US President Barack Obama on Sunday warned Tehran that a new initiative to avert a Western strike in Syria should not be interpreted as a lack of willingness in Washington to pursue a military solution to the ongoing Iranian nuclear standoff.
“I think what the Iranians understand is that the nuclear issue is a far larger issue for us than the chemical weapons issue, that the threat… against Israel that a nuclear Iran poses is much closer to our core interests,” Obama said in an interview with ABC. “My suspicion is that the Iranians recognize they shouldn’t draw a lesson that we haven’t struck [the Bashar Assad regime] to think we won’t strike Iran.”
Conversely, Obama added, the Russian-brokered agreement that would see Syria hand over its sizable chemical weapons stockpile was an indication to Tehran that “there is the potential of resolving these issues diplomatically.”
The decision to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons ended weeks of speculation regarding the option of a military strike against Assad’s forces in the wake of a deadly chemical attack on Syrian citizens in August that appeared to transgress a “red line” set down by Obama last year.
In the wake of that decision, the US president came under fire from critics who said opting for a diplomatic solution conveyed a message of American weakness in the region and signaled to Iran that, despite Washington’s statements to the contrary, it could pursue its controversial nuclear program with impunity.
On Sunday Obama said that he had exchanged letters with Iran’s new president, Hasan Rouhani, but that the two had not spoken directly. The US president said he believed Rouhani understood the potential for a diplomatic solution to his country’s disputed nuclear program, but would not “suddenly make it easy.”
“If you have both a credible threat of force, combined with a rigorous diplomatic effort,” Obama said, “… you can strike a deal.”
Obama’s statements were echoed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Sunday after a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Jerusalem.
“The world needs to ensure that radical regimes don’t have weapons of mass destruction because as we’ve learned once again in Syria, if rogue regimes have weapons of mass destruction, they will use them,” Netanyahu said. “The determination the international community shows regarding Syria will have a direct impact on the Syrian regime’s patron, Iran. Iran must understand the consequences of its continual defiance of the international community, by its pursuit toward nuclear weapons… if diplomacy has any chance to work, it must be coupled with a credible military threat.”
This week, British and Iranian foreign ministers are scheduled to meet in the United Nations building in New York in a step toward reestablishing relations between the two countries that were suspended two years ago.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will hold a private meeting during the UN General Assembly meeting at the end of the month, in a sign of slightly thawing ties between the two countries.
“They will be meeting but we have no further details at this stage,” a Foreign Office spokeswoman told the AFP news agency.
According to the report, Britain first requested a meeting after the election of Rouhani in June, and Tehran agreed.
Relations between the two countries have been on the rocks since the British Embassy in Tehran was stormed in 2011. London maintained that the attack was officially sanctioned.
Britain is interested in reestablishing ties with Tehran, Prime Minister David Cameron suggested last week, telling members of Parliament about the diplomatic gestures being made to Iran.
“We have effectively reached out to the Iranian government after the recent elections,” Cameron said. “And I have written to President Rouhani, so we are prepared to start trying to have a relationship with them.”
Earlier Sunday, a Twitter account purportedly belonging to Rouhani tweeted that the president would meet with Hague in New York. That information could not be verified.
On November 29, 2011, a mob ransacked the British Embassy in Tehran, injuring several people. The following day Hague announced the closure of the embassy and gave the Iranian ambassador in London, together with his staff, 48 hours to leave the country.
The 68th General Assembly meeting of the United Nations is scheduled to be held between September 24 and October 4.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.