September 15, 2013 6:42 pm

Obama upbeat on Iran nuclear talks after contacting Rouhani

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the nation about the situation in Syria from the East Room at the White House in Washington...U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the nation about the situation in Syria from the East Room at the White House in Washington, September 10, 2013©Reuters

The US has opened back-channel communications with the new Iranian leadership in advance of a crucial period of talks over Iran’s nuclear programme, which has moved sharply into focus after the weekend agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons.

President Barack Obama said on Sunday that he had exchanged letters with Hassan Rouhani, the new Iranian president, who has attempted to project a more moderate international image since he was elected in June.

Mr Obama also said that the US and Russian-brokered agreement over Syria’s chemical weapons showed there could be a diplomatic solution to the stand-off with Iran.

The Iranians should not view the past two weeks of Syrian crisis diplomacy as a sign that “we won’t strike Iran”, Mr Obama said in an interview with ABC. “On the other hand, what they should draw from this lesson is that there is the potential of resolving these issues diplomatically.”

Iran is expected to resume talks with the big powers in the coming weeks over its nuclear programme, amid new concerns in the US and Europe about its build-up of enriched uranium that could be used to make a weapon.

Mr Rouhani and his new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, are expected to meet European and potentially US officials when they travel to New York later this month for the UN General Assembly.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, said on Sunday that the way the plan over Syria’s chemical weapons was implemented would send an important message to Iran, whose nuclear programme Israel sees as its biggest strategic threat.

“The determination the international community shows regarding Syria will have a direct impact on the Syrian regime’s patron, Iran,” he said. “What the past few days have shown is something that I have been saying for quite some time: that if diplomacy has any chance to work, it must be coupled with a credible military threat.”

Amos Yadlin, head of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies and former head of Israeli military intelligence, said Iran had been “the elephant in the room between Kerry and Lavrov”.

He said “the jury is still out” on the broader impact of the Syrian talks, but if the process were to succeed, it could be a model of US-Russian co-operation that could also be used in Iran.

Mr Obama’s rightwing critics have said the perception of wavering over whether to launch air strikes against Syria could embolden Iran to make a final push for its own nuclear weapons.

“We cannot imagine a worse signal to send to Iran as it continues its push for a nuclear weapon,” said John McCain and Lindsey Graham, two prominent Republican senators, about the agreement over Syria’s chemical weapons.

In his interview with ABC, Mr Obama spelt out in the starkest terms yet why he believed that Iran presented a much stronger threat to US national interests than did Syria.

“I think what the Iranians understand is that the nuclear issue is a far larger issue for us than the chemical weapons issue,” said Mr Obama.

“The threat against Israel that a nuclear Iran poses is much closer to our core interests. A nuclear arms race in the region is something that would be profoundly destabilising.”

Suzanne Maloney, a former official at the US state department and now at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said the exchange of letters was a small but important step to breaking the “intractable differences between these two governments”.

“For the first time, it appears that Washington and Tehran are capable of carrying on a direct conversation between their respective leaders,” she said.

Tehran, meanwhile, was upbeat about the US-Russia agreement on Syria, playing up the role of President Vladimir Putin of Russia as an “international statesman” in preventing another war in the region.

Ali Larijani, Iran’s speaker of parliament, said the US retreat from a strike showed Washington had “a little bit of wisdom”.

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