President Obama called on world leaders “not simply to talk, but to act” to secure or destroy vulnerable stockpiles of nuclear materials. Obama told fellow leaders Tuesday morning that it was time “not simply to make pledges, but to make real progress for the security of our people.”
Saying that the prospect of nuclear terrorism had emerged as one of the greatest threats to global security, President Obama called on world leaders “not simply to talk, but to act” to secure or destroy vulnerable stockpiles of nuclear materials.
Mr. Obama, addressing a plenary session Tuesday of the 47-nation nuclear security conference he had convened here, told fellow leaders Tuesday morning that it was time “not simply to make pledges, but to make real progress for the security of our people,” according to excerpts of his prepared remarks released by the White House. “All this, in turn, requires something else, something more fundamental,” Mr. Obama continued in his remarks. “It requires a new mindset — that we summon the will, as nations, as partners, to do what this moment in history demands.”
Seeking to lend force to his warning, Mr. Obama said that dozens of countries held nuclear materials that could be sold or stolen, and that a weapon fashioned from an apple-size chunk of plutonium could kill or injure hundreds of thousands of people.
“Terrorist networks such as al Qaeda have tried to acquire the material for a nuclear weapon, and if they ever succeed, they would surely use it. Were they to do so, it would be a catastrophe for the world.”
A day after Ukraine, Canada and Malaysia offered individual undertakings to tighten controls or reduce nuclear stocks, the president said that “the problems of the 21st century cannot be solved by nations acting in isolation — they must be solved by all of us coming together.”
Joint undertakings toward that end will be spelled out in a communiqué from the group to be issued at day’s end, and more individual commitments are expected as well.
On Monday, Mr. Obama secured a promise from President Hu Jintao of China to join negotiations on a new package of sanctions against Iran, administration officials said, but Mr. Hu made no specific commitment to backing measures that the United States considers severe enough to force a change in direction in Iran’s nuclear program.
In a 90-minute conversation here, Mr. Obama sought to win more cooperation from China by directly addressing one of the main issues behind Beijing’s reluctance to confront Iran: its concern that Iran could retaliate by cutting off oil shipments to China. The Chinese import nearly 12 percent of their oil from Iran.
Mr. Obama assured Mr. Hu that he was “sensitive to China’s energy needs” and would work to make sure that Beijing had a steady supply of oil if Iran cut China off in retaliation for joining in severe sanctions.
American officials portrayed the Chinese response as the most encouraging sign yet that Beijing would support an international effort to ratchet up the pressure on Iran and as a sign of “international unity” on stopping Iran’s nuclear program before the country can develop a working nuclear weapon.
On Tuesday, though, Chinese officials in Beijing seem to strike a more cautious note.
“We believe that the Security Council’s relevant actions should be conducive to easing the situation and conducive to promoting a fitting solution to the Iranian nuclear issue through dialogue and negotiations,” Jiang Yu, a foreign ministry official, said at a regular news briefing in Beijing.
“China supports a dual-track strategy and has always believed that dialogue and negotiations are the optimal channels for resolving the Iranian nuclear issue. Sanctions and pressure cannot fundamentally resolve the issues.”
On Tuesday, Iran’s state-financed Press TV satellite broadcaster also highlighted news agency reports saying China still favored diplomacy to resolve dispute over Tehran’s nuclear intentions.
The developments had distinct echoes of former President George W. Bush’s three efforts to corral Chinese support for United Nations Security Council penalties intended to make it prohibitively expensive for Iranian leaders to enrich uranium and to refuse to answer the questions posed by international nuclear inspectors.
In those cases, former American officials said, the Chinese agreed to go along with efforts to address Iran’s nuclear ambitions but then used Security Council negotiating sessions to water down the resolutions that ultimately passed.
