Updated: September 25, 2013 12:50AM
UNITED NATIONS — President Barack Obama and new Iranian President Hasan Rouhani both spoke up forcefully for a resumption of stalled nuclear negotiations Tuesday at the U.N., but they gave no ground on the long-held positions that have scuttled previous attempts to break the tense 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 hopeful-yet-unyielding messages during public 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.”
Hassan Rouhani, in an address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, welcomed Syria’s acceptance of the international treaty to ban chemical weapons and said “access by extremist terrorist groups to such weapons is the greatest danger to the region.” Iran is one of the closest allies of the Syrian regime, which frequently blames terrorist groups for fomenting the civil war there.
Rouhani also warned that the threat or use of force in Syria “will only lead to further exacerbation of violence and crisis in the region.”
He called his election over the summer a “wise choice of hope, rationality and moderation,” and said every issue can be resolved through moderation, mutual respect and rejection of violence and extremism.
Rouhani is considered a relative moderate amid the hard-line clerics who control Iran. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei controls all important matters of state, including the nuclear program.
The United States and its Western allies accuse Iran of seeking to develop a nuclear weapon. But Iran insists its nuclear program is purely peaceful — a point Rouhani reiterated by saying: “This has been, and will always be, the objective of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Nuclear negotiations between Iran and six world powers have been stalled for months but Iran agreed to a new meeting this Thursday on the sidelines of the General Assembly.
“Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran’s security and defense doctrine, and contradict our fundamental religious and ethical convictions,” he said. “Our national interests make it imperative that we remove any and all reasonable concerns about Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.”
Rouhani reiterated Iran’s right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to enriching uranium — a process that can be used to produce fuel for both weapons or energy.
On the conditions that world powers recognize that right and that all nations’ nuclear programs are for peace purposes only, he said Iran “is prepared to engage immediately in time-bound and result-oriented talks to build mutual confidence and removal of mutual uncertainties with full transparency.”
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 U.S. 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.
However, the Obama administration is unclear whether Rouhani is willing to take the steps the U.S. is seeking in order to ease the sanctions, including curbing uranium enrichment and closing the underground Fordo nuclear facility.
The U.S. and its allies have long suspected that Iran is trying to produce a nuclear weapon, though Tehran insists its nuclear activities are only for producing energy and for medical research.
Even without a meeting between Obama and Rouhani, it was clear that the U.S. and Iran were edging close to direct talks. Obama said he was tasking Secretary of State John 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.
If Kerry and Zarif hold one-on-one talks on the sidelines of that meeting, it would mark the first direct engagement in six years between a U.S. secretary of state and an Iranian foreign minister. A spokeswoman for Zarif said Thursday’s meeting indeed would mark the beginning of a “new era” in relations with the West.
The potential for direct engagement between the U.S. and Iran was being closely watched by Israel, which has long sought tough punishments against Tehran in retaliation for its nuclear program. Following Rouhani’s speech, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused him of “hypocrisy” and said the new Iranian leader showed no sign of halting his nuclear program.
“This is precisely the Iranian intention, to talk and buy time in order to advance its ability to achieve nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said.