Here are the two relevant excerpts from “tonight’s press conference”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/09/us/politics/09text-obama.html?pagewanted=print.
Caren Bohan of Reuters.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. I’d like to shift gears to foreign policy. What is your strategy for engaging Iran, and when will you start to implement it? Will your time table be affected at all by the Iranian elections? And are you getting any indications that Iran is interested in a dialogue with the United States?
MR. OBAMA: I said during the campaign that Iran is a country that has extraordinary people, extraordinary history and traditions, but that its actions over many years now have been unhelpful when it comes to promoting peace and prosperity both in the region and around the world; that their attacks or — or their — their financing of terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas, the bellicose language that they’ve used towards Israel, their development of a nuclear weapon or their pursuit of a nuclear weapon — that all of those things create the possibility of destabilizing the region and are not only contrary to our interests, but I think are contrary to the interests of international peace.
What I’ve also said is that we should take an approach with Iran that employs all of the resources at the United States’ disposal, and that includes diplomacy. And so my national security team is currently reviewing our existing Iran policy, looking at areas where we can have constructive dialogue, where we can directly engage with them. And my expectation is, in the coming months, we will be looking for openings that can be created where we can start sitting across the table, face to face; of diplomatic overtures that will allow us to move our policy in a new direction.
There’s been a lot of mistrust built up over the years, so it’s not going to happen overnight.
And it’s important that even as we engage in this direct diplomacy, we are very clear about certain deep concerns that we have as a country, that Iran understands that we find the funding of terrorist organizations unacceptable, that we’re clear about the fact that a nuclear Iran could set off a nuclear arms race in the region that would be profoundly destabilizing. So there are going to be a set of objectives that we have in these conversations, but I think that there’s the possibility, at least, of a relationship of mutual respect and progress.
And I think that if you look at how we’ve approached the Middle East, my designation of George Mitchell as a special envoy to help deal with the Arab-Israeli situation, some of the interviews that I’ve given, it indicates the degree to which we want to do things differently in the region. Now it’s time for Iran to send some signals that it wants to act differently as well and recognize that even as it is has some rights as a member of the international community, with those rights come responsibilities.
All right. Helen. This is my inaugural moment here. (Laughter.) I’m really excited.
QUESTION: Mr. President, do you think that Pakistan and — are maintaining the safe havens in Afghanistan for these so-called terrorists? And also, do you know of any country in the Middle East that has nuclear weapons?
MR. OBAMA: Well, I think that Pakistan — there is no doubt that in the FATA region of Pakistan, in the mountainous regions along the border of Afghanistan, that there are safe havens where terrorists are operating. And one of the goals of Ambassador Holbrooke as he is traveling throughout the region is to deliver a message to Pakistan that they are endangered as much as we are by the continuation of those operations, and that we’ve got to work in a regional fashion to root out those safe havens.
They’re — it’s not acceptable for Pakistan or for us to have folks who, with impunity, will kill innocent men, women and children.
And you know, I — I believe that the new government of Pakistan and — and Mr. Zardari cares deeply about getting control of this situation, and we want to be effective partners with them on that issue.
QUESTION: Did you get any promise from them?
MR. OBAMA: Well, Mr. Holbrooke is there, and that’s exactly why he’s being sent there, because I think that we have to make sure that Pakistan is a stalwart ally with us in battling this terrorist threat.
With respect to nuclear weapons, you know, I don’t want to speculate. What I know is this: that if we see a nuclear arms race in a region as volatile as the Middle East, everybody will be in danger.
And one of my goals is to prevent nuclear proliferation generally.
I think that it’s important for the United States, in concert with Russia, to lead the way on this. And you know, I’ve mentioned this in conversations with the Russian president, Mr. Medvedev, to let him know that it is important for us to restart the conversation, about how we can start reducing our nuclear arsenals in an effective way, so that —
MR. OBAMA: — so that we then have the standing to go to other countries and start stitching back together the non- proliferation treaties that frankly have been weakened over the last several years.