UNITED NATIONS — President Barack Obama on Tuesday cautiously embraced overtures from Iran’s new president as the foundation for a possible nuclear deal, but a meeting between the two leaders failed to materialize, underscoring entrenched distrust that will be hard to overcome.
In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Obama said he was determined to test President Hassan Rouhani’s recent diplomatic gestures and challenged him to take concrete steps toward resolving Iran’s long-running nuclear dispute with the West.
U.S. Sens. John McCain, R.-Ariz., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., issued a statement on the initiative.
“We support the willingness of the Obama Administration to test the credibility of the Iranian regime’s diplomatic overtures. However, we are deeply skeptical about the real motivations behind Iran’s charm offensive. We need to approach the current diplomatic initiative with eyes wide open, and we must not allow Iran to use negotiations as a tool of delay and deception. A real negotiation does not mean that the diplomats talk while the Iranians enrich.
“When Secretary Kerry sits down with the Iranian Foreign Minister, we urge him to make clear that the U.S. government, the American people, and the U.S. Congress will never allow the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism to acquire the world’s most dangerous weapon. Kind words are not enough. We must see transparent, tangible, and verifiable steps by the Iranian regime to fulfill its international obligations and end its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability. The American people and Congress will not support anything less.
“We also urge Secretary Kerry to make clear to the Iranian Foreign Minister that, while Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability is our top concern, it is not our only concern. We are also opposed to the Iranian regime’s efforts to destabilize the Middle East — including its support for terrorist organizations and attacks across the region that have killed Americans; its commitment to the destruction of Israel; its attempts to assassinate Israeli and Arab officials; its oppression of the Iranian people; its threat to friendly Arab governments; its development of increasingly capable ballistic missiles; and its unwavering military assistance to the Assad regime, which has slaughtered more than 110,000 men, women, and children.”
In a sign of the difficulties the two countries face in trying to seize a historic opening, U.S. and Iranian officials were unable to orchestrate a much-anticipated handshake between the leaders on the U.N. sidelines in New York.
Even a brief encounter would have been symbolically important given that it would be the first direct contact between U.S. and Iranian heads of government since before the 1979 Islamic revolution that ousted the U.S.-backed shah.
“There will be no meeting,” a senior U.S. official said. “We indicated that the two leaders could have had a discussion on the margins if the opportunity presented itself. The Iranians got back to us. It was clear that it was too complicated for them to do that at this time given their own dynamic back home.”
Rouhani’s recent gestures, including agreement to renew long-stalled talks with world powers on its nuclear program, have raised hopes for a thaw in relations between Washington and Tehran after a long period of estrangement.
But even as Obama welcomed signs of a “more moderate course” by Iran, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the world should not be fooled by Rouhani’s “soothing words.” The Israeli leader said Iran was trying to mask its continued quest for a nuclear bomb, something Tehran denies it is seeking.
“Conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable,” Obama told the annual gathering of world leaders in New York.