In an interview with Time magazine‘s Fareed Zakaria, Obama highlighted his approach to the Iranian nuclear standoff.
“I have made myself clear since I began running for the presidency that we will take every step available to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” he said.
“When I came into office, what we had was a situation in which the world was divided, Iran was unified, it was on the move in the region,” Obama continued. “And because of effective diplomacy, unprecedented pressure with respect to sanctions, our ability to get countries like Russia and China that had previously balked at any serious pressure on Iran to work with us, Iran now faces a unified world community, Iran is isolated, its standing in the region is diminished.”
Yet, two months after the International Atomic Energy Agency for the first time publicly stated that Iran was developing the technologies used to develop nuclear weapons – lending further credence to strong suspicions held by the U.S. and others for almost a decade – Russia, China and others remain loathe to cooperate with calls for tougher sanctions, and particularly those targeting Iran’s oil exports.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned this week that oil-focused sanctions could jeopardize attempts to negotiate an end to the dispute over Iran’s nuclear activities.
Iran and six major powers (the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China) recently agreed to resume talks in Turkey. Led by European Union members, the international community has been trying to resolve the standoff diplomatically ever since 2003 – a year after Iran’s covert program was first exposed by opponents of the regime. Tehran denies its nuclear power program has a military objective.
In Moscow’s view, Lavrov told a press conference Wednesday, “all conceivable sanctions already have been applied” against Iran.
China, the biggest buyer of Iranian oil, said Wednesday its purchases constitute “normal” and “justified” trade activity.”
“Legitimate trade should be protected, otherwise the world economic order would fall into turmoil,” Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said during a visit to Qatar. Wen also said China was opposed to Iran developing nuclear weapons, and expressed concern about any risks to oil shipping in the Persian Gulf’s Strait of Hormuz.
Iran has in recent weeks stepped up threats to respond to new sanctions by shutting the waterway, a crucial conduit for world oil supplies.
Meanwhile, India says it will continue to buy crude oil from Iran – its second-biggest supplier – and the Japanese government has sent mixed messages about its willingness to reduce Iranian oil imports, which account for about 10 percent of Japan’s total requirements.
Officials in South Korea have expressed concern about the difficulties in quickly shifting suppliers while those in emerging south-east Asia powerhouse Indonesia also fretted about the impact of sanctions against Iranian oil.
U.S. officials visited Japan and South Korea this week to urge them to reduce Iranian crude purchases.
“We have sent briefing teams to lots of different countries around the world – to Europe, to the Middle East, to Asia – to work with partners and allies on how to reduce their dependence on Iranian crude in a phased and managed way so that we don’t have economic backlash on those countries, so that we don’t unduly destabilize markets,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday.
She declined to comment on statements coming out of various countries, but said “we do think that these consultations are bearing fruit.”
Obama vs. Bush at the UN
Obama implied in the interview that his administration had succeeded in bringing the world together over the Iran issue where his predecessor had not.
“When I came into office, what we had was a situation in which the world was divided,” he said. Three years later, by contrast, “Iran now faces a unified world community.”
He attributed the changed situation to three things – “effective diplomacy, unprecedented pressure with respect to sanctions, [and] our ability to get countries like Russia and China that had previously balked at any serious pressure on Iran to work with us.”
In fact, despite Obama’s energetic efforts to deepen engagement at the United Nations, the Bush administration was arguably more successful in attaining a unified response to Iran at the world body.
Of the four Iran sanctions resolutions that have been passed by the Security Council, three were adopted during Bush’s second term (resolutions 1737 in 2006, 1747 in 2007 and 1803 in 2008) and one since Obama took office (resolution 1929 in 2010).
The Bush administration twice managed to achieve what the Obama administration has not – a 15 out of 15 vote in the council for sanctions against Tehran. On the third occasion, in 2008, it achieved a 14-0 vote, with one abstention.
But resolution 1929, adopted during the current administration, received “no” votes from Turkey and Brazil, as well as an abstention from Lebanon. Although it passed, the absence of unanimity deprived its supporters of the ability to claim that the world body’s most powerful organ was sending an all-important “unified” message to Iran.
In all four resolutions, Russia and China made their eventual support contingent on watering down the measures, thereby making the outcome in each case less robust than the U.S. and European nations wanted.
Still, Obama’s diplomats led by ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice were unable to secure the support of Turkey and Brazil, while Bush’s succeeded in getting onboard Qatar in 2006 and 2007, Indonesia in 2007, South Africa in 2007 and 2008, Vietnam in 2008 – and even Libya in 2008.
Despite the jarring no votes, the Obama State Department called resolution 1929 “a very, very strong, compelling statement from the international community” while Rice played down the decisions by Turkey and Brazil to oppose the measure, calling it “a reflection largely of a difference of timing and tactics.”
Four months earlier, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that it was important that “we speak with one voice, one voice within our government and one voice internationally, against Iran’s failure to live up to its responsibilities.”
“The Obama administration has failed to garner the U.N. support they claimed they would be able to get for U.S. foreign policy issues,” Richard Grenell, who served as spokesman for four U.S. ambassadors to the U.N. during the Bush administration, said Thursday.
“In fact, the Obama team, led by Susan Rice, has produced one security council resolution on Iran since its been in office,” he told CNSNews.com. “And that one resolution got less support than the Bush team’s four previous resolutions combined.”
(The fourth Bush-era resolution referred to by Grenell was one that condemned Iran’s uranium enrichment and threatened sanctions, paving the way for the sanctions resolutions.)
“The Obama team has also failed to produce a resolution on Syria and Egypt,” Grenell added. “Candidate Obama talked a big game but his negotiation skills are pretty bad.”