All eyes are on Iran's nuclear program Thursday, ahead of planned meetings between a new president trying to assert a moderate tone and representatives from the world's top security powers.
President Hasan Rouhani expressed an unusually sunny outlook for a prospective reset on U.S.-Iranian relations Wednesday in an interview with Washington Post writer David Ignatius. The new president, a known insider of the Iranian supreme leader but also propagating new moderation in Iran, says the upcoming negotiations with the permanent members of the Security Council and Germany could be the spark that overturns more than 30 years of tense relations between Iran and the West.
"We need a beginning point. I think that is the nuclear issue," Rouhani told Ignatius. "From the point of view of the Islamic Republic and the Iranian people, and the point of view of my government, when we look at U.S. policies for the region, we think they have been completely wrong."
This echoes a searing speech he gave before the General Assembly on Tuesday in which he blasted U.S. and Israeli policies in the Middle East.
"But having said that, if Mr. Obama and I were to get together, we would both be looking at the future, and the prospects ahead and our hopes for that future. The notes and letters and exchanges between us are in that direction, and they will continue," he said.
President Barack Obama has said Iranian nuclear talks and the Middle East peace process are his first and second priorities going into this week's U.N. session. He will not attend Thursday's meeting, opting instead to send Secretary of State John Kerry.
"We believe that the new Iranian government under President Rouhani does present an opportunity to make progress on a diplomatic negotiation," a senior White House official said on Tuesday, referring to the P-5+1 talks as "a uniquely high-level meeting for the United States and Iran to be participating in together."
"It's important for us to continue to demonstrate to the world that even as we see positive indicators from President Rouhani, that those words needs to be followed by actions," the official said. "There is still clearly [the] need to do more work in order to create the basis for not just a negotiation, but the type of encounter that we were contemplating today."
Rouhani told the Post he hopes the negotiations will lead to a discernible timetable that is "short-and wrap it up."
"Short is necessary to settle the nuclear file. The shorter it is the more beneficial it is to everyone," he said. "If it's three months that would be Iran's choice, if it's six months that's still good. It's a question of months, not years."
Rouhani said he and his government are "fully empowered to finalize the nuclear talks" on behalf of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the reclusive supreme leader of Iran who experts believe exerts ultimate control over Iran's policies. The president is "fully cognizant of the general framework, in terms of strategy," Rouhani said, and has delegated this authority to Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
Iran may also be willing to negotiate on the future of Syria which is well into its third year of a bloody civil war, said Rouhani, who became a Shia Islamic cleric before entering politics. Iran has been a known backer of the regime of Bashar Assad, also a Shia muslim, and has so far disregarded invitations to participate in another summit in Geneva to discuss Syrian peace.
"We would enter in any talks or meetings including Geneva 2 as long as there are no preconditions for Iran's participation," he said, in order to help settle the crisis and "insure the right of self-determination of the Syrian people."
But the priorities on Thursday remain on nuclear talks, scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. Once that issue is settled, Rouhani said, then "we can turn to other issues.
"After resolution of the nuclear issue there are no impossibilities in term of advancing other things forward. The foundation for all this is the confidence that has to be built," he said. "That clearly will help everything else. Everything is possible after the settlement."