US President Barack Obama on Tuesday cautiously embraced overtures from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as the basis for a possible nuclear deal, but a failed effort to arrange a simple handshake between the two leaders underscored entrenched distrust that will be hard to overcome.
In a speech to the UN, Obama said he was determined to test Rouhani’s recent diplomatic gestures and challenged him to take concrete steps toward resolving Iran’s long-running nuclear dispute with the West.
Hours later, Rouhani used his debut at the world body to pledge Iran’s willingness to engage immediately in “time-bound” talks on the nuclear issue but he offered no new concessions and repeated many of Iran’s grievances against the US, and Washington’s key Middle East ally, Israel.
Rouhani told CNN he did not meet Obama at the UN General Assembly because the two sides “didn’t have sufficient time to really coordinate the meeting.”
However, he said the environment was changing because Iranians wanted “a new era of relations” with the people of the rest of the world.
He then switched to English and said with a smile: “I would like to say to American people, I bring peace and friendship from Iranians to Americans.”
A senior US official said the difficulty in arranging the handshake had been on the Iranian side.
The failed handshake was a sign of the difficulties the US and Iran countries face in trying to seize a historic opening after decades of hostility.
Even a brief meeting would have been symbolically important given that it would have been the first face-to-face contact between US and Iranian heads of government since before the 1979 Islamic revolution that ousted the US-backed shah.
Rouhani’s gestures since taking office last month, including agreeing to renew long-stalled talks with world powers on Iran’s nuclear program, have raised hopes for a thaw in relations between Washington and Tehran after years of estrangement.
However, even as Obama welcomed signs of a “more moderate course” by Iran, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the world should not be fooled by Rouhani’s “soothing words.”
The Israeli leader said Iran was trying to mask its continued quest for a nuclear bomb, something Tehran denies it is seeking.
After Rouhani’s speech, the Israeli leader described the address as a “cynical” attempt to buy time to develop a nuclear weapons capability.
Skepticism about Rouhani’s intentions have cast doubt on the prospect for any immediate breakthrough between Washington and Tehran.
Seeking to keep expectations under control, Obama said suspicions between Iran and the US were too great to believe their troubled history can be overcome overnight.
Obama suggested though that Rouhani’s overtures could “offer the basis for a meaningful agreement” to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions and said he had instructed US Secretary of State John Kerry to press a diplomatic effort along with other world powers.
He cited resolving the Iranian nuclear standoff and reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal as the key US objectives in the Middle East.
For his part, Rouhani said in his speech that Iran was prepared to work on a framework for managing differences with the US and that he hoped Obama would show the political will to resist “warmongering pressure groups” on the nuclear issue.