French President Francois Hollande, accompanied by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, places a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
WASHINGTON (AP) — Juggling a pair of tenuous diplomatic efforts, President Barack Obama on Tuesday vowed to come down like “a ton of bricks” on businesses that violate Iranian sanctions while nuclear negotiations are underway. He also conceded “enormous frustration” with stalled Syrian peace talks and offered little hope of ending the conflict soon.
Obama spoke during a joint White House news conference with French President Francois Hollande, a key partner on both Syria and Iran. The leaders have aimed to project a united front on the two matters, but a trip to Tehran last week by French executives has irked U.S. officials who are seeking to tamp down the notion that a temporary easing of sanctions opened Iran up for business.
In a blistering warning, Obama said companies exploring economic opportunities in Iran “do so at their own peril right now because we will come down on them like a ton of bricks.”
Hollande sought to distance himself from the executives’ trip, saying through a translator that the French business community is “very much aware of this situation.”
Obama welcomed Hollande to the White House Tuesday morning for a lavish state visit, an honor typically bestowed on America’s closest allies. However, the visit has been overshadowed somewhat by Hollande’s recent romantic woes. The 59-year-old split last month from his longtime girlfriend and French first lady, Valerie Trierweiler, after it was revealed that he was having an affair with an actress.
The White House has carefully avoided any mention of Hollande’s personal problems and welcomed him to the U.S. with all of the grandeur that normally accompanies a state visit. The president and first lady Michelle Obama, along with a military honor guard, greeted Hollande during an arrival ceremony Tuesday morning on the South Lawn.
With no date to accompany him, the French leader was seated between Obama and the first lady at an opulent state dinner in his honor. Prominent businessmen and politicians joined A-list celebrities like Stephen Colbert, Bradley Cooper and Jason Collins in a giant party tent on the South Lawn, where guests dined on American caviar and wine as they prepared to enjoy a performance by singer Mary J. Blige.
Addressing the civil war in Syria, where more than 130,000 people have been killed over three years, Obama said, “Nobody is going to deny that there’s enormous frustration here.”
The Syrian government and opposition groups have been holding peace talks in Geneva, but the discussions have made little progress. The president said he keeps open the option of using force against Syria but added that “right now, we don’t think there’s a military solution.”
The U.S. came close to launching a strike against Syria after a chemical weapons attack there last year, an effort France was ready to join. Both countries pulled back after Russia helped negotiate a deal to strip Syria of its chemical weapons stockpiles.
The leaders also faced questions about U.S. government spying, which has spurred anger in France and elsewhere across Europe. Hollande said that he and Obama had “clarified” the situation and that “mutual trust has been restored.”
“That mutual trust must be based on respect for each other’s country but also based on protection, protection of private life, of personal data, the fact that any individual, in spite of technological progress, can be sure that he’s not being spied on,” Hollande said. “These are principles that unite us.”
Hollande’s comments underscored a central purpose of the trip for both the U.S. and France: projecting a renewed relationship between the allies. The partnership hit a low point about a decade ago when France staunchly opposed the U.S-led war in Iraq, but relations have been improving in recent years.
The two leaders showered each other with praise, with each saying their nation owes its freedom to the other. Obama announced he will travel to France for a June 6 ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
All of the mutual admiration spurred one French reporter to ask Obama whether her country had replaced Britain as America’s closest ally. Obama laughed and compared that choice to picking between his two daughters.
“They are both gorgeous and wonderful, and I would never choose between them,” he said of daughters Malia and Sasha. “That’s how I feel about my outstanding European partners. All of them are wonderful in their own ways.”
Associated Press writer Nedra Pickler in Washington and Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.