Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived at the White House Monday for a meeting and working lunch with President Obama and Vice President Biden, amid intensifying US-Iran diplomacy to resolve the nuclear dispute.
“We have to test diplomacy” with Iran, Obama said in remarks with Netanyahu at the White House Monday. “We, in good faith, will approach that. They will not be easy.”
“The Prime Minister and I agree that it is imperative that Iran not possess a nuclear weapon,” Obama said.
Netanyahu said he appreciated President Obama’s assurance that Iran’s words “have to be matched by real actions,” and urged that sanctions pressure not be relieved until there would be verifiable progress toward dismantling Iran’s nuclear program.
Netanyahu’s White House meetings come ahead of his speech to the United Nations Tuesday, in which he vowed to deliver “facts” and straight talk to counter what he called Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s “smile campaign” in New York last week.
The Israeli leader’s first visit to Washington in 17 months comes as a new CNN/ORS poll shows that an overwhelming number of Americans–76% –back direct US-Iran negotiations to see if a diplomatic resolution can be found to address concerns over Iran’s nuclear program. The poll, conducted September 27-29, 2013, showed that large majorities of both parties–87% of Democrats and 68% of Republicans—favor the diplomatic outreach, while only one in five–21%–oppose it.
It also comes as former Israeli Defense Force (IDF) intelligence chief Amos Yadlin urged Netanyahu to face facts of his own, and recognize that even an imperfect Iran nuclear agreement is better than the status quo.
“Iran may well reject the Prime Minister’s demands (zero enrichment, removal of all the enriched material from Iran, the suspension of activity at the underground facility in Fordow and the reactor at Arak),” Yadlin wrote in a memo published Sunday (Sept. 29) by the Israeli think tank he now heads, the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) . “Nonetheless it is important to define an agreement that even if containing a certain risk that Iran could break out to military nuclear capability either under or in violation of the deal, still represents a significantly smaller threat than the dangers inherent in the status quo, which is likely leading to an Iranian bomb or to a military move to forestall it.”
“Anyone examining the statements made by the US and Iranian Presidents could justifiably assume that there was prior coordination in the terms used about the principles of an expected agreement,” Yadlin wrote. “On the one hand, Iran’s right to develop sources of nuclear energy, and on the other hand, transparency and verification as well as ‘significant steps’ that have not been specified by either side.”
Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to CBS’s 60 Minutes Sunday, said he thought an Iran nuclear deal could be reached quickly, even in less than three to six months, if Iran is seriously prepared to make a reasonable deal.
“If it is a peaceful program, and we can all see that – the whole world sees that – the relationship with Iran can change dramatically for the better and it can change fast,” Kerry said.
“If the United States is ready to recognize Iran’s rights, to respect Iran’s rights and move from that perspective, then we have a real chance,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos Sunday.
Zarif is due to meet negotiators from the P5+1–the US, UK, France, Germany, China and Russia–in Geneva October 15-16 to lay out a more detailed proposal for resolving the nuclear issue within a year, beginning with a first step confidence building proposal.
(Top photo: Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama meet with their advisors at the White House Monday, by the Israeli embassy. Second photo: Netanyahu shakes hands with President Obama at the White House Monday, by the Associated Press. Cartoon of Netanyahu arriving at the UN amid signs of a party by Haaretz.)
New York__ President Obama spoke by phone with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani Friday, officials from both countries said, another remarkable gesture in a week in which US and Iranian leaders moved tentatively to test opportunities to forge more direct contacts in and out of the public spotlight.
“Just now, I spoke on the phone with President Rouhani of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Obama said in a hastily arranged press conference Friday. “The two of us discussed our ongoing efforts to reach an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program….While there will surely be important obstacles to moving forward, and success is by no means guaranteed, I believe we can reach a comprehensive solution.”
The 15-minute phone call–the first between presidents of the two countries since 1979–was initiated by Obama at 2:30pm Friday as Rouhani was wrapping up his four day trip to New York, after the Iranians reached out Friday to express interest in a call, US and Iranian officials said. It came a day after Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also made history, by meeting one on one Thursday for half an hour, on the sidelines of six party nuclear talks.
Obama, in the call, congratulated Rouhani on his election, and urged that the two leaders seize the opportunity for a nuclear deal, a senior US administration official said Friday. A “breakthrough on the nuclear issue could open the door to a [more constructive] relationship between the US and Iran,” the US official summarized.
