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Nod toward diplomacy with Iran changes UN tone

September 24, 2013

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A year after Iran and the West appeared headed for conflict over Tehran’s nuclear program, a shift in mood could be felt at the United Nations on Tuesday, and officials and commentators raised hopes of a diplomatic breakthrough under the Islamic republic’s new moderate-leaning president.

In a speech at the U.N., President Barack Obama reached out to Iran’s new president, Hasan Rouhani, as a possible force for positive change in relations with the West.

He lauded the “more moderate course” endorsed by Rouhani, who succeeded the combative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June elections. Obama said Rouhani could be a partner in trying to break the impasse over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested,” Obama told the General Assembly.

Israel, however, stood apart with sharp questions about the sincerity of Iran’s expressed desire to work with the West.

“The world shouldn’t be fooled,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who urged a “genuine diplomatic solution” that fully dismantles Iran’s ability to work toward a nuclear weapon — an apparent reference to uranium enrichment.

“We will not be fooled by half measures” that would maintain the chief capabilities of Iran’s nuclear program, he said.

Rouhani was scheduled to address the U.N. gathering later in the day. But in Tehran, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said a “new era” was at hand for the stalled nuclear negotiations.

Iran’s U.S.-educated Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is expected to meet on Thursday with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and counterparts from the other permanent Security Council members plus Germany to discuss the possibility of reviving the negotiations, which were last held in April after making little headway.

Rouhani is seeking to restart the negotiations — and appears to have crucial backing from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — with the aim of coaxing the U.S. and allies to ease painful sanctions. The West has previously resisted making such offers, believing that the pressure on Iran’s economy was the best way to force concessions.

A post on Zarif’s Twitter account noted “a historic opportunity to resolve the nuclear issue.” But it said Washington, along with other world powers, needs “to adjust its posture commensurate with the new Iranian approach.”

A prominent Iranian blogger based in Washington, Negar Mortazavi, posted on Twitter: “Even if Rouhani and Obama don’t physically shake hands in public, the dialogue has already started behind the scenes.”

She said of Obama’s outreach: “Kudos.”

Iran insists it will not give up its ability to enrich uranium to make nuclear fuel, which the West fears could eventually provide material for a nuclear warhead. Iran says it is only seeking to produce energy and isotopes for medical treatments.

Suzanne Maloney, an Iranian affairs specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington, noted there were no major openings to Iran in Obama’s address, but it was “interesting to hear positive linkage.”

For Iranians, an important point in Obama’s speech was the mention of the “many tens of thousands” of Iranians who suffered in chemical attacks during the 1980-88 war with Iraqi forces under Saddam Hussein, who was backed at the time by Washington. It is likely to be perceived as gesture of the “respect” demanded by leaders in Tehran.

Obama also was clearly reaching beyond Rouhani to Iran’s ruling clerics by declaring that Washington does not seek “regime change” and citing Khamenei’s nearly decade-old religious edict, or fatwa, that describes nuclear arms as contrary to Islamic values.

But Obama’s address was seen live by only a limited audience in Iran. The main Farsi channels on state TV did not carry the speech, which was run by the state-run Arabic-language channel Al Alam and the English-language Press TV.

Before the speech, Iran’s semiofficial Fars news agency reported that a group of students at Tehran University said possible direct talks with Washington should occur only after Obama makes an “official apology” to Iran for past policies, including Washington’s backing of a 1953 coup that toppled a democratically elected government and reinstalled the Western-friendly shah.

The 1979 Islamic Revolution overthrew the shah and destroyed ties between Iran and the United States. Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 hostages for 444 days.

“Diplomacy is in the air,” said David Cortright, director of policy studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. “Not only has a negotiated agreement replaced military threats in Syria, a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran now also seems plausible.”

The overtures between Washington and Tehran have left Israel off balance a year after Netanyahu appeared to be gaining Western backing for possible military action against Iran’s nuclear program.

In a statement, Netanyahu ordered Israeli diplomats to leave the General Assembly during Rouhani’s address, and he dismissed the Iranian president’s “smile offensive” as a smoke screen for Tehran to continue its nuclear work.

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