The White House had offered to have “an encounter” between the two leaders on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, but Iranian officials ultimately declined.
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U.S. and Iranian officials had been discussing the possibility of an Obama-Rouhani meeting for days, an official said. Ultimately, though, “it was clear that it was too complicated for them.”
Rouhani skipped a lunch at the United Nations that offered him and Obama the most likely chance of an informal meeting, as both leaders signal willingness to engage in new talks.
While Obama and Rouhani did not meet face-to-face while in New York, the two have taken steps to thaw the U.S.-Iran relationship, exchanging letters in recent weeks. On Tuesday morning, Obama publicly reached out to Iran.
“The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested,” he told the General Assembly. “For while the status quo will only deepen Iran’s isolation, Iran’s genuine commitment to go down a different path will be good for the region and the world, and will help the Iranian people meet their extraordinary potential — in commerce and culture, in science and education.”
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While U.S.-Iran “mistrust has deep roots” dating back more than three decades, Obama said he is open to cautious cooperation. “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 towards a different relationship, one based on mutual interests and mutual respect,” he said.
Given Rouhani’s expressed willingness to engage in talks, Obama has asked Secretary of State John Kerry to lead U.S. efforts, working with the European Union, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China.
Rouhani was not in the hall for Obama’s speech, though a delegation led by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif did watch the president speak. Reporters in the room didn’t see the delegation visibly respond to Obama’s offer of a new round of diplomacy.
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Had Obama and Rouhani met, it would have been the first time that a U.S. president and a leader of Iran had met face-to-face since Dec. 31, 1977, when President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, were New Year’s Eve guests of the Shah. Carter praised his host for leading “an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world,” and for cooperating closely with the United States on foreign policy.
Within weeks, protests against the Shah intensified and, in early 1979, he was forced into exile. Later that year, Iranians took control of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held Americans hostage there for 444 days. In the three decades since, U.S.-Iran diplomatic interactions have been minimal.