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Obama wants to ‘test’ Iranian willingness for dialogue

US president says he hopes Tehran ‘takes advantage’ of new opportunities; Jerusalem warns diplomacy on nuclear dispute must be coupled with military threat

US President Barack Obama (photo credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/File)
US President Barack Obama (photo credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/File)

Iran’s new administration is seemingly open to dialogue with the West and its willingness to engage should be tested, US President Barack Obama said Tuesday, two days after he revealed that he exchanged letters with Iran’s recently elected president Hasan Rouhani.

“There are indication that Rouhani, the new president, is somebody who is looking to open dialogue with the West and with the United States, in a way that we haven’t seen in the past. And so we should test it,” Obama told Spanish-language network Telemundo.

“There is an opportunity here for diplomacy, and I hope the Iranians take advantage of it,” the president said.

Prime Minister’s Office spokesperson Mark Regev said Wednesday that any dialogue had to be coupled with a threat of force should diplomatic efforts fail.

“We believe that diplomacy only has a realistic chance to succeed if it is coupled with a credible military threat,” he told The Times of Israel. “We’ve been saying this all along, but it was shown clearly recently in Syria: When you’re dealing with rogue regimes, the stick is often more important than the carrot.”

On Tuesday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that Iran was not opposed to dialogue with the West concerning its nuclear program and would show flexibility in negotiations. Reports said he was willing to accept surprise visits from UN inspectors and real-time camera monitoring of Iran’s nuclear facilities.

A day earlier, German news magazine Der Spiegel reported that Rouhani was prepared to shut down Iran’s uranium enrichment facility at Fordo in exchange for eased Western sanctions.

Obama said the US was interested “in resolving this nuclear issue in a way that would allow Iran to rejoin the international community” but Iran will have to prove to the world “that it’s not trying to weaponize nuclear power.”

On Sunday, Obama revealed that he had exchanged letters with Rouhani, a fact confirmed by Tehran on Tuesday.

The two leaders will both attend next week’s United Nations General Assembly in New York, with Obama expected to address the plenum on Tuesday morning, and Rouhani speaking on Tuesday afternoon. Officials says no meeting has been scheduled between them, although White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday that he doubted Obama would “duck into another hall” to avoid the Iranian president should they encounter each other in the halls of the UN.

On Monday, Iran’s nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, said the chances for a breakthrough have improved thanks to unity among the new Iranian leadership over what it will seek in the next round of negotiations. He did not elaborate. But Iran wants an end to the economic and political sanctions it faces over fears it is progressing to nuclear weapons ability.

Rouhani is seen by many as more moderate than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, though Israeli leaders have warned that Iran is merely putting on a friendlier face to the West while continuing enrichment of nuclear materials.

Netanyahu is to meet with Obama in Washington DC later this month, ahead of his scheduled address at the UN General Assembly, and will urge a stepping up of pressure on Iran to abandon its nuclear drive.

“In a week and a half, I will go to the United Nations General Assembly, and before that I will meet with President Obama. I intend to focus on stopping Iranian nuclear program. Really stopping the nuclear program,” Netanyahu said at a cabinet meeting Tuesday.

The prime minister presented four criteria for doing so: “1. Halting all uranium enrichment; 2. Removing all enriched uranium; 3. Closing [the Fordo enrichment facility at] Qom; and 4. Stopping the plutonium track.”

Evidently responding to suggestions that the US might be willing to lift or reduce some sanctions on Iran in return for diplomatic progress, Netanyahu added: “Until it is genuinely stopped, the pressure on Iran must be stepped up, not eased or reduced.”

Raphael Ahren and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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