NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — President Barack Obama on Tuesday welcomed the new Iranian government’s pursuit of a “more moderate course,” saying it should offer the basis for a breakthrough on Iran’s nuclear impasse with the United Nations and the U.S.
He signaled a willingness to directly engage Iran’s leaders, tasking Secretary of State John Kerry with pursuing that diplomacy with Tehran.
“The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested,” Obama said during an address to the U.N. General Assembly.
Obama said recent statements by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate cleric elected in June, should offer the basis for a meaningful agreement on Iran’s disputed nuclear program.
But Obama, reflecting the skepticism of many in the U.S. and around the world, said Rouhani’s “conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable.”
The heads of each government have not met face to face since 1979.
In his address to the General Assembly, Rouhani reiterated Iran’s right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to enrich uranium — a process that can be used to produce fuel for both weapons or energy.
“Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran’s security and defense doctrine, and contradict our fundamental religious and ethical convictions,” he said. “Our national interests make it imperative that we remove any and all reasonable concerns about Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.”
Rouhani said he listened to Obama’s speech and is also open to talks with the United States “to manage differences.”
“To this end, equal footing, mutual respect and the recognized principles of international law should govern the interactions,” he said.
As CBS 2’s Dick Brennan reported, Obama and Rouhani won’t meet this week. Kerry, however, could meet with Iran’s new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on Thursday.
The president attended a lunch with world leaders at U.N. headquarters in Manhattan on Tuesday, but there was no sign of Rouhani. According to Iran’s state-run news agency, Rouhani skipped the lunch because alcohol was being served, but U.S. officials say a face-to-face encounter with Obama would have been controversial for Rouhani back in Iran.
Meanwhile, some critics say the Obama administration is better off not dealing with the Iranian president.
“This is a man, after all, who is presiding over a regime that is still engaged in terrorism; still engaged in various acts of subversion, including in our own hemisphere; still engaged in efforts to build and proliferate chemical weapons, biological weapons, even nuclear weapons,” said Frank Gaffney, former U.S. assistant secretary of defense.
The flurry of friendly gestures between the U.S. and Iran’s new government overshadowed the situation in Syria on Tuesday.
In his speech, Obama issued a stern message to the international body itself, saying its ability to meet the test of the times is being challenged by the dispute over what to do about Syria’s chemical weapons.
He called on the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution that would enforce consequences on Syrian President Bashar Assad if he fails to follow a U.S.-Russian deal to turn his chemical weapon stockpiles over to the international community.
The president also addressed criticism of his shifting strategy for responding to an August chemical weapons attack in Syria. The U.S. seemed on the brink of a military strike before Obama abruptly decided to seek congressional approval, then joined the Russians in pursuing a diplomatic resolution.
“The situation in Syria mirrors a contradiction that has persisted in the region for decades: The United States is chastised for meddling in the region and accused of having a hand in all manner of conspiracy,” he said. “At the same time, the United States is blamed for failing to do enough to solve the region’s problems, and for showing indifference toward suffering Muslim populations.”
Obama announced that the United States would provide $339 million in additional humanitarian aid to refugees and countries affected by the Syrian civil war, bringing the total U.S. aid devoted to that crisis to nearly $1.4 billion.
Rouhani warned that the threat or use of force in Syria “will only lead to further exacerbation of violence and crisis in the region.”
Iran is one of the Syrian regime’s staunchest allies, and Syria’s leaders often blame terrorist and extremist groups for the country’s civil war.
Secretary General Thanks New Yorkers For Dealing With Traffic
With so many heads of state in town at once, street closures and traffic are a staple of the General Assembly each year. On Tuesday, U.N. Secretary of General Ban Ki-moon unexpectedly offered his gratitude to New Yorkers.
In his address to the General Assembly, Ban said thank you “to all New Yorkers for their extraordinary patience this week with the traffic, mainly caused by all of your visit.”
As CBS 2’s Hazel Sanchez reported, Ban’s remarks rang hollow with city residents — most of whom didn’t seem to know who he is.
“Monkey Moon who?” said a man wearing a UPS uniform in an successful attempt to repeat the secretary general’s name.
“Well, tell him try not to do this again next year,” he added.
Ban’s gratitude also did not prevent residents from still venting about the traffic.
“It’s crowded,” one motorist said. “You can’t get from Point A to Point B in the time you want it.”
Foot traffic is no walk in the park either, said Henry Hocherman, who lives near the United Nations’ headquarters.
“It really is disruptive,” he said. “But it’s part of the city.”
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