WASHINGTON (AP) — Pushing back hard, President Barack Obama forcefully defended the temporary agreement to freeze Iran's disputed nuclear program on Monday, declaring that the United States "cannot close the door on diplomacy."
The president's remarks followed skepticism of the historic accord expressed by some U.S. allies abroad as well as by members of Congress at home, including fellow Democrats. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the fiercest opponents of the six-month deal, called it a "historic mistake" and announced he would be dispatching a top envoy to Washington to try to toughen the final agreement negotiators will soon begin hammering out.
Obama, without naming names, swiped at those who have questioned the wisdom of engaging with Iran.
"Tough talk and bluster may be the easy thing to do politically, but it's not the right thing to do for our security," he said during an event in San Francisco.
The weekend agreement between Iran and six world powers — the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany — is to temporarily halt parts of Tehran's disputed nuclear program and allow for more intrusive international monitoring. In exchange, Iran gains some modest relief from stiff economic sanctions and a pledge from Obama that no new penalties will be levied during the six months.
Despite the fanfare surrounding the agreement, administration officials say key technical details on the inspections and sanctions relief must still be worked out before it formally takes effect. Those talks will tackle the toughest issues that have long divided Iran and the West, including whether Tehran will be allowed to enrich uranium at a low level.
Iran insists it has a right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, and many nuclear analysts say a final deal will almost certainly leave Iran with some right to enrich. However, that's sure to spark more discord with Israel and many lawmakers who insist Tehran be stripped of all enrichment capabilities. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he expects the deal to be fully implemented by the end of January.
European Union officials say their sanctions could be eased as soon as December. Those restrictions affect numerous areas including trade in petrochemicals, gold and other precious metals, financial transfers to purchase food and medicine, and the ability of third countries to use EU-based firms to insure shipments of Iranian oil again.
The groundwork for the accord was laid during four clandestine meetings between U.S. and Iranian officials throughout the summer and fall. An earlier meeting took place in March, before Iranians elected President Hassan Rouhani, a cleric who has taken more moderate public stances than his predecessor. Details of the secret talks were confirmed to The Associated Press by three senior administration officials.
The U.S. and its allies contend Iran is seeking to produce a nuclear bomb — of particular concern to Israel, which fears an attack — while Tehran insists it is merely pursuing a peaceful nuclear program for energy and medical purposes.
Even with the criticism, for Obama the sudden shift to foreign policy presents an opportunity to steady his flailing second term and take some attention off the domestic troubles that have plagued the White House in recent weeks, especially the rollout of his signature health care law. Perhaps with his presidential standing — and the strength of the rest of his term — in mind, he made sure on Monday to draw a connection between the nuclear pact and his long-declared willingness to negotiate directly with Iran.
"When I first ran for president, I said it was time for a new era of American leadership in the world, one that turned the page on a decade of war and began a new era of engagement with the world," he said. "As president and as commander in chief, I've done what I've said."
Later, at a high-dollar fundraiser in Los Angeles, Obama said he will not take any options off the table to ensure Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon.
However, he added, "I've spent too much time at Walter Reed looking at kids 22, 23, 24, 25 years old who've paid the kind of price that very few of us in this room can imagine on behalf of our freedom not to say that I will do every single thing that I can to try to resolve these issues without resorting to military conflict."
The temporary accord is historic in its own right, marking the most substantial agreement between Iran and the West in more than three decades. The consequences of a permanent deal could be far more significant, lowering the prospects of a nuclear arms race in the volatile Middle East and perhaps opening the door to wider relations between the U.S. and Iran, which broke off diplomatic ties following the 1979 Islamic revolution.
However, Obama and his advisers know the nuclear negotiations are rife with risk. If he has miscalculated Iran's intentions, it will vindicate critics who say his willingness to negotiate with Tehran is naive and could inadvertently hasten the Islamic republic's march toward a nuclear weapon. Obama also runs the risk of exacerbating tensions with key Middle Eastern allies, as well as members of Congress who want to deepen, not ease, economic penalties on Iran.
