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Obama: No need to ‘look tough’ on Iran through new sanctions
President Barack Obama smiles as he prepares to answer a question during an end-of-the year news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, Friday, Dec. 20, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama smiles as he prepares to answer a question during an end-of-the year news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, Friday, Dec. 20, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
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WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama said Friday that he understood why some U.S. lawmakers wanted to “look tough” on Iran but insisted now was not the time to impose new sanctions on Tehran while it was set to negotiate over a long-term nuclear deal with world powers.

“There is no need for new sanctions legislation, not yet,” Obama told a White House news conference a day after a group of U.S. senators introduced a bill to impose new punitive measures on Iran if it breaks an interim nuclear deal reached last month in Geneva.

Obama, who has warned that new sanctions could scuttle the negotiations, said that “if we are serious” about seeking a final nuclear agreement the United States had to act in ways that did not increase Iranian suspicions.

The president shrugged off his deep dip in polling among the American people, telling a year-end news conference, “we screwed it up” in launching his health care overhaul but saying the country was poised in the coming year “to do very good things.”

With his standing in the polls at or near record lows, Obama acknowledged frustration that his legislative goals had been largely crushed by Republicans in Congress. But he said he took satisfaction that “we’ve got several million people who are going to have health insurance.”

He acknowledged that revelations by former contractor Edward Snowden about National Security Agency collection of data about Americans’ communications had shaken the “confidence and trust” of some Americans, causing them to worry that their privacy was no longer secure. He insisted that the NSA was not doing anything contrary to U.S. law but that he felt NSA programs might need to be changed to restore the trust citizens have in their government’s security operations.

One reform could be to stop the practice of government storing phone records for five years and shift that storage to phone companies.

“I have confidence that the NSA is not engaged in domestic surveillance or snooping around,” Obama said, but added, “we may have to refine this further to give people more confidence.”

Despite his fall in the polls, Obama appeared confident and relaxed as he looked forward to a Friday departure with his family for his traditional Christmas vacation in Hawaii.

Obama championed the improving economy and said next year “can be a breakthrough year for America” after a long recession and slow recovery.

The president fielded questions a few hours after the government announced the economy grew at a solid 4.1 percent annual rate from July through September, the fastest pace since late 2011 and significantly higher than previously believed.

The president praised Congress for a recent, relatively modest budget compromise, saying, “It’s probably too early to declare an outbreak of bipartisanship. But it’s also fair to say we’re not condemned to endless gridlock.”

He renewed his long-standing refusal to negotiate concessions with Republicans in exchange for legislation that will be needed in coming months to raise the nation’s debt limit.

“It is not something that is a negotiating tool. It’s not leverage. It’s a responsibility of Congress,” he said.

Asked if this year had been the worst of his presidency, Obama laughed and said, “That’s not how I think about it.”

The president also said the delegation he was sending to Russia for the Winter Olympics shows the U.S did not make distinctions on the basis of sexual orientation. Russia has come under fierce criticism for passing national laws banning “gay propaganda.”

Obama’s group heading to Sochi includes openly gay athletes Brian Boitano, Billie Jean King and Caitlin Cahow. He says the delegation “speaks for itself.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 21, 2013, on page 1.
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