All eyes were on New York City this week as today marked the first time that Presidents Obama and Rouhani would come together and share their visions for diplomacy at the UN General Assembly. While there is still a lot of work to be done to get to a nuclear deal, both sides made it clear that the potential for productive negotiations is there.
President Obama expressed openness, and hit a couple of important notes—acknowledging the horrors Iran has experienced from chemical weapons attacks, and the US’s participation in the 1953 coup.
Since I took office, I have made it clear – in letters to the Supreme Leader in Iran and more recently to President Rouhani – that America prefers to resolve our concerns over Iran’s nuclear program peacefully, but that we are determined to prevent them from developing a nuclear weapon. We are not seeking regime change, and we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy. Instead, we insist that the Iranian government meet its responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and UN Security Council resolutions.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Leader has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons, and President Rouhani has just recently reiterated that the Islamic Republic will never develop a nuclear weapon.
These statements made by our respective governments should offer the basis for a meaningful agreement. 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. To succeed, conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable. After all, it is the Iranian government’s choices that have led to the comprehensive sanctions that are currently in place. This isn’t simply an issue between America and Iran – the world has seen Iran evade its responsibilities in the past, and has an abiding interest in making sure that Iran meets its obligations in the future.
Rouhani’s speech was carefully calibrated for his domestic audience as well as the global leaders in attendance, but he set a much different tone than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In this context, the Islamic Republic of Iran, insisting on the implementation of its rights and the imperative of international respect and cooperation in this exercise, is prepared to engage immediately in time-bound and result-oriented talks to build mutual confidence and removal of mutual uncertainties with full transparency.
Iran seeks constructive engagement with other countries based on mutual respect and common interest, and within the same framework does not seek to increase tensions with the United States. I listened carefully to the statement made by President Obama today at the General Assembly. Commensurate with the political will of the leadership in the United States and hoping that they will refrain from following the short-sighted interest of warmongering pressure groups, we can arrive at a framework to manage our differences.
There was quite a bit of hype before the UNGA about a possible meeting between Obama and Rouhani (which we joined in encouraging), but ultimately it was a step too far after more than three decades of tension. Kaveh Waddell writes in The Atlantic about why it’s OK that the two didn’t meet this time around:
For this reason, Iran experts are watching for any indication that Rouhani’s pitch for diplomacy is being undermined from home. Yesterday’s failed meeting is not that signal. The decision to pull out of the meeting, when viewed alongside serious conversations with another Western leader, a reassuring speech in front of the General Assembly, and a candid interview on CNN, does not contradict Iran’s stated commitment to international engagement. If Iran’s overtures were nothing more than symbolic, an empty gesture like a photo op with Obama would have been a low-risk move. But Rouhani’s calculated, measured approach to a historic détente gives reason to hope that the Supreme Leader is, for now, still behind him.
Important steps are still taking place, including the highest level talks between our governments in more than 30 years. The challenge now will be to build support for patient, effective diplomacy and make sure Congress doesn’t undermine it.