Despite Obama's assurances that no new sanctions will be levied on Iran while the interim agreement is in effect, some lawmakers want to push ahead with additional penalties. A new sanctions bill has already passed the House, and if it passes the Senate, Obama could have to wield his veto power in order to keep his promise to Tehran.
Even some members of Obama's own party say they're wary of the deal struck in Geneva.
"I am disappointed by the terms of the agreement between Iran and the P5+1 nations because it does not seem proportional," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a close ally of the White House. "Iran simply freezes its nuclear capabilities while we reduce the sanctions."
The Senate's Democratic majority leader, Harry Reid, was noncommittal on the subject of sanctions on Monday. On NPR's Diane Rehm Show, he said that when lawmakers return from their Thanksgiving break, "we will take a look at this to see if we need stronger sanctions ... and if we need work on this, if we need stronger sanctions I am sure we will do that."
Some lawmakers are also concerned about concessions the world powers made to Iran on its planned heavy water reactor in Arak, southwest of Tehran. Two congressional aides said that under the terms of the agreement, international monitors will not being able to watch live feeds of any activity at Arak and will instead retrieve a recording from the preceding day during each daily inspection.
The aides were not authorized to provide details of the agreement and demanded anonymity.
On the positive side, Michael Desch, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame, compared Obama's diplomatic overtures to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's secret outreach to China in the 1970s, which paved the way for the historic opening of U.S. relations with the Asian nation.
"Then, as now, critics complained that the U.S. was in danger of being hoodwinked by a radical and violent regime that was playing us for a sucker," Desch said. "An opening to Iran could potentially not only contain its nuclear program but set the stage for broader changes there as well."
ISHINOMAKI, Japan (AP) — Just days after arriving in Japan as the new U.S. ambassador, Caroline Kennedy is making a two-day visit to areas devastated by the 2011 tsunami to meet survivors and highlight America's commitment to supporting its ally.
The daughter of President John F. Kennedy tried her hand at calligraphy, exchanged high-fives with schoolchildren and got an early birthday greeting Monday as she toured the northeastern region, about 340 kilometers (210 miles) north of Tokyo.
Rebuilding in the region has barely begun. Makeshift stores, restaurants, car washes and laundries have been set up in areas flattened by the tsunami, which was triggered by a magnitude-9 earthquake. The disaster left more than 18,000 people dead or missing, and tens of thousands of people remain in temporary, prefabricated housing more than 2 1/2 years later.
Residents of the industrial port city of Ishinomaki stood in the wind and pouring rain waiting for a glimpse of Kennedy. She visited a park with a wide vista of the city's ravaged waterfront before heading to the Mangokuura Elementary School.
The students performed skits in English and sang "Happy Birthday" to Kennedy, who turns 56 on Wednesday. Kennedy presented 112 books to the school, donated in memory of Taylor Anderson, an American who died in the tsunami while teaching at Mangokuura and other schools in Ishinomaki.
Kennedy brushed in black ink the Japanese character for the word "tomo," or friend. She then sat down to read "Where the Wild Things Are," the classic children's book by American author Maurice Sendak, to a sixth-grade class.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican Sen. John McCain is accusing Russian President Vladimir Putin of corruption, repression and self-serving rule in an opinion piece for Pravda that answers the Russian leader's broadside published last week in an American newspaper.
In an op-ed headlined "Russians Deserve Better That Putin," McCain singles out Putin and his associates for punishing dissent, specifically the death in prison of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. The Russian presidential human rights council found in 2011 that Magnitsky, who had accused Russian officials of colluding with organized criminals, had been beaten and denied medical treatment.
McCain also criticized Putin for siding with Syrian President Bashar Assad in the 2½ year civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people.
McCain insists that he is not anti-Russian but rather "more pro-Russian than the regime that misrules you today."
