Obama: U.S. wary but ‘encouraged’ by Iran’s new tone

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent
Yahoo News
U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the 68th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York
U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the 68th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, September 24, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Segar (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)

President Barack Obama told world leaders gathered in New York on Tuesday that he was “encouraged” by Iran’s new, less confrontational tone and had ordered a new diplomatic push to defuse the volatile standoff over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

“The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested,” Obama said in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly.

“But to succeed, conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable,” he said.

In addition to the Iranian nuclear dispute, the president also vowed to redouble efforts to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

“While these issues are not the cause of all the region's problems, they have been a major source of instability for far too long, and resolving them can help serve as a foundation for a broader peace,” he said.

And he bluntly warned the United Nations that it must threaten — and enforce — consequences on Syria if President Bashar Assad reneges on a framework to turn his chemical weapons over to international control for destruction.

“The Syrian government took a first step by giving an accounting of its stockpiles. Now there must be a strong Security Council resolution to verify that the Assad regime is keeping its commitments — and there must be consequences if they fail to do so,” Obama declared.

“If we cannot agree even on this, then it will show that the United Nations is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws,” the president said. “On the other hand, if we succeed, it will send a powerful message that the use of chemical weapons has no place in the 21st century and that this body means what it says.”

Obama’s remarks came amid intense scrutiny of the U.S. response to Iranian President Hasan Rouhani’s outreach toward the United States since his election.

U.S. officials have ruled out a formal sit-down meeting between Obama and Rouhani, who answers to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. But they have left the door open to a brief handshake meeting. That would be a historic step: American and Iranian leaders have not had such a cordial encounter since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Obama came into office vowing to reach out to — and even sit down with — leaders of countries at odds with the United States. But his optimism quickly shattered. Top Obama aides have warily watched Iranians cast off volcanic former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in hopes of an opening.

“We are encouraged that President Rouhani received from the Iranian people a mandate to pursue a more moderate course,” Obama said. “And given President Rouhani's stated commitment to reach an agreement, I am directing John Kerry to pursue this effort with the Iranian government, in close cooperation with the European Union, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China.”

That group, known in diplomatic circles as the P5+1, has provided the framework for talks over Iran’s suspected efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran denies seeking an atomic arsenal and says it needs the program to provide energy.

“We are not seeking regime change, and we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy,” Obama said. “We should be able to achieve a resolution that respects the rights of the Iranian people while giving the world confidence that the Iranian program is peaceful."

Israel, meanwhile, has argued for skepticism toward Iranian overtures — and specifically the notion that Rouhani is a moderate force. On Tuesday, the Israeli Embassy to Washington produced a parody LinkedIn profile for the Iranian president to undercut Tehran’s outreach.

In his section about Middle East peace, Obama had reassuring words for the staunch American ally.

“I've made it clear that the United States will never compromise our commitment to Israel's security nor our support for its existence as a Jewish state,” he said.

Just weeks ago, newly declassified documents confirmed the widely held belief that the CIA played a central role in the 1951 coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh — a defining crisis that has long fueled Iranian mistrust of the United States. (Interestingly, the term “Islamofascist” that came into vogue in some conservative circles after the attacks of Sept. 11 appears to have first found its way into the news in a January 1979 Washington Post article about the Iranian revolution.)