By Julian Pecquet - 09/19/13 10:00 AM EDT
Diplomatic gestures from Washington and Tehran are raising the possibility of a meeting between President Obama and Iran’s new leader.
The White House says there are no current plans for Obama and Iranian President Hasan Rouhani to meet at the U.N. General Assembly later this month.
But Iran’s decision Wednesday to release eight political prisoners is being viewed as an attempt at outreach to the White House.
If a meeting occurs, it would fulfill Obama’s 2008 campaign promise to engage with Iran.
“There is an opportunity here for diplomacy,” Obama told Telemundo on Tuesday. “And I hope the Iranians take advantage of it.”
The White House confirmed Wednesday the two leaders have exchanged letters in the first direct contact since diplomatic relations were severed in 1980 during the U.S. embassy hostage crisis.
“In his letter the president indicated that the U.S. is ready to resolve the nuclear issue in a way that allows Iran to demonstrate that its nuclear program is for exclusively peaceful purposes,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
“The letter also conveyed the need to act with a sense of urgency to address this issue because, as we have long said, the window of opportunity for resolving this diplomatically is open, but it will not remain open indefinitely.”
Rouhani followed suit with an NBC interview that aired Wednesday evening in which he promised that his administration would never develop nuclear weapons.
The Iranian president also told the network he has full authority to make a deal with Washington, a nod to concerns the Obama administration would be wasting its time because Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the country’s supreme leader.
“From my point of view, the tone of the letter was positive and constructive,” Rouhani told NBC.
“It could be subtle and tiny steps for a very important future. I believe the leaders in all countries could think in their national interest and they should not be under the influence of pressure groups. I hope to witness such an atmosphere in the future.”
Democrats say Obama is ideally suited to take advantage of any opening to avoid a conflict with Iran.
As a presidential candidate in 2007, Obama said he’d meet with the leaders of Iran, North Korea and Syria without preconditions.
He faced strong criticism at the time from his main primary challenger, Hillary Clinton, who called him “irresponsible” and “frankly naïve.”
Obama echoed the same sentiments in his 2009 Cairo speech. He vowed to “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” That speech was a major factor in the decision to award him the Nobel Peace Prize that year for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”
“He actually campaigned on, ‘We need to talk, even to our enemies,’ ” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) told The Hill.
“And he was criticized for that. He took some heat for that. Hopefully, Rouhani will take note of that and take advantage of an opportunity that may not be repeated any time soon.”
Connolly predicted Obama would be extremely wary of reaching any deal with Rouhani unless he had assurances the Iranian president could keep up his end of the bargain.
Former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who also modeled himself as a reformer in the 1990s, soon lost power and influence to conservative clerics, dooming any hope of better relations with the U.S.
“We have seen leadership changes in Tehran to no avail before,” Connolly said.
Republican critics say Obama has been hoodwinked before.
When North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il died in 2011, his son and successor Kim Jong-un also sent signals that he wanted to re-engage. North Korea froze nuclear tests and invited U.N. inspectors back into the reclusive country. The Obama administration responded by offering 240,000 tons of food aid, but within months a North Korean satellite launch had effectively nixed any chance of warmer relations.
“We’ve seen this before with North Korea,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told The Hill.
He called Obama’s last-minute gamble on a diplomatic solution to Syria’s alleged chemical weapons attack a “disaster of historic proportions.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said the only response Obama has received in exchange for his outreach efforts from Iran so far is that “they’ve given us the finger.”
“He’s trying to reach out. It’s not working,” Graham told The Hill. “This is really clear to me that the Iranians are playing a game with us, just like [Bashar] Assad is playing a game with us [in Syria].”
The hawkish senator told reporters on Capitol Hill this week that he’s preparing a resolution giving Obama the authority to use force against Iran if talks over its alleged nuclear weapons program collapse. Graham made it clear he was unimpressed by Rouhani’s overtures to date.
“No gesture, no statement, not releasing prisoners — none of that means a damn thing to me,” Graham said. “What I’m looking for is a change in their nuclear program that’s verifiable.”