Obama at UN Vows U.S. Won’t Let Iran Gain Nuclear Weapon

President Barack Obama pledged in a speech to world leaders today that the U.S. will do what it takes to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon and warned that time for a diplomatic resolution “is not unlimited.”

While there is still a chance to negotiate, Obama told the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, a nuclear-armed Iran would imperil Israel, ignite a regional arms race and destabilize the global economy.

“Make no mistake: A nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained,” Obama said in a speech aimed at two distinct audiences: Mideast leaders, including those of new governments emerging from the Arab Spring, and U.S. voters who in six weeks choose between him and Republican Mitt Romney in the presidential election. “The United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

The Middle East and North Africa were the focus for Obama in his UN speech, and he used the bulk of the address to talk about the attacks on U.S. diplomatic outposts triggered by an anti-Islam video made in the U.S. The deadliest was a Sept. 11 assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

Romney Opening

The violence has opened a line of attack by Romney on Obama’s foreign policy, particularly his handling of relations with Israel and the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In an address to the Clinton Global Initiative in New York just before Obama spoke, Romney said the U.S. seems “at the mercy of events rather than shaping events.”

At the UN, Obama called the assaults in Libya “attacks on America” and vowed that the U.S. would be “relentless” in tracking down the killers.

While calling the video “crude and disgusting” and saying the U.S. government had nothing to do with it, Obama said such expression can’t be banned in a free society.

“Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views -- even views that we disagree with,” Obama said. “We do so not because we support hateful speech, but because our founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views, and practice their own faith, may be threatened.”

Free Speech

In an otherwise somber speech, Obama drew some laughter from his audience with a self-reflective defense of free speech. “Here, in the United States, countless publications provoke offense,” he said, and as president “I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will always defend their right to do so.”

He warned that newly elected leaders in countries that were swept by the Arab Spring uprising are threatened by the same anger and extremism now aimed at the U.S.

“The impulse towards intolerance and violence may initially be focused on the West, but over time it cannot be contained,” Obama said. “The same impulses toward extremism are used to justify war between Sunnis and Shia, between tribes and clans.”

While saying the future must not belong to those who slander Islam, Obama said, “Those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see when the image of Jesus Christ is desecrated, churches are destroyed, or the Holocaust is denied.”

Obama restated his call that the regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad “must come to an end.”

‘Mercy of Events’

Romney also touched on the violence in the Muslim world in his speech at the Clinton Global Initiative, repeating a line of attack against Obama that he’s been using this week in campaign appearances.

“Syria has witnessed the killing of tens of thousands of people,” he said. “The president of Egypt is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Our ambassador to Libya was assassinated in a terrorist attack. Iran is moving toward nuclear weapons capability. We somehow feel that we are at the mercy of events, rather than shaping events.”

Obama also addressed the conference, as will Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi and Libya’s Mohammed Yussef Magariaf, whose new governments are being tested by the turmoil.

In his remarks to the annual conference organized by former President Bill Clinton, Obama emphasized work to curb human trafficking.

Human Trafficking

Obama focused his address to the Clinton Global Initiative on his administration’s efforts to curb human trafficking. He announced an executive order strengthening prohibitions against U.S. tax dollars supporting human trafficking through contracts and more investigations into such crimes in the U.S. and abroad.

Human trafficking “must be called by its true name, modern slavery,” Obama said. He said his message to oppressed people around the world is: “We see you, we hear you, we insist on your dignity.”

Iran has been a flashpoint in U.S. foreign policy and the election campaign. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been pressuring the U.S. to set a clear threshold that would trigger a military strike.

Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have said they may have no choice but to launch a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities if negotiations over the Islamic Republic’s atomic work fail. U.S. officials have said they believe Iran’s supreme leader has not made a decision on whether to develop a nuclear weapon.

No Shift

Trita Parsi, president of National Iranian-American Council, said while Obama sharpened his tone against Iran in the UN address, “he does not shift the red line” to a nuclear-capable Iran from a nuclear-armed Iran.

“Obama is right in resisting the Netanyahu government’s pressure for the U.S. to adopt a red line that Israel itself has refused to draw,” Parsi said. “Acceptance of the Israeli red line would in essence mean that the U.S. should have gone to war with Iran several years ago.”

Danny Danon, deputy speaker of the Knesset in Israel and a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, said in a statement from Jerusalem that it is time for “defined red lines” and not “hollow words.”

“While President Obama addressed the UN and presented his rose-colored vision for the Middle East, the centrifuges in Natanz, Kom and Fordow continue to spin,” Danon said of Iran’s nuclear program.

Iranian leaders have on numerous occasions called for the destruction of Israel, raising concerns about Iran’s intentions if it were to acquire a nuclear weapon.

Rounds of Diplomacy

Since April, the Obama administration and France, the U.K., Germany, China and Russia have pursued three rounds of diplomacy in an effort to persuade Iran to abandon illicit aspects of its nuclear program. While the international community has stepped up the pressure on Iran by imposing dozens of financial and oil sanctions this year, the talks have so far failed to achieve a settlement.

Obama has no announced one-on-one meetings with world leaders during his time at the UN, a schedule that has drawn criticism from Republicans. Last year, he had more than a dozen private sessions with the leaders of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, France, the U.K. and other nations.

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