“The Iranian and US presidents underlined the need for a political will for expediting resolution of West’s standoff with Iran over the latter’s nuclear program,” Alireza Miryusefi, a spokesperson for the Iranian mission to the UN, said in a statement Friday.
“President Rohani and President Obama stressed the necessity for mutual cooperation on different regional issues,” he said.
Some observers, noting that President Obama himself announced the call in a live statement at the White House Friday and the Iranian president's office's tweets on the call, suggested there may have been more substantive information exchanged between the two sides this past week to warrant such unusual displays of enthusiasm from cautious leaders.
The Iranians “came here to do a deal, and whatever they said [Thursday in the Kerry Zarif meeting…] persuaded the White House that this was not just a charm offensive,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department policy planning official and an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution Saban Center, said Friday.
“They have a deal outlined,” she said. “Whatever they've communicated must be legitimate and compelling to have drawn out this risk-averse president.”
A Twitter account purporting to be linked to Rouhani's office also described the call–in tweets the White House said they saw and which they said accurately conveyed the tone of the call–though Iranian officials in New York said they do not confirm the account is legitimate.
“In phone convo, President #Rouhani and President @BarackObama expressed their mutual political #will to rapidly solve the #nuclear issue,” the @HassonRouhani account said, and which the White House twitter account (@WhiteHouse) retweeted.
In the call, according to a tweet on Rouhani's Twitter account that was later deleted, Obama expressed his “respect for [Rouhani] and the people of Iran. I'm convinced that relations between Iran and US will greatly affect region. If we can make progress on nuclear file, other issues such as Syria will certainly be positively affected.”
Obama signed off on the call, which was conducted through translators, with a Persian goodbye, after Rouhani wished him farewell in English, the White House said. (Rouhani's Twitter account, in a tweet that was later deleted, said Rouhani told Obama in English, 'Have a Nice Day!' and Obama responded with, 'Thank you. Khodahafez.')
On Tuesday, the Iranians declined a US offer to have an Obama Rouhani encounter or handshake in New York, when both leaders addressed the United Nations General Assembly.
Rouhani and Zarif have both described Obama and Kerry in positive terms this week, and expressed optimism about negotiations to ease tensions between the West and Iran, starting with the nuclear issue.
“The end goal is to ensure the interests of both sides, step by step to build confidence between the two nations,” Rouhani told journalists at a press conference Friday.
(Top photo: Historic phone call in the Oval Office: President Obama talks with Iran President Hassan Rouhani this afternoon. Pete Souza, White House. Second photo, from @HassanRouhani Twitter account: 'After historic phone conversation with @BarackObama, President #Rouhani in plane abt to depart for Tehran.')
New York __ US Secretary of State John Kerry shook hands and met alone with Iran's new top diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif for thirty minutes Thursday, in the highest level direct talks between the two countries in decades.
“We had a constructive meeting, and I think all of us were pleased that Foreign Minister Zarif came and made a presentation to us, which was very different in tone and very different in the vision that he held out with respect to possibilities of the future,” Kerry told journalists after the meeting.
“Now it’s up to people to do the hard work of trying to fill out what those possibilities could do,” Kerry said.
The historic meeting between the top American and Iranian diplomats, with not even note takers present, took place in a room off to the side of a meeting of foreign ministers from the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, hosted by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. When Zarif arrived, Ashton's deputy Helga Schmidt gave up her seat to him, placing Zarif between Ashton and Kerry. After Zarif made a twenty minute presentation to the group, Kerry leaned over to Zarif and suggested that they might meet privately, a senior State Department official said Thursday.
“We had more than a chat,” Zarif said after the meeting Thursday. “Now we have to match our words with action.”
He said the parties had agreed to try to reach a negotiated settlement on Iran's nuclear program within a year. “We agreed to jump-start the process so that we could move forward with a view to agree, first, on the parameters of the end game, how we want to proceed [regarding] Iran's nuclear program, in a year's time, and also to think about steps, starting with a first step, that should be implemented in order to address the immediate concerns of two sides, and move towards finalizing it hopefully within a year's time,” Zarif said.
