The White House intimated again on Friday that a meeting between President Barack Obama and newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani could be a possibility when both leaders are in New York City for the annual UN General Assembly meeting next week.
Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One, White House deputy spokesman Josh Earnest said the US would be ready to engage in talks “on the basis of mutual respect” with Iran over its disputed nuclear program. Earnest said the White House wants Tehran to prove that its program is only for civilian purposes.
Earnest’s signals came after similar statements by White House spokesman Jay Carney, who said that Obama would be willing to sit down with Rouhani if he got the impression that Tehran was serious about its intention to curb its nuclear program.
Speaking on Friday, Earnest said, “We have had a number of engagements with the Iranians and we’ll continue to have conversations on the basis of mutual respect.”
He continued: “And over the course of those conversations there will be an opportunity for the Iranians to demonstrate through actions the seriousness with which they are pursuing this endeavor.”
Earlier Friday, a different Obama administration official adopted a similar tone on the tentative US-Iranian rapprochement, warning that although Rouhani’s overtures were welcomed by the White House, they were not enough to cause the West to abandon their economic sanctions on Iran.
Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, stressed that no meeting between the two leaders had been scheduled and that the US would maintain its policy of trying to get Iran to comply with the international community regarding its nuclear program.
Rhodes reiterated that there was no sit-down scheduled between the two leaders.
“We’re gonna make judgments based on the actions of the Iranian government, not just their words,” Rhodes said, adding that the Obama administration would also maintain pressure on Iran during his address at the UN General Assembly.
Rhodes also said that the White House believes that Iran’s positive interest in diplomacy was “clearly related” to the efficacy of the sanctions placed on the country over its continued pursuit of nuclear power despite fears by Western powers and the UN that the program is intended to produce nuclear weapons.
“We believe part of their current focus on pursuing diplomacy is clearly related to a desire to address the sanctions regime they are under,” Rhodes added.
Speaking on Thursday, White House spokesman Carney said Obama had long said he would be open to discussions with his Iranian counterparts if Tehran showed it was serious about curbing its nuclear program.
“There have been a lot of interesting things said out of Tehran and the new government — and encouraging things,” Carney said. “But actions speak louder than words.”
Iran has repeatedly said it wants sanctions eased as a first step toward any significant progress in nuclear negotiations. Sanctions levied by the US and Europe have contributed to a rapid rise in inflation and unemployment in the Islamic Republic.
Tehran insists its nuclear program is peaceful and that it is enriching uranium to levels needed for medical isotopes and reactor fuel. But many countries powers, including the US, fear Iran is trying to develop the capability to build a nuclear bomb.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for his part, has contended that Iran’s new public relations campaign should not cloud the world’s judgment when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program.
“The Iranians are continuing to deceive so that the centrifuges continue spinning. The real test lies in the Iranian regime’s actions, not words,” said Netanyahu in a statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office in the wake of an NBC interview with Rouhani that aired Wednesday in which the Iranian leader claimed Tehran would never and will never seek nuclear weapons.
“While Rouhani sits down for interviews, he also continues to move ahead with the nuclear program,” Netanyahu added. “The Iranian regime’s goal is to reach a deal that would require it to give up an insignificant part of its nuclear program, while allowing it to … charge forward quickly toward acquiring a nuclear weapon whenever it chooses.”
Whether any headway is made on the nuclear issue could hinge on how the US and Iran handle negotiations to dismantle Syria’s vast chemical weapons stockpile. Iran is the chief benefactor to Syria, where an August 21 chemical weapons attack on Damascus suburbs killed as many as 1,400 people, according to US and Western intelligence agencies, who blame the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad for the attack.
Obama, meanwhile, does have plans to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly — a meeting scheduled to occur just days before he hosts Netanyahu at the White House.
Rhodes confirmed Friday the topic of Obama’s meeting with Abbas will be the recently relaunched peace talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Netanyahu will be at the White House on September 30. In recent weeks, Secretary of State John Kerry has also met with both leaders.
Yoel Goldman and AP contributed to this report.