WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama and Iran's new president Hasan Rouhani may meet briefly next week for the first time, marking a symbolic but significant step toward easing their countries' tense relationship.
An exchange of letters between the leaders already has raised expectations for a revival of stalled nuclear talks, though Iran is still likely to seek an easing of international sanctions in exchange for significant progress.
In small steps and encouraging statements, Iran's leaders appear to be opening a door more widely to detente in their nuclear dispute with the US. Cautiously optimistic yet still skeptical, Washington is weighing whether Iranian President Rouhani's recent overtures actually represent new policies or just new packaging.
''Negotiations with the Iranians is always difficult,'' President Barack Obama said in a recent interview with ABC News. ''I think this new president is not going to suddenly make it easy. But, you know, my view is that if you have both a credible threat of force, combined with a rigorous diplomatic effort, that, in fact, you can strike a deal.''
Both Obama and Rouhani will be in New York next week for the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly. The White House has not ruled out the possibility of a direct exchange, though spokesman Jay Carney said no meeting is scheduled.
Obama has long said he would be open to discussions with his Iranian counterparts if Tehran shows it is serious about curbing its nuclear program. ''There have been a lot of interesting things said out of Tehran and the new government – and encouraging things,'' Carney said Thursday. ''But actions speak louder than words.''
Iran has repeatedly said it wants sanctions eased as a first step to make any significant progress in nuclear negotiations. Sanctions levied by the US and Europe have contributed to a rapid rise in inflation and unemployment in Iran.
Tehran insists its nuclear program is peaceful and that it is enriching uranium to levels needed for medical isotopes and reactor fuel. But Western powers, including the US, fear Iran is trying to build a nuclear bomb.
Whether any headway is made on the nuclear issue could hinge on how the US and Iran handle negotiations to dismantle Syria's vast chemical weapons stockpile. Iran is the chief benefactor to Syria, where an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack on Damascus suburbs killed as many as 1,400 people, according to US and Western intelligence agencies, who blame the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Yet Iran has been vociferous in its condemnation of chemical weapons attacks in Syria. In an op-ed article published in Thursday's Washington Post, Rouhani said Syria ''has become the scene of heartbreaking violence'' and pledged to help facilitate dialogue between Assad's regime and the rebel opposition.
''But to move beyond impasses, whether in relation to Syria, my country's nuclear program or its relations with the United States, we need to aim higher,'' Rouhani wrote.
''Rather than focusing on how to prevent things from getting worse, we need to think – and talk – about how to make things better. To do that, we all need to muster the courage to start conveying what we want – clearly, concisely and sincerely – and to back it up with the political will to take necessary action.''