Iran's president Hassan Rouhani dashes hopes of historic meeting with Barack Obama

US President also tells United Nations General Assembly he has approved discussions with Iran over nuclear weapons

New York

President Barack Obama has cautiously embraced the recent advances by Iranian president Hassan Rouhani on mending fences and re-opening talks on its nuclear programme but hopes of a historic meeting between the two men on the fringes of the United Nations General Assembly vanished when Iran declined.

Emphasising signs of diplomatic thaw on several fronts in the Middle East, Mr Obama also said the ‘time was ripe’ for progress in reborn Israel-Palestinian peace talks. Separately, he also urged the Security Council to overcome its divisions and adopt a resolution to enforce a US-Russian agreement on ridding Syria of chemical arms.

In his fifth speech at the UN as president, Mr Obama welcomed the “more moderate course” articulated by Mr Rouhani who took office in August and said he had instructed his Secretary of State, John Kerry, to begin talks with Iran on resuming nuclear talks. But officials from the White House said an offer by them of a meeting between Mr Obama and Mr Rouhani in New York had been rebuffed. “It was too complicated for them,” one official said.

But on both Iran and the Israeli-Palestine conflict, Mr Obama notably lingered on the possibilities of diplomatic progress. “Real breakthroughs on these two issues … would have a profound and positive impact on the entire Middle East and North Africa,” Mr Obama said. The emphasis on diplomacy was striking coming just weeks after Mr Obama was threatening strikes on Syria.

Noting the long hiatus in Iran-US relations, Mr Obama sounded caution. “I don’t believe this difficult history can be overcome overnight, the suspicions run too deep,” he said. The recent conciliatory words of Mr Rouhani, he said, “will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable.” But he added: “The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested.”

Taking the podium, Mr Rouhani said that “Iran poses absolutely no threat to the world or the region”. But he stopped far short of mere conciliation and spoke of the instincts of a “few actors” seeking domination through military action. Without mentioning the United States or its recent threats against Syria, he said: “The current critical period of transition in international relations is replete with dangers albeit with unique opportunities…  a mistake by one actor will have negative impact on all others. At this sensitive juncture in the history of global relations the age of zero sum game is over. Even over a few actors still tend to rely on deeply archaic ways of old superiority and domination. Militarism and the use of  violence and military means to subjugate are failed examples of the perpetuation of old ways in new circumstances."

Mr Obama used his speech also to give his personal backing to the entirely fragile new negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians early in the summer by Mr Kerry. Talks were set between President Obama and Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, for late Tuesday in New York while Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel will travel to the White House next week.

“The time is now ripe for the entire international community to get behind the pursuit of peace,” Mr Obama said of Israel and Palestine. “President Abbas has put aside efforts to short-cut the pursuit of peace and come to the negotiating table. Prime Minister Netanyahu has released Palestinian prisoners, and reaffirmed his commitment to a Palestinian state,” he said. “Now the rest of us must also be willing to take risks.”

On Syria, Mr Obama did not hide his frustration with the slow going in the Security Council on a resolution to move the chemical weapons accord forward.  “If we cannot agree even on this, then it will show that the UN is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws,” he said. “On the other hand, if we succeed, it will send a powerful message that the use of chemical weapons has no place in the 21st century, and that this body means what it says.”

And without mentioning Russia by name, he chided “allies” of Assad for attempting to argue that the 21 August attack was not the work of his regime. “It’s an insult to human reason and to the legitimacy of this institution to suggest that anyone other the regime carried out this attack,” Mr Obama said. 

Mr Obama insisted the US had no interest in empire-building in the Middle East or attempting again, as it did in Iraq, to impose democracy by military force.  On Syria, he noted; “We are no longer in a Cold War. There’s no Great Game to be won, nor does America have any interest in Syria beyond the well-being of its people, the stability of its neighbors, the elimination of chemical weapons, and ensuring it does not become a safe-haven for terrorists.” 

With Israel in particular suspicious of Iran’s motives, Mr Obama acknowledged a continuing wariness. The recent conciliatory words of Mr Rouhani, “will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable,” he said. Nonetheless, there will now be a bright spotlight on talks scheduled on the fringes of the Assembly here on Thursday between Mr Kerry and his new Iranian opposite number, Mohammed Javad Zarif. They will be expected to set a date for new talks between Iran and five world powers on the nuclear dossier. Even before Mr Obama spoke, Mr Zarif took to Twitter, proclaiming: “We have a historic opportunity to resolve the nuclear issue. 5+1 needs to adjust its posture commensurate with the new Iranian approach.”

Michelle helps Barack to kick smoking habit

President Barack Obama says he hasn’t had a smoke in years – thanks in no small part to first lady Michelle Obama.

Mr Obama was caught on camera chatting privately with a UN official on Monday about quitting smoking. The exchange was then aired on CNN.

When asked about his own cigarette use, Mr Obama said he hadn’t had a cigarette in probably six years.

He added, with a broad grin, “That’s because I’m scared of my wife.”


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