NEW YORK – The Obama administration edged close to direct, high-level talks with Irans new government Monday, 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 Irans 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.
The election of Rouhani, a moderate cleric, has led to speculation about possible progress on Irans nuclear impasse with the U.S. Particularly intriguing to American officials are Rouhanis assertions that his government has complete authority in nuclear negotiations.
That would be a marked change from previous governments and their relationship with Irans 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 Rouhanis change in tone is driven by the Iranian publics 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.
State Department officials said Kerry would seek to answer that question Thursday when new Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif joins nuclear talks between the U.S. and five other world powers.