U.S. President Barack Obama was open to meeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, but Rouhani refused, senior administration officials said Tuesday.
The White House had offered to have “an encounter” between the two leaders but Iranian officials ultimately declined, according to the officials cited by Politico.
“The Iranians have an internal dynamic that they have to manage and the relationship with the United States is clearly quite different than the relationship that Iran has with other Western nations,” a senior administration official was quoted as having said.
U.S. and Iranian officials had been discussing the possibility of an Obama-Rouhani meeting for days, an official said. Ultimately, though, “it was clear that it was too complicated for them.”
Rouhani skipped a lunch at the United Nations that offered him and Obama the most likely chance of an informal meeting, as both leaders signal willingness to engage in new talks.
While Obama and Rouhani did not meet face-to-face while in New York, the two have taken steps to thaw the U.S.-Iran relationship, exchanging letters in recent weeks. On Tuesday, Obama publicly reached out to Iran in his speech to the General Assembly.
“The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested,” he said. “For while the status quo will only deepen Iran’s isolation, Iran’s genuine commitment to go down a different path will be good for the region and the world, and will help the Iranian people meet their extraordinary potential — in commerce and culture, in science and education.”
While U.S.-Iran “mistrust has deep roots” dating back more than three decades, Obama said he is open to cautious cooperation.
“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, one based on mutual interests and mutual respect,” he said.
Had Obama and Rouhani met, it would have been the first time that a U.S. president and a leader of Iran had met face-to-face since December 31, 1977, when President Jimmy Carter and his wife were New Year’s Eve guests of the Shah.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, however, is set to meet Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Thursday, in what will be the highest-level talks between the United States and Iran since the 1979 revolution.
Kerry and Zarif will join their counterparts from the six major powers that are negotiating to contain Iran's nuclear policy.
Rouhani said several weeks ago that the time for resolving Iran's nuclear dispute with the West was limited, urging the world to seize the opportunity of his election.