From NBC's Ali Weinberg
At the last public event of his three-day nuclear security summit, President Obama commended his fellow heads of state for taking what he called "meaningful steps" in securing loose nuclear material worldwide. But he also cautioned that the 49 world leaders who gathered at the summit still had much work to do toward achieving the ultimate goal of a nuclear-free planet -- especially when it comes to pressuring countries that violate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty.
At today's news conference, Obama offered congratulatory remarks before taking questions from eight American reporters. "I'd like to thank our colleagues for making this unprecedented gathering a day of unprecedented progress," He added that the leaders' gathering, the largest in the U.S. since World War II, "not only advances the security of the United States but advances the security of all mankind."
Obama also cited the summit's tangible achievements: a communique and workplan, approved by all leaders assembled, that stated the general goal of "securing all vulnerable nuclear material in four years," as well as some commitments from individual countries.
For example, he lauded declarations from Canada, Mexico, and Ukraine that they would get rid of their entire nuclear stockpile, as well as Chile, which has already done so. Obama commended agreements from Pakistan and Argentina to increase security around ports, which he said would make nuclear facilities harder to infiltrate. And he said he was "pleased" that the U.S. and Russia finalized an agreement to eliminate 68 tons of plutonium intended for weapons programs that Obama said was enough for about 17,000 weapons programs.
Obama called the final day of the summit one "of great progress," but added that "this can't be a fleeting moment."
During the Q&A, one reporter quoted the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson as saying that sanctions "cannot fundamentally solve the problem" of Iran continuing to develop nuclear weapons. The reporter then asked Obama if China -- which has balked at supporting tough sanctions on Iran due to its oil interests with the country -- would support "sanctions with teeth."
"Sanctions aren't a magic wand," he responded. "But what sanctions do accomplish is hopefully they change the calculus of a country like Iran, so they realize there are more costs than benefits to pursuing a nuclear weapons program."
Obama repeated verbatim his caveat about sanctions' effectiveness when asked about the economic chokeholds on North Korea, which conducted an underground nuclear weapons test last year. He added, however, that they were better than nothing.
"Sanctions are not a magic wand," he said again. "Unfortunately nothing in international relations is. But," he continued, "I do think that the approach that we've taken with the respect of North Korea makes it more likely to alter their behavior than had there been no consequences whatsoever to them testing nuclear weapons."
Obama also took a question about Israel, which will not publicly affirm or deny its widely-acknowledged possession of nuclear weapons, and whether its refusal to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was a disincentive for other non-NPT countries to sign on.
"As far as Israel goes, I'm not going to comment on their program," Obama said. He added, "Whether we're talking about Israel or any other country we think that becoming part of the Nonproliferation Treaty is important. By the way," he finished, "that's not a new position. That's a consistent position of previous administrations."
From NBC's Ali Weinberg