An exchange of letters between US President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has set the stage for a possible meeting between the two men at the UN next week, in what would be the first face-to-face encounter between a US and Iranian leader since Iran’s 1979 revolution.
British Secretary of Foreign Affairs William Hague is also due to meet his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, at the UN General Assembly in New York, adding to guarded optimism that the June election of Rouhani, a Glasgow-educated moderate, and his appointment of a largely pragmatic Cabinet, has opened the door to a diplomatic solution to the 11-year standoff over Iran’s nuclear program.
Tehran took the UK Foreign Office by surprise, tweeting on Rouhani’s English-language feed that the president would also be prepared to meet Hague, something the UK had not even requested.
“Tehran has responded positively to UK’s request. President Rouhani’s meeting w/WilliamJHague on the sidelines of UNGA has been confirmed,” the tweet said.
“We would be happy to meet, but we have had nothing formal from Tehran about it,” a British Foreign Office spokeswoman said.
Diplomats said that the tweet reflected the new Iranian government’s eagerness to make diplomatic headway on the nuclear issue, which has been at an impasse for several years. A Hague meeting with either Rouhani or Zarif could clear the way to restoring full diplomatic ties, which have not existed since the British embassy in Tehran was ransacked by a mob in November 2011.
In a television interview aired on Sunday, Obama made clear that there was a diplomatic opening with Iran, not only over the nuclear question, but also over Syria. He confirmed reports that he and Rouhani had “reached out” to each other, exchanging letters.
US officials were skeptical about a Rouhani meeting, but some observers said the Geneva deal on Syria’s chemical weapons has opened new space for diplomacy.
National Iranian American Council president Trita Parsi, an expert on US-Iran diplomacy, said: “I think there is a chance [of a meeting]. It would be a strong political push for movement. If Obama got involved, it would be the infusion of political will needed to reach an agreement.”
“Tehran is already claiming some of the credit for the Syria deal. Rouhani needs to show that through his diplomatic efforts he has already avoided a war. He is desperate in his first six months to show his approach has paid more dividends than the hardline approach of his predecessor,” Parsi said.
Parsi added that if Obama was to meet Rouhani, it was likely to be an orchestrated encounter in a corridor, rather than a sit-down talk, “to give both sides deniability.”
The last encounter between a US and Iranian leader was when then-US president Jimmy Carter met Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1977.
Speaking on ABC News, Obama raised the prospect of Iran getting involved in broader talks on Syria if Tehran recognized “that what’s happening there is a train wreck that hurts not just Syrians, but is destabilizing the entire region.”
He said the Geneva deal could pave the way for more general talks involving Russia and Iran aimed at “some sort of political settlement that would deal with the underlying terrible conflict.”
In the same interview, Obama also urged Iran’s leadership not to draw the wrong lessons from his decision to draw back from air strikes on Syria.