Obama administration weighs Iran talks at U.N.

Iran presidential candidate Hassan Rohani

WASHINGTON—The Obama administration is preparing for high-level meetings next week with the Iranian government on its nuclear ambitions and is open to a direct exchange between President Barack Obama and Iran’s new president, Hasan Rouhani, at the United Nations, according to senior U.S. officials.

The recent softening between Washington and Tehran gained new momentum with the release by Iran in recent days of 11 political prisoners, including a prominent human-rights lawyer freed on Wednesday. The releases were seen as a signal to Washington of a desire for better relations on the eve of Mr. Rouhani’s first visit as president to the annual gathering of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly.

Both Messrs. Rouhani and Obama will address the General Assembly in New York on Tuesday.

White House officials said Mr. Obama currently has no planned meeting with Mr. Rouhani. But the two sides have communicated ahead of what could be the first face-to-face interaction between an American and a president of the Islamic republic.

Relations are so poor, officials said, that even a handshake would mark a significant turning point. No American president has met a top Iranian leader since Islamic radicals overthrew the pro-American Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979.

Recent contacts have been at much lower levels. Wendy Sherman, the top U.S. nuclear negotiator, had brief encounters with Iran’s former nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, on the sidelines of international talks earlier this year. The U.S. had more direct talks with Iran in 2007 in Baghdad, when the former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, met with his Iranian counterpart as part of trilateral talks between Iran, Iraq and the U.S. aimed at stabilizing Iraq’s civil war.

“We remain ready to engage with the Rouhani government on the basis of mutual respect to achieve a peaceful resolution to the nuclear issue,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday.

In an interview with NBC News aired Wednesday, Mr. Rouhani said he was empowered by Iran’s most powerful figure, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to cut a deal with the West on the nuclear issue, according to a transcript. He also reiterated Iran’s position that it has no intention of developing nuclear weapons.

“We have time and again said that under no circumstances would we seek any weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, nor will we ever,” he said.

Any approach to the Iranians poses potential perils to Mr. Obama, whose Middle East policies have drawn criticism, especially amid the tumult of the Arab Spring revolutions.

Mr. Rouhani has said his top priority is to ease punitive sanctions in place against Iran over its nuclear program, while the West wants to continue them. A meeting between U.S. and Iranian officials runs the risk of undermining painstaking international efforts to pressure Iran.

A senior administration official said that even if no direct exchange occurs between Messrs. Obama and Rouhani, the tenor of relations between the U.S. and Iran seems to be improving.

“The tone of confrontation has significantly diminished,” the senior administration official said. “We’re in the early stages here of testing whether or not this is real.”

U.S. officials said Iran’s new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has also communicated to Washington his desire to meet with senior American officials.

Mr. Zarif has engaged in more direct dealings with the U.S. than any senior Iranian official.

The U.S.-educated diplomat is a former Iranian ambassador to the U.N. and coordinated closely with the George W. Bush administration in putting in place Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban government in 2001.

Mr. Zarif worked particularly closely with James Dobbins, now the Obama administration’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to U.S. officials.

“Zarif has been communicating his hopes for a number of meetings,” said a second senior U.S. official briefed on the exchanges.

Washington and Tehran have intensified their communications since Mr. Rouhani was elected by a landslide to succeed Iran’s hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June.

Messrs. Obama and Rouhani have exchanged letters expressing their desires to improve diplomatic relations, which have been frozen for more than three decades, according to U.S. officials. They also said their governments are committed to resolving peacefully the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program, though Mr. Obama has stressed that he also retains the right to use force.

Mr. Rouhani’s government has been seeking to present a much more moderate face to the world than Mr. Ahmadinejad did.

Earlier this month, Mr. Rouhani expressed best wishes to Jews celebrating the Rosh Hashana New Year via his Twitter account. Mr. Zarif, meanwhile, distanced Tehran from Mr. Ahmadinejad’s repeated questioning of historical facts surrounding the Holocaust.

The gathering of world leaders next week presents Tehran with a unique opportunity, and the Iranian government has been seeking to make the most of it.

The 64-year-old cleric already has committed to giving a number of television interviews to American networks. He’s also set to meet top U.S. media executives and editors and to address the Asia Society in New York next Thursday.

In the NBC interview, Mr. Rouhani also said he seeks to develop good relations with Mr. Obama. “From my point of view, the tone of the letter was positive and constructive,” Mr. Rouhani said of the letter Mr. Obama sent to him.

Mr. Obama suggested this week the U.S. should “test” Mr. Rouhani’s softer rhetoric by seeing if the Tehran would demonstrate that it is not trying to build nuclear weapons.

“There is an opportunity here for diplomacy,” Mr. Obama said Tuesday in an interview with the Telemundo network. “I hope the Iranians take advantage of it.”

U.S., European and Middle East-based officials, however, said they remained cautious about any major changes in Iran’s policies under Mr. Rouhani.

Iranian officials in recent weeks have said they remain committed to advancing Iran’s nuclear program, though Mr. Rouhani has indicated a potential willingness to address more directly the West’s concerns that Tehran is seeking atomic weapons.

U.S. officials note that Iran’s nuclear policy remains firmly under the control of Mr. Khamenei, who has shown little willingness to make compromises.

Iran also remains the primary military and financial supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said U.S. officials.

Iran has deployed commanders from its elite military unit, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, in Syria to buttress Mr. Assad’s forces, according to Iranian military officials. Tehran is also training thousands of fighters from Arab countries, including Lebanon and Iraq, for operations inside Syria.

U.S. and European officials said a key test at next week’s U.N. meetings is how Iran engages diplomatically on the nuclear issue.

The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany, have been holding direct talks with Tehran for nearly five years in a bid to contain Iran’s nuclear work. Despite the diplomacy, Tehran has significantly advanced its nuclear capabilities and moved closer to being able to produce weapons-grade fuel.

U.S. and European officials are hoping to stage a meeting between Iran and the diplomatic bloc, called the P5+1, on the sidelines of next week’s U.N. events. Mr. Zarif, the foreign minister, is now leading Iran’s nuclear negotiating team.

U.S. officials said it was likely Mrs. Sherman would hold discussions with Mr. Zarif as part of this meeting.

U.S. officials said they’re going to be closely watching Mr. Rouhani’s speech for signals on the nuclear issue. The senior administration official said the U.S. isn’t expecting to engage in a coordinated walkout during the Iranian leader’s speech at the U.N., as has happened in the past.

“It’ll be interesting to see how forward-leaning he is in his speech,” the official said.

U.S. officials and human rights activists were encouraged by the Rouhani government’s decision to release 11 political detainees from Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. The prominent human-rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was among the three men and eight women freed over the past two days.

Ms. Sotoudeh was arrested by Iranian security forces in 2010 and sentenced to 11 years in prison on charges of acting against Iran’s national security. The sentence was later reduced to six years.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including both Republicans and Democrats, are urging Mr. Obama to be cautious in engaging Mr. Rouhani, particularly as previous attempts to embrace moderate Iranian politicians have failed.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said that before the U.S. engages the new Iranian government, officials should, in consultation with the Israelis, quietly propose several steps Tehran would have to take before direct U.S.-Iran negotiations could take place.

“If I were President Obama I wouldn’t elevate this guy until I had a good reason to do so. He’d have to show me something other than words and releasing a few prisoners,” Mr. Graham said. “The president would make a huge mistake if he started talking to the Iranian regime without something verifiable.”

Farnaz Fassihi contributed to this article.

By The Wall Street Journal


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