Absent From Nuclear Summit, Iran Still Present

President Obama's nuclear security summit was about keeping nuclear material away from terrorists. On the sidelines of the meeting, the talk was about Iran. With leaders from nearly 50 countries present in the convention center, there was a rare opportunity for Western powers to lobby other nations to join the international campaign against Iran's nuclear program.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We've been reporting this week on the nuclear summit in Washington. Dozens of nations pledged to do their part to keep nuclear materials out of terrorists' hands. That was the main goal of the conference. And with so many world leaders in town, there were also many opportunities for conversations on the sidelines. One major topic of conversation: keeping Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Iran was not invited to the summit, but it was on the mind of many who came to Washington. French President Nicolas Sarkozy described Iran's nuclear ambitions as potentially the most dangerous crisis the world is facing. And he said there's a growing understanding among colleagues at the summit that it's time to show a united front.

President NIKOLAS SARKOZY (France): (Through translator) And I remain convinced that we are at a time when consensus is closest within grasp, because the blindness of Iranian leadership is very, very worrisome. To say this is simply to say the truth.

KELEMEN: Sarkozy says Iran has been refusing to accept any of the outstretched hands, whether from President Obama or the presidents of Brazil and Turkey.

Pres. SARKOZY: (Through translator) It has led to absolutely nothing other than a waste of time. And there is a general awareness that things cannot go on like this.

KELEMEN: Brazil and Turkey are both currently members of the U.N. Security Council, and Sarkozy says they are making one last diplomatic push. But the French leader says he's made clear in his private meetings that time is short. France and other permanent Security Council members want a new sanctions resolution passed this month or next.

President Obama seems to think China won't get in the way, despite its trade ties with Iran. He met with Chinese President Hu Jintao this week.

President BARACK OBAMA: 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 talked to is that words have to mean something. There have to be some consequences.

KELEMEN: Consequences for Iran's defiance of the international community. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband also thinks China understands that both pressure and outreach are needed in dealing with Iran.

Mr. DAVID MILIBAND (British Foreign Secretary): I believe that China does not want to find itself isolated from the international consensus - first of all, about the goal, and secondly, about the right means to achieve it.

KELEMEN: China is now taking part in talks on what should be included in a new U.N. sanctions resolution on Iran. So is Russia, which has expressed growing frustration with Iran.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told the Brookings Institution yesterday that Iran is a problem. But speaking through an interpreter, he also made clear there are only certain sanctions Russia would support.

President DMITRY MEDVEDEV (Russia): (Through translator) I do not favor paralyzing, crippling sanctions who make people suffer in a humanitarian sense. This is immoral, and it creates negative results.

KELEMEN: Medvedev argued that sanctions must be smart and universal. Western diplomats expect that the next U.N. Security Council resolution will have to be watered down from what they want and be targeted against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and others believed to be involved in Iran's nuclear program. President Obama acknowledged the limitations of this approach, saying sanctions aren't a magic wand. But he says he hopes they will at least change Iran's calculus.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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