Obama Says Iran Must Match Words With Verifiable Action

President Barack Obama welcomed overtures from Iran as a chance to diplomatically resolve the confrontation over the Persian Gulf nation’s nuclear program, even as Iranian officials told the U.S. that the time isn’t right for direct contact between the two countries’ leaders.

The U.S. is “encouraged” that Iranian President Hassan Rohani was given a mandate in his election to pursue a more moderate course and that may provide a basis for a “meaningful agreement” on the nuclear issue, Obama said in an address to the United Nations in which he also sought to justify the broad U.S. role in world affairs.

“Conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable,” Obama told other leaders today in New York. “The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested.”

Iranian officials rejected a possible informal encounter between Obama and Rohani while both leaders were at the UN today because of domestic political considerations, an administration official told reporters later. U.S. contacts will be handled through talks led by Secretary of State John Kerry, according to the official, who asked not to be identified to discuss the negotiations.

In his own address to the General Assembly, Rohani said his nation is ready to engage in “result-oriented” talks on the nuclear program while offering no concessions. He called Iran’s goals peaceful and said nuclear weapons have no place in his country’s doctrine.

Core Interests

Obama focused his speech on the Middle East, including the civil war in Syria and the Israel-Palestinian peace process. He vowed the U.S. will use all means necessary, including military force, to protect its “core interests” in the region and ensure the free flow of energy to the world.

He called on the UN to apply meaningful pressure on the regime in Syria to follow through on its promise to surrender its chemical weapons. Iran and Russia, Syria’s main allies, must recognize that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad cannot remain in power if the civil war is to be resolved by political means, Obama said.

Any notion that Syria can return to the status quo before the civil war erupted is “a fantasy,” he said.

The president’s speech laid out his foreign policy priorities for the remainder of his presidency, placing two issues -- curbing Iran’s nuclear program and Israel-Palestinian peace -- at the top of the U.S. agenda.

Progress Signaled

“Real breakthroughs on these two issues --- Iran’s nuclear program and the Arab-Israeli conflict -- would have a profound and positive impact on the entire Middle East and North Africa,” Obama said.

The address came at a time when there are signs of progress on those long-stalled issues. After years of little communication with Iran, a new leader is signaling that he’d welcome talks with Obama and other U.S. officials. Russia has joined with the U.S. in negotiations to eradicate Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. And Israel and the Palestinians have resumed U.S.-brokered peace talks.

The U.S. relationship with Iran has taken center stage at the UN meeting. Both Obama, 52, and Iran’s Rohani, 64, have indicated an interest in closing a three-decade-old rupture between the two countries. Iran has the world’s fourth-largest proven oil reserves.

Staff Discussions

During staff-level discussions between the two governments, the U.S. indicated that Obama was open to some personal contact with Rohani, though no formal meeting was envisioned, according to the administration official. The Iranians told the U.S. today that would cause complications domestically, the official said.

Speculation about a thaw in U.S.-Iran relations helped push oil prices lower. West Texas Intermediate crude for November delivery declined 46 cents, or 0.4 percent, to $103.13 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, the lowest settlement since July 30.

Obama said he has directed Kerry to pursue talks with the Iranian government on resolving the nuclear standoff, in coordination with the European Union as well as the other permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany.

He said Iran’s past behavior is responsible for the economic sanctions that have hobbled the country’s economy.

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. The country, historically the second-largest oil producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries after Saudi Arabia, has slipped to sixth place.

‘Soothing Words’

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is scheduled to meet with Obama on Sept. 30 at the White House, is urging caution in dealing with Iran.

“Iran thinks that soothing words and token actions will enable it to continue on its path to the bomb,” Netanyahu said in an e-mailed statement today.

On Syria, Obama repeated the U.S. case that Assad’s government is responsible for the chemical attack last month outside Damascus that killed hundreds of people.

He said the UN must adopt a strong resolution that will verify that Assad is keeping the commitment he made in a deal brokered by Russia to disclose and give up chemical weapons.

“If we cannot agree even on this, then it will show that the UN is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws,” Obama said.

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