UNITED NATIONS - Hopeful yet unyielding, President Barack Obama and new Iranian President Hasan Rouhani both spoke up fervently for improved relations and a resumption of stalled nuclear talks Tuesday at the U.N. - but gave no ground on the long-held positions that have scuttled previous attempts to break the impasse.
The leaders' separate appearances at the United Nations General Assembly came amid heightened speculation about a thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations following the election of Rouhani, a more-moderate sounding cleric. In fact, officials from both countries had quietly negotiated the possibility of a brief meeting between Obama and Rouhani.
But U.S. officials said the Iranians told them Tuesday that an encounter would be "too complicated" given uncertainty about how it would be received in Tehran. Instead, Obama and Rouhani traded their public messages during addresses hours apart at the annual U.N. meetings.
Obama declared that it was worth pursuing diplomacy with Iran even though skepticism persists about Tehran's willingness to back up its recent overtures with concrete actions to answer strong concerns at the U.N. and in many nations that the Iranians are working to develop a nuclear bomb.
"The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested," Obama said. He added that he while he was "encouraged" by Rouhani's election, the new president's "conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable."
Rouhani, making his international debut, said Iran was ready to enter talks "without delay" and insisted his country was not interested in escalating tensions with the U.S. He said Iran must retain the right to enrich uranium, but he vigorously denied that his country was seeking to build a nuclear weapon.
"Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran's security and defense doctrine, and contradict our fundamental religious and ethnical convictions," Rouhani declared. "Our national interests make it imperative that we remove any and all reasonable concerns about Iran's peaceful nuclear program."
He strongly criticized the economic sanctions that have been imposed on Iran as part of the effort to persuade its leaders to open its nuclear programs to international inspection. The sanctions have badly hurt Iran's economy, and Rouhani called them "violent" in their impact. He also said that U.S. drone strikes that kill civilians in the name of fighting terrorism should be condemned.
U.S. officials said they were not surprised to see Rouhani publicly stake out those positions on the international stage. Still, they say they see him as a more moderate leader elected by an Iranian public frustrated by international isolation and the crippling sanctions.
However, the Obama administration is unclear whether Rouhani is willing to take the steps the U.S. is seeking in order to ease the sanctions, including curbing uranium enrichment and closing the underground Fordo nuclear facility.
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.
Even without a meeting between Obama and Rouhani, it was clear that the U.S. and Iran were edging close to direct talks. Obama said he was tasking Secretary of State John Kerry with pursuing the prospect of a nuclear agreement with Iran. Kerry, along with representatives from five other world powers, is to meet Thursday with Iran's new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.
If Kerry and Zarif hold one-on-one talks on the sidelines of that meeting, it would mark the first direct engagement in six years between a U.S. secretary of state and an Iranian foreign minister. A spokeswoman for Zarif said Thursday's meeting indeed would mark the beginning of a "new era" in relations with the West.
Rouhani did hold a formal bilateral meeting Tuesday with French President Francois Hollande, whose country is among the Western nations that have been seeking a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear dispute. It was the first meeting of French and Iranian presidents since 2005, when Jacques Chirac hosted Mohammad Khatami in Paris.
The potential for direct engagement between the U.S. and Iran was being closely watched by Israel, which has long sought tough punishments against Tehran in retaliation for its nuclear program. Following Rouhani's speech, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused him of "hypocrisy" and said the new Iranian leader showed no sign of halting his nuclear program.
"This is precisely the Iranian intention, to talk and buy time in order to advance its ability to achieve nuclear weapons," Netanyahu said.
Obama will seek to allay Netanyahu's concerns next week, when the Israeli leader visits the White House. Ahead of that visit, Obama signaled that any transformation in the American relationship with Iran would take time.
"The suspicion runs too deep," he said. "But I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road toward a different relationship, one based on mutual interests and mutual respect."
Obama first reached out to Rouhani this summer, with a letter congratulating him on his election and expressing urgency in resolving their nuclear disagreement before a diplomatic window closes. Rouhani responded with a letter of his own, thanking Obama for his outreach. In subsequent interviews, Rouhani also has suggested an interest in a new start between the U.S. and Iran.
In the days leading up to Obama's and Rouhani's appearances at the U.N., American and Iranian officials were negotiating the possibility of a brief encounter between the leaders, Obama administration officials said. The last time an American and Iranian leader met was in 1977, before the U.S. cut off diplomatic ties with Tehran following the Islamic revolution and the siege of the American Embassy.
The officials said the White House was open to the exchange, but the Iranians told them Tuesday that they couldn't have a leadership-level meeting at this point.
"The Iranians have an internal dynamic that they have to manage and the relationship with the United States is clearly quite different than the relationship that Iran has with other Western nations," one senior administration official said. That official spoke only on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the U.S. view by name.