UNITED NATIONS --- President Barack Obama and Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, signaled Tuesday that they intend to pursue intense diplomacy to overcome Iran's nuclear standoff with the West, yet their speeches here underscored the gulf that threatens any deal.
Addressing the U.N. General Assembly, both leaders insisted they were eager to find a compromise that has eluded diplomats for more than a decade. Obama said the diplomatic path “must be tested,” while Rouhani said Iran is ready to “engage immediately in results-oriented talks.”
Yet Rouhani did not make gestures to Western sensibilities that many diplomats had expected in such a high-profile setting. He condemned the United States for imposing punishing economic sanctions against Iran, for using missile-firing drone aircraft against “innocent people” and for threatening military action against Iran.
Rouhani also balked at a very public White House bid for the two presidents to shake hands or have another carefully staged encounter on the sidelines of the U.N.'s annual gathering of world leaders. The leaders of Iran and America have not met since the 1979 Iranian Revolution led to the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and a complete break in diplomatic relations.
A resolution of the nuclear dispute would be a “major step down a long road” to better relations with Washington and the West, Obama said.
White House officials said the real test of whether Iran's new leaders are prepared to compromise will come in talks that begin Thursday, when Iran's new foreign minister, Javad Zarif, sits down with Secretary of State John F. Kerry in the highest-level direct engagement between the U.S. and Iran in years. They will take part in a resumption of talks that involve the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, and are intended to curtail Iran's disputed nuclear program.
“The president was open to a meeting (with Rouhani), but the real work on resolving this issue has to be done through substantive negotiations,” said a senior Obama administration official, who briefed reporters in exchange for anonymity to discuss the deliberations.
Setting up the much-anticipated handshake or other interaction got “too complicated” for Iranian officials, the official said.
But the White House sees “a real opening” for diplomacy when Kerry and Zarif meet, he added. The official called the high-level talks “a significant elevation” of the diplomacy that has occurred in fits and starts for the last few years.
Given that prospect, administration officials sought to play down Rouhani's unexpectedly tough speech, and his apparent snub of Obama, saying the 63-year-old cleric was under pressure not to alienate hard-line political audiences at home.
Rouhani, who was elected in June, is regarded as a moderate, and his style has contrasted sharply with that of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But just as Obama needs to assure suspicious members of Congress and others that he will not move too quickly to lift sanctions that have hammered Iran's economy, Rouhani needs to maintain support of the Iranian elite that fears he may be willing to negotiate away Iran's nuclear gains.
Even so, after weeks of public overtures from Rouhani, and a private exchange of letters with Obama, his presentation disappointed those who had hoped to see a departure from Iran's previously stated positions.
Rouhani's address represented “the mimimum reach-out he could have done, I'd say,” said Cliff Kupchan, a former State Department official at the Eurasia Group consulting firm. “Why is a difficult question. Probably domestic politics, but maybe he's tougher than we thought.”
Gary Samore, a former Obama adviser who now heads a group that urges tough sanctions on Tehran, said the speech was “far more contentious than many were expecting - particularly in leading with Iran's typical bill of particulars against the United States and the West, minimized only by not referring to the U.S. and Israel by name.”
Earlier, in his own address, Obama made a direct personal appeal to Rouhani, issuing an overture for a resolution of the nuclear dispute.
“The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested,” he said. “Iran's genuine commitment to go down a different path will be good for the region and the world, and will help the Iranian people meet their extraordinary potential.”
Obama said that his administration is not pursuing “regime change” in Tehran, and that he respects Iran's right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. But he acknowledged that ending 34 years of estrangement won't be simple or quick, noting the “mistrust has deep roots.”
Iranians long have complained of U.S. interference in their affairs, and of America's role in a 1953 coup, Obama conceded. He added that Americans have not forgotten the taking of American hostages in 1980, Iran's sponsorship of deadly terrorist attacks and groups over the years, and constant threats to Israel's existence.
“I don't believe this difficult history can be overcome overnight,” Obama said. “The suspicions run too deep. But I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road toward a different relationship, one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.”
David Cortright, director of policy studies at the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, predicted that Obama's outreach “will be read with favor in Tehran,” and may “open the door to a diplomatic means of solving the Iranian nuclear standoff.”
“The speech sent a strong message of conciliation to the Iranians,” Cortright said.
Along with the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran's nuclear development has been a major source of regional instability, Obama said. Iran insists it is enriching uranium for energy and other peaceful purposes, but Washington and its allies believe Iran is working toward building a nuclear bomb.
In a video statement released between the speeches of the U.S. and Iranian presidents, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed Obama's comments but expressed wariness of Iran's intentions. Netanyahu has so far dismissed the new tone from Tehran, suggesting it is a facade.
“Iran thinks soothing words and token actions will enable it to continue on its path to the bomb,” he said.
Rouhani spoke several hours after Obama, and said he had listened carefully to Obama's remarks. He said he was convinced the two countries “can arrive at a framework to manage our differences” and he said his government has no desire to increase tensions.
But Rouhani denounced Western sanctions, and complained of American groups that have called for tough actions on Iran, calling them “warmongering pressure groups.” He recalled the “millions” who have died in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion, and said America's use of drones “against innocent people in the name of fighting terrorism should be condemned.”
He criticized U.S. officials who say “the military option is on the table,” rather than push for peace. Iran, he said, “poses absolutely no threat to the world or region.”
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