"President Putin doesn't believe ... in you. He doesn't believe that human nature at liberty can rise above its weaknesses and build just, peaceful, prosperous societies. Or, at least, he doesn't believe Russians can. So he rules by using those weaknesses, by corruption, repression and violence. He rules for himself, not you," McCain wrote.
The senator submitted the editorial to Pravda and was told it would be posted on Thursday. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the editorial.
McCain assailed Putin and his associates for writing laws that codify bigotry, specifically legislation on sexual orientation. A new Russian law imposes fines and up to 15 days in prison for people accused of spreading "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" to minors.
On Syria, McCain said Putin is siding with a tyrant.
"He is not enhancing Russia's global reputation. He is destroying it. He has made her a friend to tyrants and an enemy to the oppressed, and untrusted by nations that seek to build a safer, more peaceful and prosperous world," the Arizona senator said.
McCain also criticized the imprisonment of the punk rock band Pussy Riot. The three women were convicted of hooliganism after staging an anti-Putin protest inside a Russian Orthodox Church.
The article by McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, comes just days after the U.S. and Russian officials reached an ambitious agreement that calls for an inventory of Syria's chemical weapons program within a week, and its complete eradication by mid-2014. Diplomatic wrangling continues, however.
Last week, Putin blamed opposition forces for the latest deadly chemical weapons attack in Syria and argued President Barack Obama's remarks about America were self-serving in an opinion piece for The New York Times. Putin also said it was dangerous for America to think of itself as exceptional, a reference to a comment Obama made.
McCain was not the first U.S. lawmaker to respond to Putin. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., wrote in an editorial for the Moscow Times about the suppression of the Russian people and the disregard for basic human rights.
GENEVA -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Geneva Thursday morning to test the seriousness of a Russian proposal to secure Syria's chemical weapons.
Kerry and a team of U.S. experts will have at least two days of meetings with their Russian counterparts on Thursday and Friday. They hope to emerge with an outline of how some 1,000 tons of chemical weapons stocks and precursor materials as well as potential delivery systems can be safely inventoried and isolated under international control in an active war zone and then destroyed.
Officials with Kerry said they would be looking for a rapid agreement on principles for the process with Russians, including a demand for a speedy Syrian accounting of their stockpiles.
One official said the task is "doable but difficult and complicated."
The official said the U.S. is looking for signs of Russian seriousness and thinks it will know in a relatively short time if the Russians are trying to stall. Another official described the ideas that the Russians have presented so far as "an opening position" that needs a lot of work and input from technical experts. The U.S. team includes officials who worked on inspection and removal of unconventional weapons from Libya after 2003 and in Iraq after the first Gulf War.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publically on the sensitive negotiations.
The hastily arranged meeting in Geneva comes as the White House tries to pin success or failure of the diplomatic track on Russia's willingness to take a tough line with its ally Syria. Syrian rebels, however, are disappointed at best in President Barack Obama's decision to forgo a military strike in favor of an agreement to take access to chemical weapons away from President Bashar Assad.
At the same time, the CIA has begun delivering light weapons and other munitions to the rebels over the past two weeks, along with separate deliveries by the State Department of vehicles and other gear, The Washington Post reported late Wednesday. The deliveries have lagged, the newspaper said, because of logistical challenges and U.S. fears that any assistance could wind up in the hands of extremists. Some U.S. lawmakers have chided the administration, which said months ago it would send lethal aid, for not moving more quickly to help the rebels.
Obama also found opposition in Congress to putting on hold his request for authorization to punish Assad militarily for his government's alleged role in a chemical attack on Damascus suburbs last month. His Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, asserted in an opinion piece in The New York Times that a potential strike by the U.S. would create more victims and could spread the conflict beyond Syria and unleash a new wave of terrorism.
