By Jeff Mason and Yeganeh Torbati
UNITED NATIONS, Sept 24 U.S. President Barack
Obama on Tuesday cautiously embraced overtures from Iran's new
president as the basis for a possible nuclear deal, but a failed
effort to arrange a simple handshake between the two leaders
underscored 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
Hours later, Rouhani used his debut at the world body to
pledge Iran's willingness to engage immediately in "time-bound"
talks on the nuclear issue but he offered no new concessions and
repeated many of Iran's grievances against the United States and
In a sign of the difficulties the two countries face in
trying to seize a historic opening after decades of hostility,
U.S. and Iranian officials were unable to orchestrate a
much-anticipated encounter between the leaders on the U.N.
sidelines in New York.
Even a brief meeting would have been symbolically important
given that it would have been the first face-to-face 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 gestures, including agreement to renew
long-stalled talks with world powers on Iran's nuclear program,
have raised hopes for a thaw in relations between Washington and
Tehran after many years 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.
ISRAEL DENOUNCES SPEECH AS 'CYNICAL'
After Rouhani's speech, the Israeli leader described the
address as a "cynical" attempt to buy time to develop a nuclear-
Obama stressed that "conciliatory words" from Iran "will
have to be matched by actions that are transparent and
Differences over Iran's nuclear program and skepticism about
Rouhani's intentions, especially from U.S. lawmakers and Israel,
a close U.S. ally, have cast doubt on the prospect for any
immediate breakthrough between Washington and Tehran.
The Jewish state, believed to be the Middle East's only
nuclear-armed power, has long threatened military strikes on
Iran's nuclear sites if diplomacy fails.
Seeking to keep expectations under control, Obama said
suspicions between the two countries were too great to believe
their troubled history can be overcome overnight.
"The roadblocks may prove to be too great but I firmly
believe the diplomatic path must be tested," Obama said.
Obama suggested, however, that Rouhani's overtures could
"offer the basis for a meaningful agreement" to curb Iran's
nuclear ambitions and said he had instructed Secretary of State
John Kerry to press a diplomatic effort along with other world
But Obama stopped short of offering any concessions such as
a softening of sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy.
For his part, Rouhani said Iran was prepared to work on a
framework for managing differences with the United States and
said he hoped Obama would show the political will to resist
"warmongering pressure groups" on the nuclear issue.
At the same time, he denounced sanctions that have been
imposed by the United Nations and the West as a violation of
"These sanctions are violent, pure and simple," he said.
"Sanctions beyond any and all rhetoric, cause belligerence,
warmongering and human suffering."
While steering clear of the Holocaust-denial rhetoric that
was characteristic of his hardline predecessor, Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, Rouhani leveled a barrage of criticism clearly
directed against Israel - without mentioning it by name -
denouncing the "brutal repression of the Palestinian people."
A senior Obama administration official said in reaction to
Rouhani's speech that he had not been as strident as Ahmadinejad
but the message was not a surprise.
"It's not surprising the Iranian leader would criticize
sanctions," he said.
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 media reported earlier, before Obama's aides said
the encounter was nixed, that Iranian officials denied having
been offered a presidential meeting by the White House.
Though Rouhani has said his election was a mandate from
Iranians for more moderate policies at home and abroad, hardline
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 face-to-face meeting would have posed political risks as
well for Obama. It could have increased expectations for swift
progress and fueled criticism that he is rewarding Rouhani
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 MEETS ROUHANI
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.
After a 40-minute meeting, a French aide said the encounter
had been polite and courteous, with the two men discussing the
crisis in Syria, Lebanon and Iran's nuclear program. Hollande
emphasized the need for quick results from the nuclear talks, he
Obama cited resolving the Iranian nuclear standoff and
reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal as his two main
Middle-East priorities, efforts he said could help bring
stability to the volatile region.
Obama appears keen to pursue an opportunity for a major
foreign policy achievement while at the same time protecting
himself from U.S. conservatives who regard the outreach to Iran
Obama urged the U.N. Security Council to approve a strong
resolution aimed at ensuring Syria keeps its commitments to give
up its chemical weapons, and said the United States will provide
an additional $340 million in humanitarian aid.
Iran is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a
U.S. foe whose country has been torn by civil war since 2011.
The White House hopes to counter critics who say Obama's
recent decision not to bomb Syria would embolden Tehran in its
A U.S.-Russian agreement this month aimed at getting control
of Syrian chemical weapons after an Aug. 21 poison gas attack in
Syria has added momentum to efforts to engage Iran.