President Barack Obama on Tuesday welcomed the new Iranian government's pursuit of a "more moderate course," saying it should offer the basis for a breakthrough on Iran's nuclear impasse with the United Nations and the U.S. He signalled a willingness to directly engage Iran's leaders, tasking Secretary of State John Kerry with pursuing that diplomacy with Tehran.
"The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested," Obama said during an address to the U.N. General Assembly.
Senior U.S. officials said Obama and Iranian President Hasan Rouhani will not meet while both leaders are at the United Nations, saying a meeting proved to be too complicated for the Iranians.
Even a brief handshake would have been significant, marking the first such encounter between U.S. and Iranian leaders in 36 years.
The U.S. officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the decision publicly.
Rouhani was not seen at Tuesday's lunch for world leaders hosted by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and Iran's state-run English-language Press TV reported that Rouhani skipped the lunch because alcohol was served.
Obama's speech Tuesday morning focused almost completely on the Middle East.
He also issued a stern message to the U.N., saying its ability to handle current crises is being challenged by the dispute over what to do about Syria's chemical weapons. He called on the Security Council to pass a resolution that would enforce consequences on Syrian President Bashar Assad if he fails to follow a U.S.-Russian deal to turn his chemical weapon stockpiles over to the international community.
"If we cannot agree even on this," he said, "then it will show that the United Nations is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws."
Obama announced that the United States would provide $339 million in additional humanitarian aid to refugees and countries affected by the Syrian civil war, bringing the total U.S. aid devoted to that crisis to nearly $1.4 billion.
As the General Assembly opened, the situation in Syria was overshadowed by friendly gestures between the U.S. and Iran's new government.
Obama said recent statements by Rouhani, a moderate cleric elected in June, should offer the basis for a meaningful agreement on Iran's disputed nuclear program.
The West has long suspected that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. Tehran has consistently denied the charge.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that the world "should not be fooled" by signs of moderation from Tehran. He said Iran's new outreach to the West is merely a ploy to ease international sanctions while it secretly builds a nuclear weapon.
"Iran thinks soothing words and token actions will enable it to continue on its path to the bomb," Netanyahu said. Still, he added that he welcomes Obama's efforts to engage Rouhani.
The previous Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, repeatedly threatened the destruction of Israel, and Israeli leaders have pushed Obama to be more forceful with the threat of military action in response to Tehran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
Obama, reflecting the skepticism of many in the U.S. and around the world, said Rouhani's "conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable."
Obama said he was asking Kerry to pursue diplomatic progress with Iran, in co-ordination with five other world powers. Kerry will join representatives from those nations Thursday in a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif.
Zarif, who was in attendance during Obama's speech, tweeted a few hours before Obama's speech, "we have a historic opportunity to resolve the nuclear issue. 5+1 needs to adjust its posture commensurate with the new Iranian approach." In Iran, the main domestic TV channels did not run Obama's speech live.
It's unclear whether Kerry and Zarif will meet one-on-one on the sidelines of Thursday's meeting.
Obama also addressed the elusive effort to seal lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. The two sides have resumed direct talks, partly as a result of months of lobbying by Kerry.
The president praised Israeli and Palestinian leaders for their willingness to take "significant political risks" in order to get back to the negotiating table.
"Now the rest of us must also be willing to take risks," Obama said, adding that the United States must recognize that Israel's security depends on the formation of a Palestinian state.
Obama was to meet Tuesday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He'll also hold talks at the White House next week with Netanyahu.
Turning to Africa, Obama said that while the world is more stable than five years ago, the deadly terrorist attack on a shopping mall in Kenya "indicates the dangers that remain." More than 60 people have been killed by members of the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.
Obama said al-Qaida has splintered into regional networks and militias, which poses "serious threats to governments, diplomats, businesses and civilians across the globe."
And on Egypt, Obama said the United States hopes to maintain a constructive relationship with the interim government there but it is avoiding choosing sides since the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in July.
Obama said the U.S. will continue to offer to support to Egypt in areas such as education, but the U.S. has held up the delivery of certain military aid. And he says that future support, in his words, "will depend upon Egypt's progress in pursuing a democratic path."
The U.S. provides Egypt with about $1.5 billion a year, mostly military aid.
Associated Press writers Julie Pace, Darlene Superville and Edith Lederer in New York and Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.
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