UNITED NATIONS — They may not have announced any breakthroughs, and there was no historic meeting. But the presidents of the United States and Iran made it clear on Tuesday that they’re ready for serious talks on a settlement to the feud over Iran’s nuclear program that could begin easing more than 30 years of hostility and estrangement.
In separate addresses to the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, President Barack Obama and his Iranian counterpart, Hasan Rouhani, a moderate cleric, both said that an accord could be reached if it is based on “mutual respect” and shared interests.
Obama said that Iran would have to take actions “that are transparent and verifiable” to reassure the world that its nuclear program is peaceful, while Rouhani insisted that his government is prepared to “remove any and all reasonable concerns” that it is developing nuclear weapons, which he asserted have no place in Iran’s national security strategy.
Rouhani reiterated Iran’s demand that any agreement respect the right of his country to pursue civilian uses of nuclear energy that it has as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the accord that forms the cornerstone of the international system designed to halt the spread of nuclear weapons.
In his speech, Obama indicated that the United States is amenable to that demand. “We should be able to achieve a resolution that respects the rights of the Iranian people while giving the world confidence that the Iranian program is peaceful,” he said.
At the same time, each man also recited the familiar litany of differences – from the civil war in Syria to the Israel-Palestinian conflict – that divide their countries, underscoring the huge hurdles that will have to be surmounted to reach a settlement.
But both also said that after years of stalemate and tension, and with sectarian and ethnic conflicts ravaging the Middle East, it was time to try a different tack.
“The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested,” said Obama, the second leader to speak to the annual gathering of kings, presidents and prime ministers. “That while the status quo will only deepen Iran’s isolation, Iran’s genuine commitment to go down a different path will be good for the region and for the world.”
Making his debut on the world stage following his unexpected election in June, Rouhani hours later said that Iran “seeks constructive engagement with other countries based on mutual respect and common interest and within the same framework does not seek to increase tensions with the United States.”
“I listened carefully to the statement made by President Obama today at the General Assembly,” said Rouhani, who wore the black garb and turban of a Shiite Muslim cleric. “Commensurate with the political will of the leadership in the United States and hoping that they will refrain from following the shortsighted interest of warmongering pressure groups, we can arrive at a framework to manage our differences.”
His statement was a brittle reference to the opposition that Obama faces from conservatives at home and some foreign partners, especially Israel, to moving too rapidly to embrace the unprecedented charm offensive that Rouhani has launched to win relief from international sanctions that have devastated Iran’s economy.
Even before Rouhani spoke, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Iran might simply be playing for time. "Israel would welcome a genuine diplomatic solution that truly dismantles Iran's capacity to develop nuclear weapons," Netanyahu said in a videotaped statement. "But we will not be fooled by half-measures that merely provide a smokescreen for Iran's continual pursuit of nuclear weapons. And the world should not be fooled either."
In Washington, some lawmakers said sanctions should be intensified until Iran stops enriching uranium. “We don’t need words from Rouhani; we need real action from Tehran,” said Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and the author of legislation to broaden U.S. economic sanctions. “The regime’s commitment to negotiations shouldn’t be measured by rhetoric, but by the nuclear activities it ceases. Through crippling economic sanctions we can continue to increase the pressure on the regime.”
Rouhani also faces opposition by conservatives at home to improved relations with the United States. That consideration apparently prevented Iranian diplomats from agreeing in talks with U.S. officials to what would have been a meeting between the two presidents during a luncheon for world leaders hosted by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Iranian state-run Press TV said that Rouhani skipped the lunch because alcohol was served. But a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue, said that Iranian officials declined in talks to arrange a meeting because of domestic political considerations.
“It was too complicated for them to do that at this time given their own dynamic back home,” said the senior administration official. “Clearly, there are complicated dynamics in Iran surrounding the relationship with the United States.”
In another bid to appease his conservative opponents back in Iran, Rouhani used his speech to lambaste U.S. policy toward Iran and the Middle East, and called the harsh economic sanctions imposed by Washington on Tehran “a manifestation of structural violence” that “are intrinsically inhumane and against peace.”
But several analysts noted that his criticism of the United States was far tamer than the bombastic speeches that his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, delivered at the United Nations during his eight years in power.
“Even in his criticism of the United States, in the Iranian context, it wasn’t particularly harsh,” said Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian Council, an advocacy group, and the author of two books on Iranian foreign policy. “He pointed out that they can reach a framework on how to manage the differences.”
Parsi said that he also was encouraged because the two leaders used similar terms in describing their willingness to engage in serious talks.
“They’ve both used the same language and pointed to the same paradigm: mutual respect, mutual interests, and a rejection of zero sum politics,” he said.
The sides’ new readiness to engage in serious negotiations after eight years of deadlock will receive its first test on Thursday, when Secretary of State John Kerry is to join his counterparts from Russia, France, Britain, Germany and China in talks with Iran’s new foreign minister, Javad Zarif, on how to move forward.
The meeting would be the most significant contact between Iran and the United States since diplomatic ties were severed in April 1980 following the 1979 Iranian revolution that overthrew the late Shah Reza Palavi and led to the 444-day U.S. hostage crisis.
Hopes for a turnaround have been fueled by a series of recent statements and positive gestures by Rouhani and other Iranian officials, who apparently have received the blessings of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to seek a settlement to the nuclear dispute.
Some U.S. officials and analysts attribute the change to the damage to oil-rich Iran’s petroleum-fueled economy by international sanctions imposed for its defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions ordering it to stop enriching uranium, the process that produces fuel for power plants and for nuclear weapons.
The United States and the European Union have imposed their own harsh measures to cut Iran off from the international banking system, and ending international investment in the Islamic republic.
But Iranian officials and other analysts point to Rouhani’s substantial election victory over a number of conservative candidates after a campaign in which he pledged to end Iran’s international isolation and find a negotiated resolution to the nuclear crisis.
Talks between the so-called P5-Plus-1 – the United States, Russia, France, Britain, Germany and China – with Iran on its uranium enrichment program have been stalled since the last round was held in April.
The United States and other powers suspect that Iran is using its program – which it kept hidden for 18 years from inspectors of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency – to develop the ability to quickly assemble nuclear warheads if it ever decides to do so. Iran counters that it is enriching uranium for fuel for power generation.