NEW YORK — The Obama administration edged close to direct, high-level talks with Iran's new government yesterday, with Secretary of State John Kerry slated to meet his Iranian counterpart this week and the White House weighing the risks and rewards of an encounter between President Barack Obama and Iran's president, Hasan Rouhani.
An Obama-Rouhani exchange on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly would mark the first meeting at that high level for the two nations in more than 30 years. Such talks could signal a turning point in U.S.-Iranian relations — but also could be seen as a premature endorsement for a new Iranian government that has yet to answer key questions about the future of its disputed nuclear program.
Obama advisers said no meeting was scheduled. But they added that the U.S. planned to take advantage of diplomatic opportunities while in New York and indicated they were not leaving a possible encounter between Obama and Rouhani to chance.
"I don't think that anything would happen by happenstance on a relationship and an issue that is this important," Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, told reporters traveling with the president to New York.
The election of Rouhani, a moderate cleric, has led to speculation about possible progress on Iran's nuclear impasse with the U.S. Particularly intriguing to American officials are Rouhani's assertions that his government has "complete authority" in nuclear negotiations. That would be a marked change from previous governments and their relationship with Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The U.S. and its allies have long suspected that Iran is trying to produce a nuclear weapon, though Tehran insists its nuclear activities are only for producing energy and for medical research.
American officials say Rouhani's change in tone is driven by the Iranian public's frustration with crippling economic sanctions levied by the U.S. But it is still unclear whether Iran is willing to take the steps the U.S. is seeking in order to ease the sanctions, including curbing uranium enrichment and shutting down the underground Fordo nuclear facility.