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Obama in Spotlight With Rohani as Iran Reaches Out

President Barack Obama
White House officials stressed that no meeting between President Barack Obama and Iran’s Hassan Rohani has been scheduled. Photographer: Jin Lee/Bloomberg

The U.S. and Iran will be on center stage at the United Nations today, with world leaders watching for any contact between President Barack Obama and Iran’s Hassan Rohani that may signal a thaw in relations.

Both leaders have indicated an interest in closing a three-decade-old rupture between the two countries, and they potentially will cross paths at a UN luncheon. Obama is scheduled to address the gathering this morning; Rohani speaks to the General Assembly in the afternoon.

Iran, which has the world’s fourth-largest proven oil reserves, is a central player in the U.S. approach to Syria’s civil war, nuclear proliferation and Middle East peace, and any interaction -- even a handshake -- would be a significant symbol of a shift in relations.

“It’s been since the Jimmy Carter administration that we’ve had a serious, sustained conversation with the Iranians and now we have an opportunity to do that,” said Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state who’s now a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, referring to the administration of the 39th U.S. president. “President Obama is absolutely right to test it.”

While Obama administration officials say the U.S.-led economic sanctions are forcing the new tone from the Iranian government, U.S. allies including Israel are warning the U.S. not to fall into a diplomatic trap of granting concessions without concrete steps by Iran to back away from its nuclear development program.

No Happenstance

White House officials stressed that no meeting between Obama, 52, and Rohani, 64, has been scheduled. “Though, as you’ve heard us say repeatedly, we don’t rule out that type of engagement,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said yesterday. “I don’t think that anything would happen by happenstance on a relationship and an issue that is this important.”

The U.S. said yesterday that Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with his Iranian counterpart as part of talks over Iran’s nuclear program along with the other four permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany.

Any presidential encounter would mark the first exchange between leaders of the two nations since the 1979 Islamic revolution, during which the U.S. embassy in Tehran was stormed and 52 Americans inside were held hostage for 444 days.

Already, the two leaders have exchanged letters that Rohani characterized as “positive and constructive,” in a Sept. 18 interview with NBC News.

Past Outreach

One cautionary note for the U.S. is Obama’s measured outreach in 2009 to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, an outspoken U.S. critic, who died in March. While the two leaders publicly greeted one another at an international summit, and Obama’s limited engagement fueled criticism at home, Obama made little progress diplomatically.

The president’s speech today, in which he is set to address the potential for cooperation with Iran, comes as his White House confronts sudden signs of progress on some long-stalled foreign policy issues, primarily attempts to rid Syria of chemical weapons and restart talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Although any positive results from those initiatives remain distant, “there’s a lot of diplomatic activity taking place,” Rhodes said, “and we want to take advantage of those opportunities.”

The administration still faces serious obstacles.

The U.S.-brokered Israel-Palestinian talks are stymied by long-running disputes on borders and settlements and recent attacks against Israeli troops by Palestinians.

Syria Negotiations

On Syria, Russian and U.S. officials disagree over whether to include a provision in a Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force if Syria fails to turn over its chemical weapons.

The U.S., U.K. and France have accused Syrian government forces of carrying out an Aug. 21 chemical attack that killed 1,400 people, including more than 400 children. Assad has blamed rebel groups for the attack.

The conflict in Syria will likely dominate Obama’s meetings with other world leaders scheduled for later today, including conversations with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Lebanese President Michel Suleiman. Yesterday, the president and first lady Michelle Obama mingled with other world leaders at a reception held in the Waldorf Astoria hotel.

New Opportunities

Rhodes said that while Iran and Syria policy should not be tied too closely together, the current climate has created opportunities on both fronts.

“In both instances we would insist that actions are verified, that commitments are kept,” he said, “whether it’s the Syrian regime’s commitment to destroy its chemical weapon stockpiles under international control or whether it’s the Iranian government’s commitment to follow through on meeting the international community’s concerns with respect to its nuclear program.”

Rohani came to power in June promising to improve Iran’s relations with the world and strengthen an economy that has been hobbled by U.S.-led sanctions.

A Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report estimated in April that sanctions had cost Iran more than $100 billion in lost foreign investment and oil revenue. Inflation has almost doubled in two years to 39 percent last month, official figures show.

The U.S. has leaned on allies to cut Iranian oil imports. Iran, historically the second-largest oil producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries after Saudi Arabia, has slipped to sixth place.

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