President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama disembark from Air Force One at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on September 23, 2013 (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
(USA TODAY) -- President Obama will deliver his annual address to the United Nations General Assembly today, where he's expected to speak directly about recent overtures made by the Iranian government to try to end a decade of crippling international sanctions for its nuclear program.
Obama and Iran's new president, Hasan Rouhani, are not scheduled to meet before Obama leaves New York tonight, but the White House confirmed on Monday that Secretary of State John Kerry, along with his counterparts from six other major powers negotiating to contain Iran's nuclear program, will meet Thursday with Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to discuss the program.
Kerry's participation marks the highest-level face-to-face contact between U.S. and Iranian officials since hard-line Islamists overthrew the pro-American Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi more than 34 years ago.
The Obama administration's decision to take part in the talks follows Rouhani and Obama exchanging letters after the new Iranian leader took office in August. Obama has expressed cautious optimism regarding conciliatory statements the self-described moderate Rouhani has made about his desire to ease long-simmering tensions over its nuclear program. Last week, Obama responded publicly that he would like to see Iran address U.S. concerns "in a way that would allow Iran to rejoin the international community."
"We welcome Iran engaging seriously through that process given that it represents the international community's commitment to holding Iran accountable, but also being open to a diplomatic resolution," deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said of Thursday's meeting.
The White House maintains that Rouhani's decision to try to find a diplomatic solution is related directly to the bruising sanctions that have left Iran's economy in tatters. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have warned Obama to proceed carefully in any talks with the Iranians, alluding to the fact that Iran over the past decade has sought negotiations with the international community only to continue its drive toward nuclear weapons-building capability.
"Whatever nice words we may hear from Mr. Rouhani, it is Iranian action that matters. We would welcome a credible and verifiable agreement with Iran," Sens. Robert Menendez, Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., wrote in a letter to Obama on Monday. Obama's address and Kerry's meeting come during one of the most high-stakes meetings of the General Assembly in recent years. In addition to trying to find a breakthrough in the nuclear standoff, Obama is trying to iron out a Russian-proposed plan for Syria to relinquish its chemical weapons.
The plan faces a major hurdle. As part of the deal to get the Syrians to give up control of their chemical stockpile, the Russians want Obama to agree that he will not carry out military action against Bashar Assad's regime - something the White House has been unwilling to agree to.
In addition to Iran and Syria, Obama is expected to use his address today to speak about recently renewed peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians as well as this weekend's terrorist attack on a shopping mall in Nairobi. Obama will also take part in a discussion with former president Bill Clinton in New York City today to discuss implementation of his signature health care law before he heads back to Washington.
But all eyes are on whether Obama and Rouhani will try to build on the recent thawing of the adversarial relationship - even if it's merely a handshake between the two leaders.
The White House made clear that even such a seemingly innocuous encounter would be carefully choreographed. "I don't think that anything would happen by happenstance on a relationship and an issue that is this important," Rhodes said.