. And it is my belief that ultimately this dictator will fall, as dictators in the past have fallen,” he said.
The president also said that when NATO leaders gather in Chicago in May, they will be discussing benchmarks and steps for the full transition of Afghanistan’s security responsibilities to the Afghans themselves over the next two years, with the transition to be completed by 2014.
Like the security transition in Iraq, there are ways to make sure that the reduced role of U.S. and other foreign forces in Afghanistan is gradual, that Afghan security capacity is built up, and “we are putting in place the kinds of support structures that are needed in order for the overall strategy to be effective,” he said.
“We’re going to be able to find a mechanism whereby Afghans understand their sovereignty is being respected and that they’re going to be taking a greater and greater role in their own security,” he said. The United States is “not interested in staying there any longer than is necessary to assure that al-Qaida is not operating there and that there’s sufficient stability that it doesn’t end up being a free-for-all” after international forces have left.