“I'm optimistic,” Zarif said, speaking at the end of an event featuring Iranian President Hassan Rouhani convened by the Council on Foreign Relations and Asia Society Thursday. “This was a good beginning. I sense that Secretary Kerry and President Obama want to resolve this.”
Zarif “made a thoughtful presentation, he laid out what Iran's interests were, … and expressed a desire to come to an agreement and have it fully implemented in a year's time,” the senior State Department official said Thursday, stressing again that Zarif proposed both reaching and implementing a nuclear deal within a year.
“He laid out some thoughts that he had, what a process may look like, what elements might be in a first step,” the US official said. “Certainly some important things have happened here today.”
Ashton and Zarif along with political directors from the P5+1 will next meet October 15-16 in Geneva. The new Iranian leaders quickly agreed to a date and venue for the nuclear talks, whereas the former team would spend weeks negotiating over such logistical details, the State Department official said.
“Like the Minister [Zarif], I am very ambitious for what we can do,” Ashton said after the meeting. “But we all know that we have to be very practical in translating political ambition into…effective work on the ground.”
A proposed confidence-building measure presented by the six parties to Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan last February “remains on the table,” Ashton continued. “Either the Iranian government can decide to respond directly to that, or it can put forward its own proposals.” She proposed that Iran shares its ideas before the next meeting in Geneva.
“If the Iranians agreed to establish a US-Iran channel on the margins of the P5+1, it's a good sign,” former top Obama nonproliferation advisor Gary Samore, president of United Against a Nuclear Iran [UANI], told Al-Monitor Thursday.
—Barbara Slavin contributed reporting.
(Photo: European Union. Second photo: Jason DeCrow/AP.)
In a mostly off the record discussion with about two dozen editors and political analysts, including Al-Monitor’s Andrew Parasiliti, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday that “the nuclear issue can be resolved,” and condemned the Nazi Holocaust against the Jewish people, hoping to close the chapter on the legacy of Holocaust denial by his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
On the nuclear front, Rouhani said Iran is ready to “provide assurances, talk, and negotiate an agreement.” Speaking through an interpreter, he stressed that Iran has nothing to hide, that all of Iran’s sites are under IAEA supervision and will remain so, and that Iran expects its legal and full rights as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). On the levels of uranium enrichment which Iran would be allowed for its nuclear program, Rouhani said that Iran seeks the same privileges as the other 40 or so countries which have signed the NPT and have the capacity for enrichment. “Nothing less, nothing more,” he said.
A source close to the delegation told Al-Monitor that the use of the language of the NPT in the speech by US President Barack Obama on Tuesday was well received in Iran, as was Obama’s reference to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s fatwa prohibiting nuclear weapons.
In response to a question about his position on the Holocaust, Rouhani made plain his difference with former Iranian president Ahmadinejad by condemning the crimes of the Nazis against the Jews and others during World War II, much as he did in an interview Tuesday with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.
President Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have tried to reach out to the Jewish community, using Twitter to issue Rosh Hashana greetings earlier this month. Rouhani was also accompanied to the discussion Wednesday by Moreh Sedgh, Iran’s only Jewish member of parliament, Rouhani’s Twitter account said. Israel, however, has rejected the overtures, charging the Rouhani ‘charm offensive’ is a cynical ploy meant to deceive gullible audiences in the West.
The White House said Tuesday that it had expressed interest in an Obama Rouhani encounter in New York, but the Iranians ultimately declined, indicating domestic complications.
“It was clear that it was too complicated for them,” a senior US official said.
Before boxers get in the ring to fight, they shake hands, an Iranian diplomat told Al-Monitor Tuesday, to explain the Iranian decision not to meet with Obama at this time.
Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Thursday as part of a P5+1 foreign ministers meeting.
—Andrew Parasiliti contributed the report.
(Photo: Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif during session with reporters in New York, September 25, 2013. Photo courtesy of Gideon Rose.)
New York __ There will be no meeting between President Obama and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani this week, the White House said Tuesday, saying the Iranians had declined.
The White House offered to have “an encounter” between Obama and Rouhani at the United Nations, but the Iranians informed the US Tuesday “it is too complicated for the Iranians to do at this point,” senior US administration officials informed the White House pool reporter Tuesday afternoon.
“It was clear that it was too complicated for them,” a senior US official told the pool reporter.
Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Thursday as part of a P5+1 foreign ministers meeting.
