Obama, Hollande tackle tenuous diplomatic efforts in Iran and Syria during state visit

The Associated Press

French President Francois Hollande and President Barack Obama face reporters during a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014. Questions ranged from the conflict in Syria to the National Security Agency’s intelligence gathering operations and other issues shared between the U.S. and France/ (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

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By JULIE PACE, AP White House Correspondent

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. 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 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. And the Obamas were to fete Hollande during an opulent state dinner that night, where guests were to dine on American caviar and wine and 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.