By Frank James
While the just ended Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C. was focused on preventing terrorists from getting access to nuclear material or bombs, the subject of Iran and what appears to be its pursuit of nuclear weapons was on a lot of minds.
President Barack Obama met with his Chinese counterpart, President Hu Jintao, in a bilateral meeting during the summit and, afterwards, journalists wanted to know if Obama received more of a commitment from the Chinese president that his nation would support new sanctions against Iran.
The president didn't say exactly that he had received a such a commitment. But he pushed the idea that just China's willingness to discuss the possibility of sanctions against Iran, its trade partner, was significant progress compared to where things stood last year.
Here's Obama's exchange with ABC News' Jake Tapper:
TAPPER: I was wondering if you could clarify exactly what you believe President Hu Jintao has agreed to -- whether you think there actually will be economic sanctions with teeth that the Chinese will sign off on -- and what you have told the Chinese, in terms of their concern about how much fuel they get from Iran, what the U.S. can help them with in that regard. Thank you, sir.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Here's what I know. The Chinese have sent official representatives to negotiations in New York, to begin the process of drafting a sanctions resolution. That is part of the P-5 plus one effort. And the United States is not moving this process alone.
We've got the participation of the Russians, as well as the other members of the P-5 plus one, all of whom believe that it is important for us to send a strong signal, to Iran, that their consistent violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions, as well as their obligations under the NPT, have consequences and that they've got a better path to take.
Now, you're exactly right, Jake, that the Chinese are obviously concerned about what ramifications this might have on the economy generally. Iran is an oil-producing state. I think that, you know, a lot of countries around the world have trade relationships with Iran. And we're mindful of that.
But what I said to President Hu and what I've said to every world leader that I've talked to is that words have to mean something. There have to be some consequences. And if we are saying that the NPT is important, if we're saying that nonproliferation is important, then when those obligations are repeatedly flouted, then it's important for the international community to come together.
And what I would say is that if you consider where we were, say, a year ago, with respect to the prospect of sanctions, the fact that we've got Russia and China, as well as the other P-5 plus one members, having a serious discussion around a sanctions regime -- following up on a serious sanctions regime that was passed when North Korea flouted its obligations towards the NPT -- it's a sign of the degree to which international diplomacy is making it more possible for us to isolate those countries that are blake (sic) -- breaking their international obligations.
And as I said, I think, several weeks ago, my interest is not with having a long, drawn-out process for months.I want to see us move forward boldly and quickly, to send the kind of message that will allow Iran to make a different calculation.
And keep in mind, I've -- I have said repeatedly that under the NPT Iran has the right to develop peaceful civilian nuclear energy, as do all signatories to the NPT. The -- the -- but given the repeated violations that we've seen on the part of Iran, I think understandably the world community questions their commitment towards a peaceful civilian energy program.
They have a way of restoring that trust. For example, we put before them -- I'm saying the P-5 plus one, now, as well as the IAEA put before them a very reasonable approach that would have allowed them to continue their civilian peaceful nuclear-energy needs, but would have allayed many of the concerns around their nuclear-weapons program. They have rejected that, so far. And that's why it's important, and I said from the start, that we're going to move on a dual track. And part of that dual track is making sure that a sanctions regime is in place.
Last point I'll make about sanctions. Sometimes I hear the argument that, well, sanctions aren't really going to necessarily work. You know, sanctions aren't a magic wand. What sanctions do accomplish is, hopefully, to change the calculus of a country like Iran, so that they see that there are more costs and fewer benefits to pursuing a nuclear-weapons program. And in that process, what we hope is, is that if -- if those costs get high enough and the benefits are -- are low enough, that in time they make this -- the right decision, not just for the security and prosperity of the world, but also for their own people.