Zarif attended and appeared to listen intently to Obama's speech to the UN General Assembly Tuesday morning, during which Obama said the Iranian people deserve access to peaceful nuclear energy, and said the U.S. does not seek regime change in Iran.
Rouhani however did not attend a lunch for world leaders hosted by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon Tuesday, which Obama attended, and where some thought a handshake might occur. While some Iranians said Iranian leaders have avoided such UN lunches in the past because wine is served, several Iran experts thought a public encounter with the US president in the spotlight may just be too much for Rouhani at this point.
It may be “too much, too soon,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, an Iran expert at the Asia Society, which is hosting Rouhani Thursday. More important, she said, is the agreement that Kerry and Zarif will pursue a serious attempt at negotiations, which Obama firmly endorsed in his speech.
“I didn’t expect a handshake,” Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution Saban Center said Tuesday, adding she is “still puzzled as to why both sides seemed to be hyping the possibility of a meeting, or at least didn’t dismiss it.”
“It’s not the right time for a presidential photo op, really,” Maloney said. “This needs to be more ripe to justify inserting the principals.”
“It’s important to note that the process here is what’s important,” a second senior US official said. “It’s the fact that Secretary Kerry is proceeding with P5+1…We were open to a meeting. The president was open to a meeting. But the real work on resolving this issue has to be done through substantive negotiations.”
US officials said they had been able to convey messages about willingness for an encounter to Iran, including through staff contacts in New York, but declined to specify what those were.
“We have an ability to be in touch with the Iranians at a variety of levels,” a US official said. “We’ve been doing that here in New York, and today I think it became apparent that the two leaders having an encounter here on the margins of UNGA was not going to happen.”
“I think the takeaway again is the Iranians #1 have an internal dynamic that they have to manage,” the official continued. “The relationship with the United States is clearly quite different than the relationship that Iran has with other Western countries even.”
“Now we see a real opening here for a diplomatic process, and that’s going to be carried forward by Secretary Kerry meeting with his counterpart , which is a significant elevation of the level that that exchange is taking place again through that P5+1 process,” the official said. “But again the Iranians at this point were not ready to have an encounter at the presidential level.”
(Photo of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addressing the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday September 24, 2013. Laura Rozen.)
New York__ US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will meet face to face on Thursday, at a meeting of foreign ministers from six world powers and Iran.
The decision to include Zarif in the P5+1 ministerial meeting was announced by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, after she met for the first time with Zarif Monday in New York.
“What I saw today was the energy and determination” of Zarif and his team to move talks forward, Ashton told journalists after their meeting at the United Nations Monday.
Kerry welcomes Zarif’s “commitment to a substantive response and to his agreement to meeting in the short term with permanent UN Security Council members and Germany coordinated by EU High Representative Ashton to discuss the nuclear program,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Monday.
Ashton and Zarif “talked about a number of issues,” with the discussion “focused on the nuclear issue,” she said. In addition to agreeing that Zarif would join the P5+1 ministerial meeting on Thursday, at 4pm, the two negotiators agreed that their two teams will meet again in Geneva in October, Ashton said.
Meantime, a spokesman for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told Al-Monitor Monday that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been invited to attend a luncheon that Ban is hosting for visiting heads of state Tuesday. UN spokesman Martin Nesky said he wasn’t yet sure if Rouhani plans to attend. Rouhani is due to arrive in New York later on Monday.
President Obama plans to attend the lunch, following a meeting with Ban on Tuesday, the White House said last week.
“We hope that the new Iranian government will engage substantively with the international community to reach a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program and to cooperate fully with the IAEA in its investigation,” Psaki said. “We remain ready to work with Iran should the Rouhani administration choose to engage seriously.”
Obama is due to address the UN General Assembly Tuesday morning. Rouhani is scheduled to address the body Tuesday afternoon.
If President Obama decides to try to pursue a handshake or encounter with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani in New York next week, odds are it may occur when he meets with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon Tuesday, before attending a lunch hosted by Ban, a veteran of US-Iran dialogues suggested Friday.
“There is a range of potential interlocutors to coordinate such an encounter,” Suzanne DiMaggio, vice president of global policy studies at the Asia Society, told the Back Channel Friday. “Ban Ki-Moon is hosting a Tuesday lunch. That would be [ideal], given he’s an international civil servant.”
