Obama may meet Rouhani at UN this month

Two presidents have exchanged letters; Oman said to be brokering contacts between Washington and Tehran

Then-presidential candidate Hassan Rouhani waves from a campaign bus in the western city of Sanandaj, Iran, earlier this year (photo credit: AP/Vahid Salemi)
Then-presidential candidate Hassan Rouhani waves from a campaign bus in the western city of Sanandaj, Iran, earlier this year (photo credit: AP/Vahid Salemi)

In a dramatic warming of ties, US President Barack Obama may meet at the UN later this month with the newly elected Iranian president Hasan Rouhani.

The possibility of a meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly was reported Sunday night by Israel’s Channel 10 news, and by various international news sources including Britain’s Guardian newspaper. It would mark the first face-to-face talks between Iranian and American presidents since Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979. There was no official confirmation of the reports.

Britain has confirmed that its foreign secretary, William Hague, will meet at the UN next week with his new Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Britain severed ties with Iran in 2011.

In an ABC TV interview Sunday, Obama said that he had exchanged letters with 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.”

Israel’s Channel 2 news reported Sunday night that Oman has recently been brokering indirect contacts between the US and Iran, and that the US might be prepared to consider an easing of some medical and other sanctions on Iran to help facilitate progress toward a diplomatic resolution over Iran’s rogue nuclear program.

In his comments Sunday, Obama warned Tehran that the 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, if necessary, 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. “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.”

Zarif was quoted Sunday as saying that Iran sought “confidence-building measures” from the US to help resolve the nuclear dispute, and that the US needed to recognize that Iran now has advanced nuclear technology and knowhow.

Since taking office in early August, Rouhani has signaled a desire for warmed relations with the West, while also insisting that Iran intended to keep moving ahead with its nuclear program. In a speech to clerics last week, Rouhani said Iran “will not give up one iota” of its nuclear program.

The Channel 2 TV report said Israel broadly welcomed the US argument that, as with Syria, diplomacy backed by a credible military threat might enable progress toward the negotiated resolution of the Iranian nuclear crisis. But at the same time, it said, there was concern in Jerusalem that because Obama had first threatened and then backed away from the use of force against Syria, the Iranians do not regard the US as having a credible military option where they are concerned.

The key question, amid these new contacts between the US and Iran, the report added, was how close to the bomb the Obama administration might allow the Iranians to get. Israel’s position has been that Tehran’s stockpiles of enriched uranium must be removed, and its capacity to progress toward nuclear weapons prevented.

“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,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday after a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Jerusalem. “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.”

The 68th General Assembly meeting of the United Nations runs from September 24 to October 4.

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