Iran's leader meets with French president, not Obama

After wide speculation that President Obama would shake hands with Iran's President Hasan Rouhani, the two leaders did not end having a private meeting at the UN General Assembly. Instead, Mr. Rouhani met with French President Francois Hollande.  

Craig Ruttle/ AP Photo
Iranian President Hasan Rouhani shakes hands with French President Francois Hollande during the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013.

Iran's new president met with the French leader Tuesday on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, but not with US President Barack Obama, as Western nations explored whether conciliatory talk from the Middle Eastern leader offers a way out of the impasse over Iran's nuclear program.

Anticipation of any brief but historic encounter between President Hasan Rouhani and Obama during the global meeting faded as US senior officials said a meeting proved to be too complicated for the Iranians. The officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the decision publicly.

It would have been the first encounter between US and Iranian leaders in 36 years.

Rouhani also did not attend Tuesday's luncheon for world leaders hosted by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Iran's English-language Press TV said he skipped the event because alcohol was being served there. Iranian leaders have avoided past ceremonies because of the presence of alcohol, which is forbidden under Islamic law.

Rouhani was to address the General Assembly later Tuesday afternoon. Obama spoke in the morning, and while Rouhani was not seen there, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was in attendance.

Obama welcomed the new Iranian government's pursuit of a "more moderate course," saying it should offer the basis for a breakthrough in nuclear talks. "The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested," he said during his speech.

Hollande, speaking before his meeting with Rouhani, said he was open to dialogue with the recently elected leader, which he promised would be frank and direct. But he added that Rouhani's conciliatory words must be backed by "concrete gestures" that show Iran is not seeking nuclear weapons.

"For 10 years, France has been saying Iran can absolutely benefit from a civilian nuclear program, but it cannot work toward obtaining a nuclear weapon," Hollande told reporters.

Since taking office, Rouhani has called for a new start in relations with the US and declared that Iran is not seeking a nuclear weapon. Tehran has consistently said its nuclear program has only peaceful, civilian uses.

The US has said all options are on the table, including a military strike, to thwart any attempt by Iran to have a nuclear weapon.

Iran's foreign minister is expected to meet on Thursday with US Secretary of State John Kerry and counterparts from the other permanent Security Council members, plus Germany, to discuss possibly reviving stalled negotiations over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

The possible diplomatic thaw is being watched warily by Israel, which has long sought tough punishment for Tehran in retaliation for its nuclear program.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday warned that the world "should not be fooled" by signs of moderation by Rouhani and must keep up the pressure on Tehran.

"Iran thinks soothing words and token actions will enable it to continue on its path to the bomb," Netanyahu said.

In Tehran, Iran's foreign ministry said Thursday's meeting signals the beginning of a "new era" in relations with the West.

And Zarif said on Twitter early Tuesday, "we have a historic opportunity to resolve the nuclear issue. 5+1 needs to adjust its posture commensurate with the new Iranian approach."

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