No meeting between Obama and Rouhani next week is currently planned, though Obama is open to engagement, the White House said again Friday. Obama is currently scheduled to have four one-on-one meetings with world leaders in New York, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told journalists in a call Friday previewing Obama’s schedule in New York.
Obama will meet on Monday with Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan, and then on Tuesday, following his address to the UN General Assembly, Obama is due to meet with Lebanese President Michel Sleiman. Obama is then due to meet privately with the UN’s Ban, then attend a lunch hosted by Ban, Rhodes said. Finally, Obama is due to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, before attending a Clinton Global Initiative event promoting health care hosted by former President Bill Clinton.
Given that schedule, it seems most likely that, if an encounter between Obama and Rouhani were to occur, it would be brokered by Ban, DiMaggio mused. Her organization, the Asia Society, is due to host Rouhani at an event Thursday for think tank scholars, along with the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also been involved in extensive track 2 work on Iran.
There are rumors that Ban might also organize a meeting of foreign ministers, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, DiMaggio said.
“There’s some creative thinking going on,” she said.
There could be some US-Iran “interaction at different levels”, the NSC’s Rhodes said in the press call Friday. “I can’t predict every interaction that might take place.”
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On the eve of his trip to New York, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani continued his charm offensive, publishing an op-ed in the Washington Post Friday urging world leaders to “seize the opportunity presented by Iran’s recent election” and his “mandate” for “prudent engagement.”
“To move beyond impasses, whether in relation to Syria, my country’s nuclear program or its relations with the United States, we need to aim higher,” Rouhani wrote in the Post. “Rather than focusing on how to prevent things from getting worse, we need to think — and talk — about how to make things better.”
Rouhani’s push for dialogue on both regional and nuclear issues came as the White House continued to assert U.S. willingness for direct talks.
“We have heard a lot in the world from President Rouhani’s administration about its desire to improve the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s relations with the international community,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said at the White House press briefing Thursday. “And President Obama believes we should test that assertion, and we are and we will do that.”
In his letter to Rouhani, “the President indicated that the U.S. is ready to resolve the nuclear issue in a way that allows Iran to demonstrate that its nuclear program is for exclusively peaceful purposes,” Carney said. “The letter also conveyed the need to act with a sense of urgency.”
Ahead of Rouhani's arrival in New York, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was scheduled to meet with Iranian scholars and think tank experts in New York Friday. Zarif is due to hold talks with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton Monday, and with the British and Russian foreign ministers later in the week.
Rouhani will likely meet with French President Francois Hollande in New York on Tuesday, a French official told Al-Monitor Friday.
The White House has signaled Obama’s openness to meet with Rouhani, but has previously said there are no current plans for a meeting.
The media has gone into a frenzy about the possibility of an Obama-Rouhani handshake in New York. Both leaders are due to address the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday September 24th, Obama as the second speaker in the morning, and Rouhani, the seventh, in the afternoon.
“People here [in Washington] will want to see something very real from Tehran,” Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corporation, told Al-Monitor Friday. “And of course the US has to reciprocate. But from the dominant US perspective, the onus is on Iran.”
Amir Mohebbian, a political commentator in Iran, told the New York Times in an interview that Iran is seeking short-term relief from sanctions imposed on its ability to transfer money. “We particularly want to be readmitted to the Swift system,” Mohebbian told the Times. What Iran would be willing to trade for such a concession is not yet clear, but scholars in the orbit of Zarif and Rouhani have suggested they would be amenable in an end-state deal to more aggressive IAEA monitoring and safeguards, capping enrichment at 5%, and limiting the number of Iran's centrifuges and enrichment sites.
“All the optics from Tehran — even from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — indicate that Iran is gearing up for a new attempt at a nuclear deal,” Patrick Clawson, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote at Foreign Policy Thursday. “If a deal can't be made in the next few months, it's hard to see another opportunity when the chances would ever be this good again.”
The new Iranian “administration has opened a door to a better relationship, and one better for the United States, about as widely as such doors ever are opened,” Paul Pillar, former senior US intelligence analyst, wrote at the National Interest. “The United States would be foolish not to walk through it.”
(Photo: Iran President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Getty.)zp8497586rq
President Obama wrote Iran’s President that he sees a way to resolve the nuclear issue, the White House said Wednesday, amid the latest signal that the US and Iran are moving towards direct talks.
