WASHINGTON -- President Obama on Tuesday used a high-profile speech to the U.N. General Assembly to argue that his administration is taking steps to prevent the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran rather than readying to deter the nation at a later date.
“Make no mistake: a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained,” Obama said. “It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations, and the stability of the global economy. It risks triggering a nuclear arms race in the region, and the unraveling of the [Nuclear] Nonproliferation Treaty.
"That is why a coalition of countries is holding the Iranian government accountable," the president added. "And that is why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
The Obama administration has regularly declared that use of military force remains an option in derailing Tehran's suspected pursuit of a nuclear-weapon capability. However, Washington over nearly four years has focused first on diplomatic outreach and an escalating sanctions regime as a means of bringing Iran into line.
That stance has not yet persuaded Iranian leaders to take steps demanded by the U.N. Security Council, including cessation of uranium enrichment operations that could be used to produce reactor fuel as well as nuclear-weapon material. The Persian Gulf power says its atomic operations are strictly civilian in nature, but its pace of enrichment has seen a nearly threefold boost during Obama's term, the Washington Post reported.
"The nuclear issue is not a problem," Reuters quoted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as saying in New York on Monday, ahead of his speech on Wednesday to the General Assembly. "But the approach of the United States on Iran is important. We are ready for dialogue, for a fundamental resolution of the problems, but under conditions that are based on fairness and mutual respect."
Ahmadinejad took aim again at Israel, saying his nation's longtime foe would be "eliminated."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called on Washington to set a clear "red line" for Iran's nuclear program -- the point at which use of force could be triggered -- while citing his government's readiness to take action on its own. Netanyahu's rhetoric in recent weeks has sparked criticism at home that the Israeli leader is meddling in the U.S. election in favor of Republican candidate Mitt Romney. While Obama and Netanyahu are both attending the General Assembly, they are not expected to meet in New York.
There was no indication of a red line in Obama's speech. Diplomacy remains an option for resolving the nuclear standoff, "and we believe there is still time and space to do so," he said. "But that time is not unlimited."
Romney has pledged if elected to take a harder line on Iran via even more intensive economic punishment and a red line that would not allow Tehran to develop the capability to produce nuclear arms.
Obama began his wide-ranging speech by addressing the killings this month of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Libya, then touched on matters including the Arab Spring, large protests sparked by an anti-Islam video made in the United States, the conflict in Syria and his government's efforts to make the world a safer place.
"Al-Qaeda has been weakened and Osama bin Laden is no more," Obama said. "Nations have come together to lock down nuclear materials, and America and Russia are reducing our arsenals."