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We could be friends: Obama and Rouhani reach out--cautiously

President Obama said Tuesday that he would direct Secretary of State John Kerry to pursue negotiations over Iran's nuclear program and expressed confidence
68th Session Of The United Nations General Assembly Begins
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks with attendees during a luncheon for delegates and heads of state at the United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly on...

President Obama said Tuesday that he would direct Secretary of State John Kerry to pursue negotiations over Iran's nuclear program and expressed confidence about the chances for a diplomatic solution.

"We should be able to achieve a resolution that respects the rights of the Iranian people, while giving the world confidence that the Iranian program is peaceful," Obama declared in a wide-ranging speech to the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday, in which he also called for the continued pursuit of a UN resolution on Syria's chemical weapons.

Obama, speaking hours before Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, said a deal on nuclear issues could serve as a platform for a broader U.S.-Iran understanding.

"[I]f we can resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road towards a different relationship--one based on mutual interests and mutual respect," he said.

But he reaffirmed that that the U.S. would not allow Iran to acquire nukes.

"Since I took office, I have made it clear—in letters to the Supreme Leader in Iran and more recently to President Rouhani—that America prefers to resolve our concerns over Iran's nuclear program peacefully," he said. "But that we are determined to prevent them from developing a nuclear weapon."

Rouhani himself, in his first address to the UN, said that “Iran seeks to resolve problems, not to create them” and that he was confident his country and the U.S. “can arrive at framework to manage our differences.”

He insisted that the country’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. “Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran’s security and defense doctrine,” he said.

Obama laid out U.S. policy for the Middle East and North Africa for the remainder of his time in office, making clear that despite his support for engagement, he wouldn't hesitate to use force when necessary to protect U.S. interests.

"The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure these core interests in the region," Obama said.

On Syria, Obama called again for a U.N. resolution to verify that the Assad regime is complying with a Russian-brokered deal to destroy its chemical weapons, adding: "There must be consequences if they fail to do so."

"If we cannot agree even on this, then it will show that the U.N. is incapable of enforcing even the most basic international laws," Obama added.

Obama shrewdly invoked past mass slaughters of both Jews and Iranians in arguing for a hard line on chemical weapons.

"The ban against the use of chemical weapons, even in war, has been agreed to by 98% of humanity," he said. "It is strengthened by the searing memories of soldiers suffocated in the trenches; Jews slaughtered in gas chambers; and Iranians poisoned in the many tens of thousands."

Late last month, in response to a chemical weapons attack that killed more than 1000 people in a rebel-held area outside Damascus, Obama called for U.S. airstrikes against the regime, but said he would ask Congress for authorization before acting. Lawmakers have appeared deeply skeptical, and a vote is on hold while the international diplomatic process proceeds.

Obama said that though the U.S. wants a political solution to the Syrian civil war, Assad--"a leader who has slaughtered citizens"--should not remain in power.

"The notion that Syria can somehow return to a prewar status quo is a fantasy," Obama said.

With regard to the Middle East peace process, Obama noted the opportunity presented by the decision over the summer by the Israelis and Palestinians—after talks with Kerry—to enter into direct negotiations.

"The time is now ripe for the entire international community to get behind the pursuit of peace," Obama said.

No official meeting is scheduled between Obama and Rouhani, the White House has said. But thanks to the recent signs of a cautious engagement, that’s prompting speculation that the two leaders could contrive a way to cross paths at the U.N. building—maybe over lunch—perhaps even leading to a historic handshake. Rouhani has reportedly been given the authority to pursue a nuclear deal with the U.S. by Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader.

A “chance” meeting between Obama and Rouhani—who has taken a broadly conciliatory tone toward the U.S. since taking office in August—could say more about the future of the relationship than the formal speeches delivered by either leader. If a handshake does happen, it would be the first between leaders of the two countries since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that soured U.S.-Iran relations.