“In his letter the president indicated that the U.S. is ready to resolve the nuclear issue in a way that allows Iran to demonstrate that its nuclear program is for exclusively peaceful purposes,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday, Reuters reported.
“The letter also conveyed the need to act with a sense of urgency,” Carney said.
“There is an opportunity here for diplomacy,” Obama told Telemundo in an interview Tuesday. “And I hope the Iranians take advantage of it.”
Meantime, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani told NBC’s Ann Curry in an interview in Tehran Wednesday that Iran will “never develop nuclear weapons under any circumstances,” Curry told NBC's Andrea Mitchell.
Rouhani also said that he has “full authority to make a nuclear deal with the west,” Curry said. “The nuclear issue is on the table.”
He also praised the “tone” of the letter he received from Obama as “positive and constructive,” he told Curry.
Rouhani's signals of interest in dialogue seemed to be endorsed this week by Iran's hardline Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “I am not opposed to correct diplomacy,” Khamenei said in a meeting with Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps Tuesday, Al-Monitor's Arash Karami, citing ISNA, reported. “I believe in what was named many years ago as ‘heroic flexibility.”
The exchange of more positive comments between the American and Iranian leaders come as Iran on Wednesday freed a dozen political prisoners, including the prominent human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and the reformist former deputy foreign minister Mohsen Aminzadeh.
Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrived in New York Wednesday and was meeting with senior officials and permanent representatives of the United Nations, Alireza Miryousefi, the spokesperson for Iran's mission to the UN, said Wednesday on Twitter.
Obama and Rouhani are due to address the UN General Assembly in New York next Tuesday, Sept. 24th.
(Photo of NBC's Ann Curry interviewing Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran on September 18th by Hooman Majd.)
President Obama, speaking to ABC in an interview taped Friday and broadcast Sunday, confirmed that he and Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani have exchanged letters, and said he holds out hope that the US and Iran can reach a nuclear deal. But he said that negotiating with Iran would not be easy, and stressed that Iran should not doubt his resolve to prevent it getting nuclear weapons, despite the US agreeing to a last-minute Russian bid to remove Syria’s chemical weapons to avoid possible U.S.-led air strikes.
“I have. And he’s reached out to me,” Obama said, when asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos if he’d reached out to the new Iranian president.
“I think what the Iranians understand is that the nuclear issue is a far larger issue for us than the chemical weapons issue,” Obama said, citing the risks to US “core interests” that a nuclear armed Iran would pose to Israel, and of a nuclear arms race in the region.
“My suspicion is that the Iranians recognize they shouldn’t draw a lesson that we haven’t struck [Syria] to think we won’t strike Iran,” Obama said. “On the other hand, what…they should draw from this lesson is that there is the potential of resolving these issues diplomatically.”
“Negotiations with the Iranians is always difficult,” Obama said. “I think this new president is not gonna suddenly make it easy. But you know, my view is that if you have both a credible threat of force, combined with a rigorous diplomatic effort, that, in fact you can you can strike a deal… and I hold out that hope.”
Obama–interviewed a day ahead of the announcement that the U.S. and Russia had reached a deal on removing Syria’s chemical weapons—also said that he would welcome efforts by Russia and even Iran to help end the civil war in Syria, despite considerable disagreements over the conflict and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“I think that if in fact not only Russia gets involved, but if potentially Iran gets involved as well in recognizing that what’s happening there is a train wreck that hurts not just Syrians but [is] destabilizing the entire region…we can do something [about] it,” he said.
The president’s confirmation of the correspondence with Rouhani comes as a former member of Rouhani’s nuclear negotiating team wrote that Iran’s Supreme Leader has given permission for US-Iran direct talks.
“Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued permission for President Hassan Rouhani’s new administration to enter into direct talks with the U.S.,” Seyed Hossein Mousavian wrote in an oped published by Japan Times Friday (Sept. 13). “No better opportunity to end decades of bilateral hostility is likely to come along. ”
Asked by Al-Monitor Sunday if Khamenei has given permission for direct talks on the nuclear issue or Syria, Mousavian replied: “both.”
Former State Department Iran analyst Suzanne Maloney described the letter exchange as part of a broader series of recent signs of a still fragile but potentially unprecedented shift in the Islamic Republic.