UNITED NATIONS – Hopeful yet unyielding, President Obama and new Iranian President Hasan Rouhani both spoke up fervently for improved relations and a resumption of stalled nuclear talks Tuesday at the U.N. – but gave no ground on the long-held positions that have scuttled previous attempts to break the impasse.
The leaders’ separate appearances at the United Nations General Assembly came amid heightened speculation about a thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations following the election of Rouhani, a more-moderate sounding cleric. In fact, officials from both countries had quietly negotiated the possibility of a brief meeting between Obama and Rouhani.
But U.S. officials said the Iranians told them Tuesday that an encounter would be “too complicated” given uncertainty about how it would be received in Tehran. Instead, Obama and Rouhani traded their public messages during addresses hours apart at the annual U.N. meetings.
Obama declared that it was worth pursuing diplomacy with Iran even though skepticism persists about Tehran’s willingness to back up its recent overtures with concrete actions to answer strong concerns at the U.N. and in many nations that the Iranians are working to develop a nuclear bomb.
“The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested,” Obama said. He added that he while he was “encouraged” by Rouhani’s election, the new president’s “conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable.”
Rouhani, making his international debut, said Iran was ready to enter talks “without delay” and insisted his country was not interested in escalating tensions with the United States. He said Iran must retain the right to enrich uranium, but he vigorously denied that his country was seeking to build a nuclear weapon.
“Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran’s security and defense doctrine, and contradict our fundamental religious and ethnical convictions,” Rouhani declared. “Our national interests make it imperative that we remove any and all reasonable concerns about Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.”
He strongly criticized the economic sanctions that have been imposed on Iran as part of the effort to persuade its leaders to open its nuclear programs to international inspection. The sanctions have badly hurt Iran’s economy, and Rouhani called them “violent” in their impact. He also said that U.S. drone strikes that kill civilians in the name of fighting terrorism should be condemned.
U.S. officials said they were not surprised to see Rouhani publicly stake out those positions on the international stage. Still, they say they see him as a more moderate leader elected by an Iranian public frustrated by international isolation and the crippling sanctions.
In another sign Rouhani was seeking a more conciliatory tone, he switched briefly from Farsi to English in a CNN interview aired Tuesday night – a gesture that would have been difficult to imagine under Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“I would like to say to American people: I bring peace and friendship from Iranians to Americans,” Rouhani said.
Still, the Obama administration is unclear whether Rouhani is willing to take the steps the United States is seeking in order to ease the sanctions, including curbing uranium enrichment and closing the underground Fordo nuclear facility.
Even without a meeting between Obama and Rouhani, it was clear that the United States and Iran were edging close to direct talks. Obama said he was tasking Secretary of State John F. Kerry with pursuing the prospect of a nuclear agreement with Iran. Kerry, along with representatives from five other world powers, is to meet Thursday with Iran’s new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.
In his address, meanwhile, Obama issued a stern message to the international body itself, saying its ability to meet the test of the times is being challenged by the dispute over what to do about Syria’s chemical weapons.
He called on the Security Council to pass a resolution that would enforce consequences on Syrian President Bashar Assad if he fails to follow a U.S.-Russian deal to turn his chemical weapon stockpiles over to the international community.
The president also addressed criticism of his shifting strategy for responding to an August chemical weapons attack in Syria. The United States seemed on the brink of a military strike before Obama abruptly decided to seek congressional approval, then joined the Russians in pursuing a diplomatic resolution.
“The situation in Syria mirrors a contradiction that has persisted in the region for decades: The United States is chastised for meddling in the region and accused of having a hand in all manner of conspiracy,” he said. “At the same time, the United States is blamed for failing to do enough to solve the region’s problems, and for showing indifference toward suffering Muslim populations.”
Obama announced that the United States would provide $339 million in additional humanitarian aid to refugees and countries affected by the Syrian civil war, bringing the total U.S. aid devoted to that crisis to nearly $1.4 billion.
Obama also praised Lebanon for its generosity in welcoming refugees fleeing the crisis in neighboring Syria.