Mr. Obama also used his meeting with Mr. Hu, the fourth face-to-face meeting between the leaders of the world’s largest economy and its biggest lender, to keep up the pressure on Beijing to let market forces push up the value of China’s currency. That is a critical political task for Mr. Obama, because the fixed exchange rate has kept Chinese goods artificially cheap and, in the eyes of many experts, handicapped American exports and cost tens of thousands of American jobs.
In anticipation of Monday’s meeting, Chinese officials told Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner last week that they were about to resume a controlled loosening of their exchange rate, which would increase the relative costs of Chinese exports.
Mr. Obama’s senior Asia adviser, Jeffrey A. Bader, told reporters after the meeting on Monday that Mr. Obama told Mr. Hu that a market-oriented exchange rate would be “an essential contribution” to a “sustained and balanced economic recovery.”
The session with Mr. Hu came just before the opening of the first summit meeting devoted to the challenges of keeping nuclear weapons and material out of the hands of terrorists. At a dinner Monday evening in the cavernous Washington Convention Center, Mr. Obama led a discussion of the nature of the threat and the vulnerability of tons of nuclear material that could be fashioned into a weapon.
Earlier in the day, John O. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, offered a sampling of Mr. Obama’s argument when he told reporters that the United States had continuing evidence of Al Qaeda’s interest in obtaining highly enriched uranium or plutonium, the only materials from which a nuclear weapon can be made, and that it would be used “to threaten our security and world order in an unprecedented manner.”
But he cited no incidents beyond the now-famous campfire conversations that Osama bin Laden held in August 2001 with two Pakistanis who had deep ties to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons laboratories. While Al Qaeda has tried repeated purchases, Mr. Brennan said, “fortunately, I think they’ve been scammed a number of times, but we know that they continued to pursue that. We know of individuals within the organization that have been given that responsibility.”
The main focus of Mr. Obama’s meeting is to obtain commitments from each of the 47 countries attending to lock up or eliminate nuclear material.
One such agreement was announced Monday with Ukraine which, after the fall of the Soviet Union, was, because of its remainder stockpiles of nuclear missiles and bombs, briefly the world’s third-largest nuclear power. It gave up the arsenal, but for the past 10 years had resisted surrendering its stockpile of highly enriched uranium, held at research reactors and another nuclear center.
The Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit group that studies proliferation, has estimated Ukraine’s stockpile at about 360 pounds, or roughly enough for seven weapons.
According to a senior administration official, under the deal announced Monday the United States will pay to secure the highly enriched uranium, which will probably be sent to Russia for conversion into low-enriched uranium for nuclear power plants. As part of the deal, the United States will also help supply Ukraine with new low-enriched fuel and a new research facility.
But over all, it was Iran that dominated the day, because the administration has a goal of putting sanctions in place this spring, Mr. Obama said in an interview with The New York Times last week.
On Monday, Mr. Obama laid out the details of the sanctions package for Mr. Hu, according to a senior White House official familiar with the discussion. These are likely to include additional measures to deny Iran access to international credit, choke off foreign investment in Iran’s energy sector and punish companies owned by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which controls swaths of Iran’s economy, as well as its nuclear program.
The administration is betting that a large segment of Iranian society detests the Revolutionary Guards for its role in suppressing the protests that followed elections last June, and may welcome properly targeted sanctions.
“Until two weeks ago, the Chinese would not discuss a sanctions resolution at all,” the official said. But the Obama administration, in hopes of winning over Beijing, has sought support from other oil producers to reassure China of its oil supply. Last year, it sent a senior White House adviser on Iran, Dennis B. Ross, to Saudi Arabia to seek a guarantee that it would help supply China’s needs, in the event of an Iranian cutoff.
“We’ll look for ways to make sure that if there are sanctions, they won’t be negatively affected,” said the senior official.
There was little evidence in the meeting of the succession of spats that have soured Chinese-American relations over the last several months, American officials said. While Mr. Hu raised Chinese complaints about American weapons sales to Taiwan, an official said, he did so fleetingly. And he did not mention Mr. Obama’s decision to meet the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.