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US and Iran eye diplomatic defrosting at UN

By Lara Jakes

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Sept. 20 2013 9:49 a.m. MDT

In this Aug. 15, 2013, file photo, Iranian President Hasan Rouhani speaks during the debate on the proposed Cabinet at the parliament, in Tehran, Iran.

Ebrahim Noroozi, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON — The presidents of America and Iran may meet briefly next week for the first time, marking a symbolic but significant step toward easing their countries' tense relationship. An exchange of letters between the leaders already has raised expectations for a revival of stalled nuclear talks, though Iran is still likely to seek an easing of international sanctions in exchange for significant progress.

In small steps and encouraging statements, Iran's leaders appear to be opening wider a door to detente in their nuclear dispute with the U.S. Cautiously optimistic yet still skeptical, Washington is weighing whether Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's recent overtures actually represent new policies or just new packaging.

"Negotiations with the Iranians is always difficult," President Barack Obama said in a recent interview with ABC News. "I think this new president is not going to suddenly make it easy. But, you know, my view is that if you have both a credible threat of force, combined with a rigorous diplomatic effort, that, in fact, you can strike a deal."

Both Obama and Rouhani will be in New York next week for the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly. The White House hasn't ruled out the possibility of a direct exchange, though spokesman Jay Carney said no meeting is scheduled.

Obama has long said he would be open to discussions with his Iranian counterparts if Tehran shows it is serious about curbing its nuclear program.

"There have been a lot of interesting things said out of Tehran and the new government — and encouraging things," Carney said Thursday. "But actions speak louder than words."

Iran has repeatedly said it wants sanctions eased as a first step to make any significant progress in nuclear negotiations. Sanctions levied by the U.S. and Europe have contributed to a rapid rise in inflation and unemployment in Iran.

Tehran insists its nuclear program is peaceful and that it is enriching uranium to levels needed for medical isotopes and reactor fuel. But Western powers, including the U.S., fear Iran is trying to build a nuclear bomb.

Whether any headway is made on the nuclear issue could hinge on how the U.S. and Iran handle negotiations to dismantle Syria's vast chemical weapons stockpile. Iran is the chief benefactor to Syria, where an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack on Damascus suburbs killed as many as 1,400 people, according to U.S. and Western intelligence agencies, who blame the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Yet Iran has been vociferous in its condemnation of chemical weapons attacks in Syria. In an interview with NBC News that aired this week, Rouhani called for "the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction in the entire region." He also said that Iran, "under no circumstances, would we seek any weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, nor will we ever."

Robert Einhorn, who left the State Department in May after serving as special adviser for arms control and a negotiator on the talks with Iran, said the nuclear discussions could dissolve if the Syria plan fails.

"I think the American public, the American Congress would say, 'Oh, you've got to be kidding. ... Look what happened last time. The Syrians weren't serious; do you think the Iranians are serious about diplomacy? They're just going to play this out, they're going to play for time and advance their nuclear program, just the way the Syrians did on the chemical weapons,'" Einhorn, now at the Brookings Institution, said last week at the Atlantic Council think tank.

"On the other hand, if you had a good deal, if the current efforts resulted in the end of Syria's chemical weapons program — verifiably, credibly and quickly, with the absence of military action — I think this could have very positive implications on prospects of diplomacy and willingness to take a risk on diplomacy in the case of Iran," Einhorn said.

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