In a speech at the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday, President Barack Obama indicated that he was cautiously optimistic at the prospect of thawing diplomatic relations with Iran. The United States has had icy relations with the Middle Eastern country since the 1980s, but a newly-elected leader could present a fresh opportunity for productive dialogue.
President Hasan Rouhani was elected in August, and seems more open to negotiations about Iran's nuclear program than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Yet Obama has been hesitant to embrace the leader's charm offensive, acknowledging that "the suspicion runs too deep" because the country has a history of "evading its responsibilities."
"I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear program that can serve as a major step down a long road towards a different relationship," Obama said. "We should be able to achieve a resolution that respects the rights of the Iranian people while giving the world confidence that the Iranian program is peaceful."
In addition to sanctions from the United States, Iran has been subject to additional sanctions from the United Nations since 2006 after repeatedly refusing to stop development of its nuclear program. The country's economy has suffered economically, and remains largely isolated from the rest of the world.
In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Rouhani said during his country's election he promised the Iranian people he would "engage in constructive interaction with the world." He emphasized the importance of international dialogue surrounding conflicts like his nuclear program, or the civil war in Syria. But he also defended the country's nuclear ambitions as central to its identity:
The centrality of identity extends to the case of our peaceful nuclear energy program. To us, mastering the atomic fuel cycle and generating nuclear power is as much about diversifying our energy resources as it is about who Iranians are as a nation, our demand for dignity and respect and our consequent place in the world.
Writing for U.S. News, former Pentagon spokesman J.D. Gordon said the United States must not let its guard down in relation to Iran:
Perhaps Iran, the place where chess was invented, is lulling the U.S. and Europe into a false sense of security so tough sanctions can be eased, thus repairing its crippled economy – and then it will continue a nuclear weapons program under the radar, literally buried into mountainsides around the country.
It is speculated that Obama and Rouhani could speak this week at the United Nations, but Obama's staff has not confirmed the two will indeed meet face-to-face.
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