How Obama and Rouhani aim to usher in a 'a new era of relations'
U.S. President Barack Obama and his Iranian counterpart, President Hassan Rouhani, described desires for diplomacy on the subject of nuclear armament in their speeches at the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Tuesday.
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"It's not surprising the Iranian leader would criticize sanctions," he said.Skip to next paragraph
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While Obama and Rouhani had exchanged courteous letters ahead of the U.N. meeting, all signs point to a tough road ahead as their two countries seek to engage diplomatically. Both men face the risk of domestic criticism if they are perceived to have given too much ground to the other side.
Obama had been open to a meeting with Rouhani at the United Nations, but after discussions between aides at a "working level," the Iranians were not ready to have an encounter at the presidential level, U.S. officials said.
There had been feverish speculation that Obama and Rouhani might greet each other in passing at a U.N.-hosted luncheon but the Iranian president skipped it. The official reason was because alcohol was served with the meal, according to Press TV, Iran's English-language broadcaster.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was present for Obama's speech before lunch. U.S. Deputy U.N. Ambassador Rosemary DiCarlo was seated at the U.S. table when Rouhani spoke later in the afternoon.
Rouhani has said his election was a mandate from Iranians for more moderate policies but hard-line conservatives skeptical of any détente with the United States are still dominant in Iran's parliament and military institutions, and the newly elected president might have feared a backlash.
Obama appears keen to pursue an opportunity for a major foreign policy achievement, but at the same time needs to protect himself from U.S. conservatives who see outreach to Iran as weakness.
A face-to-face meeting would have posed political risks for Obama, just as for Rouhani, as it could have increased expectations for swift progress and fueled criticism that he is rewarding the new Iranian president prematurely.
A group of 11 Republican U.S. senators, led by Florida's Marco Rubio, wrote to Obama on Tuesday expressing concern that he might be considering offering a concession that would allow Iran to preserve part of a nuclear-weapons program.
In his speech, Obama reaffirmed his pledge that his administration would not tolerate Iran's development of nuclear weapons but avoided repeating his previous assertion that all options are on the table - code for possible military action - in dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue.
French President Francois Hollande became the first Western leader to meet Rouhani on Tuesday after warning that Paris expects "concrete gestures" by Iran to show it will give up a military nuclear program.
A French presidential source said the 40-minute meeting had been polite and courteous and centered on Iran's nuclear program, the crisis in Syria and neighboring Lebanon, where Tehran has considerable influence over the Hezbollah militia.
"Compared to the previous administration, there are signs, but the reality is that there are still hurdles to jump and progress to be made," the source said.