At U.N., Obama asks leaders to set aside ‘anti-Americanism’
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev offered closer cooperation with the United States in curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions Wednesday, promising President Obama that Moscow would help the Islamic Republic make “a right decision” and hinting that sanctions might be necessary to achieve it.
U.S. officials said they regarded Medvedev’s comments, after meeting Obama on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, as a major shift in Russia’s position just a week before six major powers are to meet with Iranian officials in Geneva.
Russia, which has extensive economic ties with Iran, has consistently opposed sanctions. And, as its relations with Washington deteriorated in recent years, it has tended to view the Islamic Republic as a useful counterweight.
The two presidents met after Obama’s speech to the General Assembly, in which he encouraged other countries to share the burden of solving such problems as global warming and nuclear proliferation.
The Obama administration has faced an array of tough foreign policy decisions -- not only on Iran, but on Afghanistan and the Middle East peace process. Less than a week ago, the White House canceled plans to install a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Although the George W. Bush administration proposed the shield to protect Europe from Iranian long-range weapons, the plan to install it in two countries that were once in the Soviet sphere of influence became a major irritant in relations with Moscow.
Obama and Medvedev spoke warmly of improving relations between their nations, but said they had spent most of their meeting discussing Iran. The Islamic Republic says it is pursuing nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, but the U.S. and its allies suspect that Tehran wants to be able to build an atomic weapon.
Medvedev made it clear that Russia does not want to see a nuclear-armed Iran.
“I told his excellency, Mr. President, that we believe we need to help Iran to take a right decision,” he said.
“Sanctions rarely lead to productive results,” Medvedev added, “but in some cases, sanctions are inevitable.”
It was unclear what Russia’s threshold would be for agreeing to impose sanctions on Iran. But a senior Obama administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it was important that Medvedev used the word “sanctions.”
“That’s a major development,” the official said. “It shows that we’ve made real progress with Russia.”
Obama said the two countries agreed that Iran could pursue a nuclear program for peaceful purposes, and reiterated his willingness to negotiate with Iranian officials.
“But I think we also both agree that if Iran does not respond to serious negotiations and resolve this issue in a way that assures the international community that it’s meeting its commitments, and is not developing nuclear weapons, then we will have to take additional actions and that sanctions, serious additional sanctions, remain a possibility,” Obama said.
Hours later, Iran’s president made his own address to the annual opening session of the General Assembly, defending the legitimacy of his disputed reelection in June and reiterating his frequent criticism of Israel.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not mention his country’s nuclear program, but said that Iran was prepared to “warmly shake all those hands which are honestly extended to us.”
His comments were delivered late in the day to a half-empty chamber. U.S. delegates walked out in protest.
Obama administration officials said they also expected progress at the United Nations today on their goal of reducing the spread of nuclear weapons. Obama will chair a meeting of the Security Council to lay the groundwork for action against nations that put civilian nuclear technology to military uses. It is expected to pass unanimously.
In his speech to the General Assembly, Obama called on world leaders to set aside “an almost reflexive anti-Americanism” and work together toward common goals.
He listed nuclear disarmament as a primary goal, putting it on a par with peace and security, a healthy planet and an improved economy.
“Like all of you, my responsibility is to act in the interest of my nation and my people, and I will never apologize for defending those interests,” Obama said. “But it is my deeply held belief that in the year 2009 -- more than at any point in human history -- the interests of nations and peoples are shared.”
Despite hints of progress on several fronts, international experts and White House officials acknowledged that much difficult work remains.
Obama’s speech was “inspiring, visionary and transformative,” said Heather Conley, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. But it represents only the first chapter, she said.
“The second chapter is the ownership phase,” she said. “This is the far more difficult process, transitioning to action, and following up those impressive words with concrete action.
“This is where you start to hear concerns that you’re not seeing the results that were hoped for, which perhaps were unrealistically expected.”
Faced with opposition from senior Democrats and a pessimistic assessment from his top military commander, Obama is reassessing a military strategy for Afghanistan that he approved in March.
A key challenge will be to show progress on restarting Mideast peace talks. After months of effort to wrest concessions from Israel, Palestinians and Arab nations, U.S. envoy George J. Mitchell returned empty-handed last week from his latest visit to the region.
Partly as a result, Obama shifted his administration’s emphasis on the divisive issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Though he previously demanded that all construction of settlements be halted, he called on Israel this week to “restrain” settlement growth and said the issue should not be a barrier to peace talks.
Obama urged the Israeli and Palestinian leaders at a three-way meeting in New York to move quickly to revive negotiations.
By sweeping the settlement issue off the table for now, Obama handed a tactical victory to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had insisted on peace talks without preconditions or a predetermined timetable and agenda.
“The government has shown that you don’t always need to get flustered, to surrender and give in,” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israel Radio.
But in his speech Wednesday, Obama said the administration’s stance on the Jewish settlements had not changed.
“America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements,” he said.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had refused to meet with Netanyahu without the promise of a construction halt, but relented when Obama summoned both leaders to Tuesday’s session in New York.
A former legal advisor to the Palestinian Authority, Diana Buttu, said it would be difficult for Abbas to reject Obama’s appeal to resume talks as soon as possible. But Jibril Rajoub, a senior leader in Abbas’ Fatah movement, warned of failure if Netanyahu allowed settlements to keep growing.
“If he wants to push us into a corner, then I think he will drive us all into a wave of violence and bloodshed,” Rajoub said.
Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux in Jerusalem contributed to this report.