In meetings planned for later Thursday and again Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Kerry will prod Moscow to put forward a credible and verifiable plan to inventory, quarantine and destroy Syria's chemical weapons stocks, according to U.S. officials.
Kerry is accompanied by American chemical weapons experts to look at and possibly expand on Russian ideas for the complex task of safely dealing with the vast stockpiles in the midst of a brutal and unpredictable conflict. Russian technical experts will join Lavrov in the meetings.
"Our goal here is to test the seriousness of this proposal, to talk about the specifics of how this would get done, what are the mechanics of identifying, verifying, securing and ultimately destroying the chemical weapons," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said shortly before Kerry left Washington.
The U.S. is hoping that an acceptable agreement with the Russians can be part of a binding new U.N. Security Council resolution being negotiated that would hold Syria accountable for using chemical weapons. Russia, however, has long opposed U.N. action on Syria, vetoed three earlier resolutions, blocked numerous, less severe condemnations and has not indicated it is willing to go along with one now.
A senior U.N. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because contacts have been private, said Thursday's meeting will be an exploratory session to gauge whether they can embark on "the herculean task" of dismantling Syria's chemical weapons while the country is at war.
In his column posted Wednesday on the Times website, Putin asserted that it is "alarming" that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries "has become commonplace for the United States."
"Is it in America's long-term interest? I doubt it," Putin wrote. "Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan `you're either with us or against us."'
Putin said he favored taking advantage of Syria's willingness to place its chemical arsenal under international control and welcomed Obama's interest in continuing to discuss Syria with Russia.
"If we can avoid force against Syria, this will improve the atmosphere in international affairs and strengthen mutual trust," he wrote. "It will be our shared success and open the door to cooperation on other critical issues."
American ships in the Mediterranean Sea remained ready to strike Syria if ordered, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said. Syrian rebels appeared skeptical that U.S. forces would be put to use, saying the Americans have repeatedly reneged on promises to assist their rebellion. They pointed to Obama's statement in June that he would provide lethal aid to the rebels.
Meanwhile, Assad's forces have gained the advantage.
"We're on our own," Mohammad Joud, an opposition fighter in the war-shattered northern city of Aleppo, said via Skype. "I always knew that, but thanks to Obama's shameful conduct, others are waking up to this reality as well."
Ayham Kamel, a Middle East analyst at the Eurasia Group in London, said the Syrian opposition will struggle with morale and sense of purpose.
"Assad's regime is going to be stronger because while they've agreed to give up their chemical weapons, they get to keep everything else to fight the opposition that has lost territory in the past year and has now suffered a big blow," Kamel said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to put a deadline on diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff but said bringing Syria's chemical weapons stockpile under international control "obviously will take some time."
"Russia is now putting its prestige on the line," Carney said Wednesday. Asked if U.S. prestige also was on the line, Carney responded: "The United States leads in these situations. And it's not always popular and it's not always comfortable."
On Capitol Hill, action on any congressional resolution authorizing U.S. military intervention in Syria was on hold, even an alternative that would have reflected Russia's diplomatic offer. Senators instead debated an energy bill.
"The whole terrain has changed," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters after a meeting of Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "We want to make sure we do nothing that's going to derail what's going on."
That didn't stop Republicans from announcing their opposition to Obama's initial call for military strikes and criticizing the commander in chief. Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., accused the president of engaging in "pinball diplomacy."
SEOUL (ABC) - Former NBA star Dennis Rodman is on way to Pyongyang today for a five-day visit to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but the trip he said is not to free jailed American missionary Kenneth Bae.
"I'm going to North Korea to meet my friend, Kim," Rodman told reporters while transiting at Beijing's airport earlier today. "It's a friendly gesture."
Bae, currently serving a 15 year sentence of hard labor in North Korea, was arrested for attempting to overthrow the communist government. Negotiations for his release was canceled at the last minute by North Korea just before Robert King, U.S. special envoy on North Korean human rights issues, was to visit Pyongyang last week.
