WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama promised to launch a new diplomatic push to solve the longstanding crisis over Iran’s disputed nuclear program, saying there was still a “window of time” to end the standoff.
His comments came amid speculation about possible direct U.S. talks that surfaced just before the U.S. elections and has gone up in volume since Obama’s re-election.
Iran, reeling from international sanctions over its nuclear program, has not ruled out direct talks with Washington but says these will not come overnight.
“With respect to Iran, I very much want to see a diplomatic resolution to the problem,” Obama told a White House news conference Wednesday.
“I will try to make a push in the coming months to see if we can open up a dialogue between Iran and not just us, but the international community, to see if we can get this thing resolved.”
Though he was careful to stress that Washington remains adamantly opposed to letting Iran obtain a nuclear weapon, the president added: “There is still a window of time for us to resolve this diplomatically.”
Iran insists that it is developing nuclear energy for peaceful, civilian purposes, but Israel and Western nations fear the program is a cover for a drive to produce nuclear weapons.
“There should be a way in which they can enjoy peaceful nuclear power while still meeting their international obligations and providing clear assurances to the international community that they’re not pursuing a nuclear weapon,” Obama said. “I can’t promise that Iran will walk through the door that they need to walk through. But that would be very much the preferable option.”
He nonetheless denied that talks with Iran were imminent.
Obama also angrily hit out at Republicans gunning for the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, who is under fire over the militant attack on the U.S. mission in Libya.
Refusing to say if he planned to pick her to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Obama defended Rice, saying she had done “exemplary work” at the U.N. showing “skill and professionalism and toughness and grace.”
Rice has been widely criticized after she said only days after the Sept. 11 attack on the Benghazi consulate that according to the current intelligence it had started with a spontaneous protest against an anti-Islam film.
The Obama administration has since acknowledged that the attack, in which ambassador Chris Stevens and three other U.S. staff were killed, was carried out by militants linked to Al-Qaeda.
“She gave her best understanding of the intelligence that had been provided to her,” the president insisted, training his fire on Republican lawmakers.
“For them to go after the U.N. ambassador who had nothing to do with Benghazi, and was simply making a presentation based on intelligence that she had received, and to besmirch her reputation is outrageous.”
“I will do everything in my power to block her from being the United States Secretary of State,” Republican Senator John McCain said on Fox News earlier Wednesday.
“She went out and told the American people something that was patently false and defied common sense,” he added, echoing comments made at the weekend by Senator Lindsey Graham who predicted Rice would have “an incredibly difficult time getting through the Senate.”
Obama hit back angrily: “If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me. And I’m happy to have that discussion with them.”
Obama’s speech also touched on the U.S. economy. The president said he was not going to “slam the door” in the face of Republican ideas for avoiding the so-called fiscal cliff, but he insisted the wealthy must pay more and that he was determined to keep taxes from rising on the middle class in the face of a year-end deadline to avoid big tax increases for all Americans and deep cuts in government spending.
In his first public appearance since he was re-elected, Obama tackled the growing scandal around two of the country’s most well-known generals, saying: “I have no evidence at this point that classified information was disclosed that in any way could have any impact on our national security.”
David Petraeus, who resigned as head of the CIA Friday after admitting an extramarital affair with his biographer, had been set to testify this week before Congress on the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.
Petraeus has indicated his willingness to testify, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, said Wednesday. No date for the testimony has been set, and Feinstein said the testimony will be limited to the Benghazi attacks.
The 60-year-old Petraeus, whose highly respected career as the top U.S. commander in Iraq and Afghanistan led some to speculate on a possible run for president, has expressed regret over the affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell.
U.S. officials say the 40-year-old Broadwell sent harassing, anonymous emails to a woman she apparently saw as a rival for Petraeus’ affections. That woman, Jill Kelley, in turn traded sometimes flirtatious email messages with current Afghanistan commander Gen. John Allen, possible evidence of another inappropriate relationship.
Though Obama said he did not want to comment on the specifics of the investigation, and he hoped the scandal would be a “single side note” in Petraeus’ otherwise extraordinary career, law enforcement and national security officials said Wednesday a computer used by Broadwell contained substantial classified information that should have been stored under more secure conditions.
The contents of the classified material and how Broadwell acquired it remain under investigation, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly.
But the quantity of classified material found on the computer was significant enough to warrant a continuing investigation, the officials told Reuters.
Late Monday, FBI investigators searched Broadwell’s residence in Charlotte, North Carolina, an action that officials said occurred with Broadwell’s consent.