White House: US 'ready to engage' with Iran on nuclear program

The White House said Friday it was "ready to engage" Iran on a deal to remove sanctions in exchange for an agreement to end Tehran's nuclear weapons program.

"The U.S. stands ready to engage with the Iranians on the basis of mutual respect," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One.

A New York Times story published Thursday night reported that Iranian officials were focused on getting quick relief from the restrictions, which have isolated the country from the international banking system.

Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, is also reportedly eager to drive a quick bargain so that his negotiations are not undermined by the country's hard-line clerics.

Earnest said that the Iranian government's willingness to bargain was evidence that sanctions had "taken a significant toll on their economy and put pressure on them to come back to the bargaining table.” He added that the United States stood willing to engage in bilateral negotiations.

“Over the course of these talks, the Iranians will have an opportunity to demonstrate that they are willing to live up to their promises and prove to the international community that the nuclear program they’re pursuing is for exclusively peaceful means,” Earnest said.

But the White House said it is not concerned that there was a limited window to strike a deal. Earnest said that the U.S. was engaged in "ongoing conversations" with Iran as it sought to strike a bargain.

Friday's overtures only increased speculation that Obama and Rouhani would attempt to meet next week in New York during a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. But Earnest said that at this point, there was still no meeting between the leaders on the president's schedule.

Obama and Rouhani have exchanged letters, which both sides say has raised hopes for a thaw in relations.