Pyongyang's excuse for the abrupt withdrawal was disapproval of the U.S. military participating in annual joint drills with South Korea.
Rodman, the first American to have met Kim in February, noted this trip is "another basketball diplomacy tour." His earlier visit had stunned the diplomatic world when very little was known about Kim Jong Un's personality.
The former basketball star was spotted hugging, drinking, and laughing with Kim who is known to have been a fan of Rodman from teenage years when he was educated in Switzerland. The trip had been organized by the cable channel Vice to promote an exhibition game and make a documentary.
Rodman has referred Kim as "an awesome kid" and gave lavish praises after spending time with him earlier this year.
Rodman said that Kim's father and grandfather Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, "were great leaders," according to the Associated Press. "He's proud, his country likes him — not like him, love him, love him," Rodman said of Kim Jong Un. "Guess what, I love him. The guy's really awesome."
BEIJING (AP) — U.S. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon began discussions with Chinese officials Monday for a summit between their two presidents that will confront divisive security issues while trying to overcome a growing distrust between the governments.
Donilon and State Councilor Yang Jiechi, China's senior foreign policy official, said next month's summit is a chance for the U.S.'s Barack Obama and China's Xi Jinping to work through problems. Though they did not identify those challenges in their public remarks, ties are strained across the board, from longstanding differences over Iran's and North Korea's nuclear programs to new disputes over cyber-attacks and China's more assertive pursuit of territorial claims against U.S. allies Japan and the Philippines.
In a sign that both sides want to stem the drift besetting ties, the summit now scheduled for June 7-8 is taking place months earlier than the two presidents were supposed to meet. It's their first face-to-face meeting since Obama's re-election and Xi's promotion to head of the Communist Party last November. The setting — at the private estate of the late publishing tycoon Walter Annenberg in southern California — is supposed to be informal, giving Xi and Obama and chance to build a rapport.
That Xi agreed to an informal summit has been seen by Chinese and U.S. experts as positive. His predecessors always preferred formal state visits, splashing images of White House ceremonies and banquets in the Chinese media to bolster their standing as world statesmen.
Good will aside, distrust has deepened in relations in recent years as the U.S. feels its world leadership challenged and China, its power growing, demands greater deference to its interests and a larger say over global rule-setting. Chinese officials and state media regularly say Washington is thwarting China's rise, strengthening alliances in Asia to hem in Beijing and discouraging Chinese investment in the U.S. on national security issues.
The official Xinhua News Agency reported Monday that late last week battle ships and submarines from the Chinese navy's three fleets staged a war game in the South China Sea. The area is already a flashpoint, with Beijing's aggressive claims to disputed islands having rattled the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
On Sunday, Li Keqiang — on a visit to Germany in his first trip abroad as China's premier — pressed China's claim to a cluster of East China Sea islands held by Japan. Traveling to Potsdam, where allied powers declared the terms for Japan's surrender 68 years ago in the waning days of World War II, Li told reporters that Japan must not "deny or glorify the history of fascist aggression."
The aggrieved sense emanating from Beijing goes beyond recent flare-ups in old territorial disputes. The website of the People's Daily, the Communist Party's flagship newspaper, is running a recurring column that takes a critical look at Americans and their institutions. First called "Immoral, dishonest Americans," the title of the column was changed to "The Americans you don't know about."
State Councilor Yang in welcoming Donilon said his trip helps "in strengthening the bilateral trust and cooperation." Looking toward the summit, Donilon said, "The meeting will be an important opportunity for our presidents to have in-depth discussions about US-China relations, and a wide range of global and regional challenges facing both our countries."
One item on Donilon's summit agenda is the guest list. Xi will stop in California after formal visits to Trinidad and Tobago and Mexico where he will be accompanied by a large group of senior officials. If that entourage descends in full on the Sunnylands estate, U.S. diplomats said the White House might feel the need to bring similarly large numbers, making the summit less intimate.