WASHINGTON/ BEIRUT: President Barack Obama disclosed in a television interview broadcast Sunday that he had exchanged letters with Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani and said diplomacy on Syria, backed up by a military threat, was a potential model for negotiations on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
The revelation came as sources told The Daily Star of recent efforts to schedule an unofficial meeting between the two rival heads of state on the sidelines of the upcoming U.N. General Assembly meeting.
In an interview on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” Obama did not reveal details of the letter exchange, but made clear that U.S. concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions are a “far larger issue for us” than Syria’s chemical weapons.
He and Rouhani will speak at the U.N. General Assembly next week on the same day.
A White House spokeswoman said there are currently no plans for them to meet at the United Nations.
But a senior Lebanese pro-Iranian political source told The Daily Star an unofficial meeting between Obama and Rouhani had been discussed during a recent meeting of American U.N. envoy Jeffrey Feltman during a visit to Tehran earlier this month.
The source said Feltman’s visit was in part to explore whether there was “any possibility” for an unofficial meeting between the two heads of state on the sidelines of the United Nations meeting later this month.
Obama said Iran should avoid thinking that the United States would not launch a military strike in response to Tehran’s nuclear program just because it has not attacked Syria.
“They shouldn’t draw a lesson that we haven’t struck, to think we won’t strike Iran,” Obama said.
“On the other hand, what they should draw from this lesson is that there is the potential of resolving these issues diplomatically.”
Tehran denies seeking nuclear weapons but the United States and Israel are working under the assumption that Iran is well along toward developing an atomic weapons program.
Regarded as a relative moderate, Rouhani has made conciliatory statements toward Washington since coming to office last month. However, Obama said he doubted Rouhani would “suddenly make it easy” to negotiate with the Iranians.
“My view is that if you have both a credible threat of force, combined with a rigorous diplomatic effort, that, in fact you can strike a deal,” he said.
White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said the United States hoped the Iranian government would engage substantively in order to reach a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue.
“We remain ready to engage with the Rouhani government on the basis of mutual respect to achieve a peaceful resolution to the nuclear issue,” she said.
In the interview, Obama rejected Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that Syrian rebels were responsible for an Aug. 21 chemical gas attack, but he welcomed Putin’s diplomatic role in the crisis.
Iran is a key regional backer of Assad in the country’s civil war and has condemned the use of chemical weapons. Some senior Iranians officials have also suggested rebels were behind the Aug. 21 attack.
“Well, nobody around the world takes seriously the idea that the rebels were the perpetrators of this [attack],” Obama said.
Separately Sunday The U.N. humanitarian chief met with officials with Iran’s government, calling Sunday on the unwavering backer of Syria’s government to provide more humanitarian assistance to civilians caught in that country’s civil war.
Valerie Amos also spoke to journalists during her first visit to Tehran, saying that she urged Iran’s government to help aid agencies gain greater access to those needing help in Syria.
Iran has occasionally sent humanitarian aid to Syria in the past.
Iranian state television reported Amos met Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and stressed the importance of Iran providing assistance to regional countries like Syria. A report by the semi-official ISNA news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi saying Iran is ready for extended and effective cooperation with the U.N. to provide humanitarian aid.
Amos also said in a statement that she signed a joint statement with the Iranian government about strengthening cooperation and providing help to humanitarian and disaster management agencies.
ISNA initially reported a memorandum of understanding on aid had been signed. Iranian state television and the United Nations later said that it had only been discussed.