President Obama used the United Nations stage Tuesday to warn the world of the dire consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran, even as he called for greater tolerance among nations and cultures to hold in check the kind of violence that has shaken the Muslim world in recent weeks.
Speaking in effect to two audiences – the global one, and the US electorate that will decide in six weeks the fate of his reelection bid – Mr. Obama sounded tough on Iran. Time is limited, he said, for stopping Tehran through diplomacy, and he insisted that for the United States, simply containing a nuclear Iran is not an option.
At the same time, the leader of the world’s sole superpower said that global aspirations for change, so clearly expressed in the Arab Spring, must not be hijacked by the kind of violence and intolerance that have recently swept across countries from Egypt to Pakistan, resulting in scores of deaths.
Obama framed his speech around one of those deaths, that of Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya killed in a Sept. 11 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi. Opening with “Let me begin by telling you about an American named Chris Stevens,” the president said that the onetime Peace Corps volunteer and teacher of English in Morocco “embodied the best of America.”
While Ambassador Stevens “built bridges across oceans and cultures,” Obama said, he also “stood up for a set of principles” that are not only America’s principles, but also those of the UN.
"The attacks of the last two weeks are not simply an assault on America. They are also an assault on the very ideals upon which the United Nations was founded,” Obama said. "If we are serious about those ideals, we must speak honestly about the deeper causes of this crisis.”
Saying the world faces “a choice between the forces that would drive us apart and the hopes we hold in common,” he called on the world’s leaders to “affirm that our future will be determined by people like Chris Stevens, and not by his killers.”
He continued, “Today, we must declare that this violence and intolerance has no place among our United Nations."
Obama acknowledged the pain caused for many Muslims by a video made in the US that denigrates the prophet Muhammad. But as “crude and disgusting” as the video was, he said, it could not be the excuse for violence.
"There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents," Obama said. "There is no video that justifies an attack on an embassy. There is no slander that provides an excuse for people to burn a restaurant in Lebanon, or destroy a school in Tunis, or cause death and destruction in Pakistan."
Defaming words and actions have also been directed against the Christian faith, Obama noted. In an aside that sounded more than anything like electioneering, he said, “Like me, the majority of Americans are Christians.” But he said the only antidote to “hurtful speech is not repression; it’s more speech” about tolerance and universal values.
Concerning Iran’s nuclear program, Obama told his audience that there is still “time and space” for resolving the crisis through diplomacy, but he warned that time is “not unlimited.”
The consequences of a nuclear Iran would be “immense,” he said. Such a state “would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations, and the stability of the global economy,” Obama said. “It risks triggering a nuclear-arms race in the region and the unraveling of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.”
Obama repeated the US position that “peaceful nations have a right to access peaceful nuclear power,” but the burden is on Iran to prove its peaceful intentions, he said. And he warned that the time for doing so is running out.
On Monday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said he believes it is still possible to resolve diplomatically “and through mutual respect” the crisis over its nuclear program. Mr. Ahmadinejad, who is also in New York for the UN meetings, will address the assembly on Wednesday.
The UN General Assembly is usually an opportunity for the US president to hold a number of bilateral meetings with world leaders, but Obama, in full campaign mode, is holding none. After his UN speech, he was to cross Manhattan to address the Clinton Global Initiative – where Republican rival Mitt Romney spoke earlier Tuesday – before returning to Washington.
The heavy lifting on bilateral meetings has been left to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who kept a full schedule Monday and is set to keep that pace all week.
Secretary Clinton held hour-long one-on-ones with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, and Libyan President Mohamed Magariaf – the last of which expressed his country’s deep regret over the Benghazi attack that resulted in the deaths of four American diplomats, including Stevens.