While Obama has no announced plan for a meeting with Hassan Rohani during his visit to New York for the UN General Assembly meeting, the White House has left the door open to the possibility of some exchange with the Iranian leader.
“What we’re signaling is that we’re open to engagement,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters traveling with the president to New York today.
Rohani has made public overtures about restoring relations with the U.S. Rhodes didn’t rule out a meeting or handshake between Obama and Rohani, saying only that “we have nothing scheduled with the Iranians at this time.”
Any move to restore ties with Iran “is going to take time” and would involve more than a potential meeting between presidents, he said.
Rhodes also indicated Obama and his aides are carefully considering the appropriate course, saying: “I don’t think that anything would happen by happenstance in a relationship on an issue that’s this important.”
The possibility of an opening with Iran is competing with the administration’s focus on dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.
What Obama is “going to do are two very different things this week, on Syria and Iran,” said Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state and now a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
“He needs to be Mr. Implementation,” on dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, Burns said, while “this is the week where the United States and Iran might turn an important symbolic corner after a separation and divorce of 30-plus years.”
The U.S. and Iran have been foes since the U.S. embassy was stormed and the Americans inside were taken hostage during the 1979 Islamic revolution. Iran today is struggling economically under U.S.-led economic sanctions imposed because of Iran’s nuclear program, which the U.S. and its allies contend is a cover for building an atomic weapon.
“There’s almost too much euphoria” over what’s possible with Iran and how soon, Burns said. “In the final analysis, what’s really going to matter is the positions they take on their nuclear program.”
Iran is also Syria’s ally along with Russia, whose cooperation on the chemical weapons issue caused Obama to hold off on a military strike against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The Obama administration sees the economic sanctions on Iran as driving Rohani’s agenda, since the new president was elected on a promise of improving the economy, Rhodes said.
Iran, historically the second-largest oil producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries after Saudi Arabia, has slipped to sixth place.
While Rohani has toned down Iran’s anti-American rhetoric, that isn’t enough, Rhodes said.
‘We’re going to make judgments based on the actions of the Iranian government, not simply their words,’’ he said. “We’ve always made clear that there’s not open-ended window for diplomacy.”
Republicans and Democrats said the U.S. shouldn’t expect too much from Rohani.
“This is a guy who’s going to charm us, he’s going to talk with us, he’s going to have tea with us, he’s going to do photo ops with us,” former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican, said yesterday on ABC’s “This Week” program. “And he’s going to build a nuclear weapon.”
While sanctions on Iran have made an impact, the U.S. shouldn’t “get expectations too high,” said Robert Reich, labor secretary under President Bill Clinton, also on ABC. “We’ve got to be very cautious.”
Today, Obama is scheduled to meet with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and later attend a reception for visiting heads of state, an opportunity to talk to leaders informally.
Tomorrow, Obama is to meet with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are to confer at the White House on Sept. 30.
Terrorism also will figure into discussions at the UN after the attack by al-Qaeda-linked gunmen at a shopping mall in Nairobi that left at least 68 people dead and a suicide bombing at a Christian church service in northwestern Pakistan that killed 78.
Obama’s speech to the General Assembly tomorrow will put on display the U.S. approach toward Syria and Iran. That will include an argument for a UN Security Council resolution “that enforces consequences on the Assad regime, should they fail to cooperate with the international community” on chemical weapons, Rhodes said.
On Iran, Rhodes said, Obama will underscore U.S. pressure on Tehran over its nuclear program, and advocacy of sanctions, “but also our openness to diplomacy and the prospect for a peaceful resolution of this issue.”
In seeking international cooperation, Obama must also deal with allies including Brazil and Germany who have expressed anger over U.S. spy programs disclosed by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who is charged with espionage in the U.S. and has temporary asylum in Russia.
The spying controversy earlier this month prompted Brazil’s President, Dilma Rousseff, to postpone a planned state visit to Washington. Rousseff is scheduled to address the UN tomorrow just ahead of Obama.
Obama’s resolve also is an issue for allies because of his shifting stances on how to respond to the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in Syria, which the U.S. says was initiated by the Assad regime and killed more than 1,400 civilians, said Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
After planning for a rapid U.S. military strike without approval from the U.S. Congress, Obama reversed course and sought authorization. Then, as more lawmakers than expected lined up against a strike, Obama called off a vote after Russia offered to broker a plan under which Assad would give up his chemical weapons over a period of months or longer.
“What I’m hearing now from foreign diplomats is whether they can really count on the United States to uphold other commitments,” Singh said.
“The U.S. has appeared throughout this Syria episode to be confused and conflicted,” he said. “Are we prepared to act with an ad hoc collection of allies? Are we able to be checked by the Russians and Chinese? Are we too indecisive and hesitant to act when the chips are down?”
Rhodes disputed that criticism, saying the president’s threat of force “changed the equation inside of Syria.” While Obama’s been criticized for holding off on a strike, “the position of the United States has not changed. The position of the Russian Federation and the Assad regime changed.”
Obama since his 2008 campaign has favored joint international action in crises more than the unilateralism associated with his predecessor, George W. Bush. He has repeatedly run into opposition by Russia and China at the UN Security Council, most recently on the effort to pass a resolution punishing the Assad regime for the chemical attack.
Speaking at the Group of 20 Summit in Russia this month, Obama said that while he is “a strong supporter of the United Nations” he will act outside it when U.S. security is at stake and there’s “paralysis” on the Security Council.
In a Sept. 10 speech from the White House, Obama said he expects Iran to take its cue from how the international community responds to Syria.
“A failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran, which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon or to take a more peaceful path,” he said.