WASHINGTON — US President Barack Obama has no current plans to meet with his Iranian counterpart at the United Nations General Assembly next week, a White House official said Monday, 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 Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
White House Spokesman Jay 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.
Carney offered a reserved assessment of progress on achieving a negotiated settlement to the growing crisis surrounding Iran’s nuclear program. “Actions speak louder than words,” Carney warned, adding that while “it has always been the case that we are ready to engage with Iran either through the P-5+1 or bilaterally,” Iran had thus far evaded complying with international calls for increased oversight of its nuclear program.
“We remain hopeful that there is a possibility of making progress on this issue,” Carney added.
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 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, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed 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.
All eyes now are on the UN General Assembly next week. Even if there is no “chance” 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.
“The week of the GA is crucial,” Adler said, saying that observers are watching for bilateral meetings between either Rouhani or Zarif and their US counterparts, as well as the content of Rouhani’s first speech before the world governing body.