Three days after top Obama administration officials indicated the US president had no plans to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, senior officials in Washington said Obama was open to a direct meeting with his counterpart in Tehran.
“We remain ready to engage with the Rouhani government on the basis of mutual respect to achieve a peaceful resolution to the nuclear issue,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday.
Earlier Wednesday, Rouhani appeared on NBC News, saying in an interview that he was “empowered” by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to reach a deal on the nuclear issue, adding that Tehran had no intention of developing nuclear arms.
“We have time and again said that under no circumstances would we seek any weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, nor will we ever,” he said.
He added that the tone of the letter Obama had sent him was “positive and constructive.”
Meanwhile Wednesday, US-educated Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif indicated his interest in high-level meetings with US officials.
“Zarif has been communicating his hopes for a number of meetings,” The Wall Street Journal quoted a senior US official as saying.
On Monday, Carney indicated that Obama had no current plans to meet with his Iranian counterpart at the United Nations General Assembly next week, in a carefully worded statement that did not fully rule out such a meeting. The comments came a day after the president revealed that he had exchanged letters with the recently elected Rouhani.
Carney said Monday afternoon that the Obama administration continues to “hope that this new Iranian government will engage substantively to achieve a diplomatic solution” and that the United States “remains ready to engage with the Rouhani government on the basis of mutual respect to achieve a peaceful resolution.”
The two leaders will overlap for two days at next week’s United Nations General Assembly in New York, with Obama expected to address the plenum on Tuesday morning, and Rouhani to address the same forum for the first time on Tuesday afternoon.
Obama’s comments plus the chronological overlap had seemed to some to signal that the two might meet, unofficially, on the sidelines of the annual meeting. “We currently have no plan for Obama to meet with his Iranian counterpart next week,” Carney said. Carney’s carefully worded statement did, however, appear to leave the possibility open for a hurriedly arranged or “chance” meeting between the two leaders in the halls of the United Nations building.
Even if there is no encounter between Obama and Rouhani, Zarif is scheduled to meet with EU top diplomat Catherine Ashton to discuss nuclear policy and to set up future meetings of the P5+1 working group.
On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal quoted a senior Obama administration official as saying that even if no direct exchange occurs between Obama and Rouhani, the “tone of confrontation” between Washington and Tehran has “significantly diminished.”
Other officials reportedly said they would be watching Rouhani’s General Assembly speech closely to “see how forward-leaning” it is.
Negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program have hit a deadlock concerning the future of the 20% enriched uranium being produced at the formerly secret Fordo plant. Iran wants to simply agree to a freeze in enrichment in exchange for having the stringent sanctions placed against Tehran lifted. The United States wants the plant to be dismantled altogether, and wants Iran to hand over all of its highly enriched uranium.
Uranium for civilian energy purposes requires 5% enrichment, whereas weapons-grade uranium is considered to be 20% enriched or greater.
Washington does not see Iranian suspension of enrichment as meeting its demands, but as a confidence-building measure.
The Obama administration has indicated that it would be willing to consider discussing relaxing some sanctions if enrichment is suspended. It has not publicly signaled how conciliatory it is willing to be.
Michael Adler, a public policy scholar and expert in Iranian nuclear policy at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center, says that there are a number of options for conciliatory steps that the administration can take.
Among the options for the US would be to offer a road map that would delineate what Iran gets to keep in the end, a gradual relaxation of sanctions, and statements specifying the degree to which the US could answer Iran’s concerns regarding continuing a civilian nuclear program.
Adler says that Obama’s correspondence with Rouhani was a step toward returning to the table in that it “shows respect and a willingness to talk.”
Conditions, he says, could be ripe for a resolution to the impasse. “The US has been trying to hold serious talks. The Iranians say they want talks, they have a different team in place, and the president is following up on it.”
Adler noted that Rouhani was the chief Iranian nuclear negotiator during the period in which parts of Iran’s nuclear program were voluntarily suspended a decade ago. Rouhani, Zarif, and Atomic Energy Organization of Iran chief Ali Akbar Salehi are all seen in Washington as relative moderates who may prove amenable to negotiation.