Obama, Hollande tackle tenuous diplomatic efforts

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WASHINGTON -- 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.

Mr. 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 up Iran for business.

In a blistering warning, Mr. 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."

Mr. 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."

Mr. Obama welcomed Mr. Hollande to the White House on Tuesday morning for a lavish state visit, an honor typically bestowed on America's closest allies. The visit has been overshadowed somewhat, however, by Mr. Hollande's recent romantic woes. He 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 59-year-old arrived in Washington without a companion to accompany him during his events.

The White House has carefully avoided any mention of Mr. Hollande's personal problems and welcomed him to the United States 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 Mr. Hollande during an arrival ceremony Tuesday morning on the South Lawn. And the Obamas feted him in the evening at an opulent state dinner, where guests dined on American caviar and wine and enjoyed 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, Mr. 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 United States came close to launching a strike against Syria after a chemical weapons attack there last year, an effort that France was ready to join. Both nations 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. Mr. Hollande said he and Mr. 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," Mr. Hollande said. "These are principles that unite us."


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