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.