President Obama addresses world leaders at the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 24 at the United Nations in New York City.(Photo: Timothy Clary, AFP/Getty Images)
Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY
President Obama used his address before the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday to extend a hand to Iran, while calling on U.N. Security Council members to back a resolution that would mandate consequences for Syria if it fails to cooperate with a plan to turn its chemical weapons stockpiles over to the international community
Obama said the U.S. and international community's disputes with Iran over its nuclear program can't be solved overnight but said he sees an opportunity to take a "major step down a long road toward a different relationship."
"The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe that the diplomatic path must be tested," he said.
Obama's speech focused broadly on U.S. policy toward the Middle East and North Africa, with a particular emphasis on ridding Syria of its chemical weapons stockpile, ongoing direct Middle East negotiations, and renewed efforts to nudge Iran to give up its nuclear weapons.
He also appeared to take a direct shot at Russian President Vladimir Putin when he referred to the United States as "exceptional" and defended its role in shaping international affairs. The reference was a rebuke of Putin, who chastised Obama in a New York Times commentary last week for citing American exceptionalism in making his case to the American public this month to support military action against Syria if it doesn't give up its chemical weapons stockpile.
The latest push on Iran comes as Obama has expressed cautious optimism about the new Iranian president, Hasan Rouhani, who has made overtures to Obama about finding a political solution to resolve years of crippling international economic sanctions over its nuclear programs.
Since coming into power last month, Rouhani - who ran as a moderate in this summer's Iranian elections - has traded private letters with Obama and has said he has complete authority to negotiate with the U.S. on its nuclear program.
Obama also cited in his address Iran's supreme leader's fatwa against developing nuclear weapons, and Rouhani"s comments against nuclear weapons as reasons to believe that headway can be made in solving the decade-old problem and lead to an easing of crippling international sanctions against Tehran.
But Obama warned: "These words must be followed by actions that are transparent and verifiable. After all, it's the Iranian government's choices that have led to the comprehensive sanctions that are currently in place."
The president also lamented that the U.S. and Iran have been isolated from each other since the Islamic revolution of 1979. The Iranians have complained of U.S. interference in their affairs, while the U.S. has mistrusted an Islamic government that has either directly or through proxies taken American hostages, killed U.S. troops in Iraq and threatened Israel with destruction.
"I don't believe this difficult history can be overcome overnight," Obama said. "The suspicions run too deep, but I do believe if we can resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road toward a different relationship - one based on mutual interest and mutual respect."
Obama repeated the U.S. government's long-held stance that it remains committed to preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon - preferably through diplomacy. At the same time, Obama also sought to reassure the Iranian mullahs.
"We are not seeking regime change, and we respect the right of the Iran people to access peaceful nuclear energy," Obama said.
In Washington, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are deeply suspicious of Iran's latest overtures, in large part because over the past decade Iran 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 comes during one of the most high-stakes meetings of the General Assembly in recent years.
All eyes in New York are on whether Obama and Rouhani will meet face-to-face later today - even if it's merely a handshake between the two leaders. The White House said on Tuesday nothing was scheduled, but did not close the door on a chance encounter.
Even if Obama and Rouhani don't meet, the White House announced on Monday that Secretary of State John Kerry will participate in 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.
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.
On Syria, Obama made the case that the U.N. Security Council must hold Syria accountable if it does not follow through on Russian proposal floated earlier this month to relinquish its chemical weapons stockpile.
The Russian plan faces a difficult hurdle. As part of the deal to get 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.
"Our response has not matched the scale of the challenge," Obama told the world leaders. "Without a credible military threat, the Security Council had demonstrated no inclination to act at all," Obama said. "If we cannot agree even on this, then it will show that the U.N. is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws. On the other hand, if we succeed, it will send a powerful message that the use of chemical weapons has no place in the 21st century, and that this body means what it says."
Obama also scoffed at Assad's assertion that his regime was not responsible for an Aug. 21 chemical attack that killed 1,400 in the suburbs of Damascus. He also gently chastised the Assad's regime chief patrons - Russia and Iran - insisting that Assad's rule will lead to what they fear most: extremist rule.
"It is an insult to ... the legitimacy of this institution to suggest that anyone other than the regime carried out this attack," Obama said.
Obama also pledged an additional $340 million in humanitarian aid to assist Syrian civilians whose lives who have been upended by the bloody civil war there that has killed more than 100,000.