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Obama: Iran sanctions have 'enormous bite'

By Ben Feller
AP White House Correspondent / November 13, 2011

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KAPOLEI, Hawaii—Defending his efforts to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, President Barack Obama said Sunday that economic sanctions against Tehran have had "enormous bite," and that he will consult with other nations on additional steps to ensure that Iran does not acquire an atomic weapon.

Obama expressed confidence that Russia and China in particular understand the threat a nuclear armed Iran would pose, and said their leaders agree that Iran cannot weaponize its nuclear power and trigger a nuclear arms race in the region.

The president, at a news conference that closed an Asia-Pacific economic summit, did not specifically say he would consider military action if Tehran were to persist in arming itself with a nuclear weapon. But he added: "We are not taking any options off the table. Iran with nuclear weapons would pose a threat not only to the region but also to the United States."

The sun setting behind him in Hawaii, Obama fielded questions across the domestic and foreign front. He prodded China on its economic policy, pledged to keep fighting Republicans over his largely stalled jobs bill, reflected on the hurt of the Penn State sex abuse scandal and challenged a key congressional debt panel without dropping any veto threats.

For the president, the news conference was his first opportunity to address a report Friday from the International Atomic Energy Agency that provided new evidence that Iran's nuclear program includes clandestine efforts to build a bomb. The report, circulated among the U.N. watchdog agency's member countries, alleges Iran has been working to acquire equipment and weapons design information, testing high explosives and detonators and developing compute models of a warhead's core. Taken together, it's the most unequivocal evidence yet that the Iranian program ranges far beyond enriching uranium for use in energy and medical research, which is what Tehran says it's for.

In meetings Saturday with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao, Obama sought to rally support for putting new pressure on Iran's regime. But there was little public sign either country was ready to drop its opposition to additional sanctions. The U.S. has already slapped sanctions on dozens of Iranian government agencies, financial and shipping companies as well as officials over the nuclear program and could target additional institutions like Iran's Central Bank. And the U.N. has imposed four rounds of sanctions that have caused economic hardship in Iran, but have yet to force any change in the nuclear program.

"The sanctions have enormous bite and enormous scope," Obama said.

Obama declined to directly respond to criticism of his Iran policy from Republican presidential candidates Saturday, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's declaration that Obama's re-election would mean a nuclear armed Iran. But he took a swipe at his foes anyway.

"Now is this an easy issue?" he asked. "No, anyone who claims it is, is either politicking or doesn't know what they're talking about."

He also rejected assertions from GOP candidates such as Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann that they would be willing to use the interrogation practice known as waterboarding, a simulated form of drowning, on suspected terrorists.

"Let me just say this: they're wrong," Obama said emphatically. "Waterboarding is torture, it's contrary to America's traditions, it's contrary to our ideals, that's not who we are, that's not how we operate. We don't need it ... and we did the right thing by ending that practice."

"Anyone who has read about and understands the practice of waterboarding would say that that is torture, period," he added.

Obama, hosting the APEC conference in his home state, took questions in the late afternoon sunshine of a quintessential Hawaii scene, with palm trees and blue waters sprawled out behind him.

The president challenged China to let its currency appreciate more rapidly and to end measures that take unfair advantage of foreign intellectual property.

"It's time for them to go ahead and move toward a market-based system for their currency," he said. "There is concern across the political spectrum that the playing field is not level right now."

He said he understood that exporters in China like the system as it is now because it makes Chinese products cheaper overseas and makes changes in the currency difficult politically in China. "I understand it, but the United States and other countries feel that enough is enough."

On the status of deficit talks in Congress, Obama urged lawmakers to reach consensus, complaining that they were continuing to stick with "rigid positions" rather than solving the problem.

A committee in charge of cutting the deficit has until Nov. 23 to agree on how to reduce it by at least $1.2 trillion in the next decade. Any amount less than that would be made up in automatic across-the-board cuts divided evenly between defense and domestic programs.

Obama refused to say whether he would veto any effort to bypass the deep cuts in defense and other spending that would take effect if there is no deal forthcoming from Congress.

He said he hopes lawmakers will "bite the bullet and do what needs to be done,' but voiced frustration with what he said was a desire by some members of Congress to "want to keep jiggering the math" to get a different outcome.

The president rejected a suggestion that he might end up with almost nothing to show from Congress on his jobs bill, saying he'd keep working to get it done even if it took past next year's election.

"My expectation is that we will get some of it done now, and I'll keep on pushing until we get all of it done," Obama said. "And that may take me all the way til November to get it all done. And it may take a new Congress to get it all done."

Obama sidestepped a question about his conversation more than a week ago with French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the G20 summit, in which reporters overheard Sarkozy calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a "liar," and Obama replying "I have to work with him every day." Obama wouldn't comment on the language -- but did say he voiced "significant disappointment" to Sarkozy about France's vote to admit Palestine as a member of the U.N. cultural organization. After the vote, the U.S. cut its funding for UNESCO.

Obama said the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State has an important message for institutions far beyond college sports: that protecting children is more important than shielding institutions. He called the case, which ended the career of longtime head coach Joe Paterno, "heartbreaking."

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