The White House said on Monday that it would not rule out a meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rowhani on the sidelines of the upcoming U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York this week.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meanwhile will attend a meeting of major powers this week with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on his country’s nuclear program.
Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, told reporters that while Obama had not arranged a meeting with Rowhani, it would not be ruled out.
“We are open to engagement with the Iranian government on a variety of levels provided that they will follow through on their commitment to address the international community's concern on their nuclear program,” said Rhodes, according to AFP.
Earlier on Monday, Rowhani called for the West to engage in dialogue with Iran over its nuclear program, saying that sanctions against the country were “unacceptable” as he departed for New York to attend the U.N. meeting.
The trip marks Rowhani’s first visit to the U.N. assembly in his capacity as president, where he will deliver a speech that will be watched by Western governments who are looking for clues that his rhetoric of change and intentions to pursue a new diplomatic approach are genuine.
“The path of sanctions is an unacceptable and unrealistic path. Those who have opted for [sanctions] will not achieve their objectives,” Rowhani told reporters at the airport, the ISNA news agency reported, according to AFP.
The U.N. Security Council has imposed continued sanctions on Iran, which has failed to heed six ultimatums to suspend its uranium enrichment program, suspected by the West to be an undercover drive to develop nuclear weapons.
“Instead of this path, they should choose one that is based on interaction, negotiation and understanding,” said Rowhani, who is said to be moderate by the political norms of Iran.
“There were hands at work in recent years that unfortunately introduced Iran’s image and its culture-loving, peaceful civilisation ... differently,” he said, in a implied criticism of the country’s former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who became a notorious figure at the U.N. for his vehement and impassioned anti-American speeches.
As part of an attempt to boost the Islamic republic’s image, Rowhani’s delegation includes Jewish Iranian parliament member.
Rowhani took office in June after his a campaign where he promised to fix the country’s strained relationships with the international community, and to work on repairing Iran’s ailing economy.
However, Obama’s administration warned on Friday that while a step in the right direction, Iran’s apparent foreign policy softening were not enough for it to consider loosening debilitating sanctions on Iran’s oil and financial sectors that Rowhani has said that he wants eased.
Rowhani is scheduled to meet with French President Francois Hollande Tuesday on the sidelines of the U.N. assembly, which would mark the first high-ranking meeting between an Iranian leader and Western head of state in almost a decade, according to Iranian media.
Rowhani will be joined in New York by his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who will join the five permanent U.N. Security members with veto powers as well as Germany for talks over Iran’s nuclear program, said the EU’s head of foreign policy Catherine Ashton on Monday.
“We talked about a number of important issues that focused on the nuclear issue,” Ashton told reporters after meeting Zarif ahead of this week’s U.N. General Assembly session in New York, saying that their discussions were “good and constructive,” according to Reuters.
Meanwhile, two senior U.S. senators urged President Barack Obama to take a tough line against Iran in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly this week.
Democrat Robert Menendez and Republican Lindsey Graham said in a letter to Obama demanding action from Iran’s government before any possible diplomatic accord could go ahead.
“Whatever nice words we may hear from Mr. Rowhani, it is Iranian action that matters,” said the letter.
(With AFP and Reuters)