* First French leader to meet Iranian president since 2005
* Iran's Rouhani discusses lifting sanctions with France
* France says substantial obstacles still in nuclear talks
By John Irish
UNITED NATIONS, Sept 24 French President
Francois Hollande became the first Western leader to meet new
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Tuesday after warning that
Paris expects "concrete gestures" by Iran to show it will give
up a military nuclear program.
France has been a strong advocate of sanctions to pressure
Iran over its nuclear program but has been cautious in its
statements since Rouhani, a relative moderate, was elected.
Hollande, who exchanged handshakes with Rouhani at the
United Nations - the first between leaders of the two countries
since 2005 - told the U.N. General Assembly that while he was
encouraged by the words of the new Iranian government, he now
wanted acts to follow.
"France expects of Iran concrete gestures which will show
that this country renounces its military nuclear program even if
it clearly has the right to pursue its civilian program,"
Hollande said in an address before meeting with Rouhani.
"This is why I have made the choice to engage in direct and
open dialogue with President Rouhani," Hollande said. "But I
will also say ... I am in favor of dialogue, but just as
strongly I am firm on the issue of nuclear proliferation."
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 neighbouring 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.
Since Rouhani was elected president, the centrist cleric has
called for "constructive interaction" with the world, a dramatic
shift in tone from the strident anti-Western and anti-Israeli
rhetoric of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The United States and its allies suspect Iran is seeking
nuclear bomb-making capability despite Tehran's insistence that
its atomic program has only peaceful aims. Rouhani has vowed
that his government would never develop nuclear weapons.
Tough sanctions imposed by Washington and the United Nations
over the issue have taken a severe toll on Iran's economy.
The presidential source said that the talks did not go into
details on the nuclear program, but that Rouhani had raised
concerns about the economic sanctions on his country, suggesting
Paris could immediately end sanctions on the automobile sector.
"They would like just through their words and with no real
gestures for sanctions to be loosened. It's probably what they
hoped for by meeting us. That was the main message. We told them
that if there is progress on the nuclear dossier then the
sanctions will fall by themselves," the source said.
Hollande is the first Western leader of the P5+1 nations -
United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany - to
meet Rouhani, and the first French leader to meet an Iranian
president since Jacques Chirac met Mohammad Khatami in 2005.
COERCIVE MEASURES ON SYRIA
Hollande also discussed the crisis in Syria with Rouhani,
hoping to persuade Tehran to loosen its support for President
Bashar al-Assad and accept the terms of the proposed "Geneva 2"
peace conference that calls for a transitional authority in the
civil war-torn country, something Iran has so far not backed.
The French source said that Rouhani had not tried to mix the
Syria crisis with the nuclear dossier and told Hollande he
wanted the war to end and was open to the idea of Geneva 2.
"On Syria it's not just resolving the chemical issue, but to
go get to a political solution and we know that solution also
goes through Tehran," the source said.
Hollande earlier told the U.N. that too much time had been
wasted trying to end the 2-1/2 year civil war in Syria, which
the United Nations says has killed more than 100,000 people.
"We must ensure that this war ends. It is the deadliest war
since the beginning of this century. The solution is a political
one and too much time has been lost," he said.
Hollande also repeated that he wanted a U.N. Security
Council resolution that would keep close to the terms of a
U.S.-Russia deal to eradicate Syria's chemical weapons.
Russia and China have blocked three U.N. resolutions meant
to pressure Assad during Syria's civil war.
In a clear sign of frustration with Moscow's continued
stance, Hollande also called on the five permanent members of
the Security Council to collectively drop their right to veto
resolutions in cases that included crimes against humanity.