French President François Hollande will meet with Iranian President Hassan Rohani on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly next week, in the latest move by the new Iranian leader to try to heal Tehran’s acrimonious relations with the West.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani is set to meet with French President François Hollande on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly next week in the latest overture in the new Iranian leader’s recent diplomatic charm offensive.
Announcing the meeting on Thursday night, Hollande noted that, "There is a plan to meet with the Iranian president at his request.” The French president was speaking to reporters in Malian capital of Bamako, where he was attending a ceremony to mark the swearing-in of Mali's new president.
The meeting in New York will be the first between the leaders of France and Iran since 2005.
Hollande is also likely to be the first Western leader of the P5+1 group of nations - United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany - to meet Rouhani.
The P5+1 refers to the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany that have been leading the diplomatic effort on Iran’s nuclear programme.
America’s long-time foe
In the lead-up to next week’s UN General Assembly, there has been some speculation that Rohani could meet with US President Barack Obama. The two leaders exchanged letters earlier this week, signalling a potential thaw in US-Iranian relations, which plunged to new lows under the reign of former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But Obama has to walk a fine line between opening the door to America’s long-time foe and protecting himself from attacks by US conservatives who argue that diplomatic overtures to Iran would compromise Israel’s security interests.
"Chirac deal could have answered the nuclear question"
Senior US officials have said there is likely to be a handshake and a brief exchange of pleasantries between Rohani and Obama in the UN building rather than formal talks.
The meeting between Hollande and Rouhani next week – the first since former French President Jacques Chirac met his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Khatami in 2005 – has been greeted with cautious optimism in French diplomatic circles.
"We should not slam the door on him. We need to see what is behind the words and things will be judged on the acts. The meetings on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly will enable us to establish what Iranian intentions are," a French diplomatic source told Reuters.
‘Rohani has the confidence of the supreme leader’
Over the past few days, Rohani has issued a flurry of diplomatic moves – in letters, interviews and even tweets – hinting at a détente on some of the most vexing issues confronting Iran on the international stage.
In an interview with the US broadcaster NBC earlier this week, Rohani said he had full authority to negotiate with the international community over Tehran’s controversial nuclear enrichment programme.
While Iran insists it is enriching uranium for peaceful purposes, the US and its allies suspect Tehran is trying to build a nuclear weapon.
Over the past few years, diplomatic dealings with Iranian political leaders have been overshadowed by doubts over who holds the real reins of power in a country where an elected president must answer to an unelected supreme leader.
But diplomats who have dealt with Rohani in the past say he enjoys the support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“Rohani has the confidence of the supreme leader, the two men respect each other,” said François Nicoullaud, a former French ambassador to Iran, who served from 2001 to 2005, when Rohani was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator.
Prisoner release sends conciliatory smoke signals
Since his election in June, Rohani has displayed greater flexibility than his predecessor on the domestic and international fronts, promising nuclear negotiations and instituting social reforms back home.
In a surprise move earlier this week, Iran released at least 11 political prisoners – including Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent human rights lawyer.
"This is a concrete step in advancing human rights. Western countries have been waiting for this for a long time," said Nicoullaud.
During his presidential campaign, Rohani had promised to free Iran’s political figures – although he did not specifically name them.
While the 11 prisoners released this week include well-known journalists, activists and a former Iranian minister, some of the most prominent political prisoners – such as 2009 presidential candidates Mir Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi – remain under house arrest.
Analysts say the prisoner release was a significant step in Rouhani’s attempt to revamp Iran’s image abroad. "With Hassan Rohani, it’s a matter of political realism,” said Clément Therme , an associate researcher at the Paris-based L’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS). "The new government knows that the West will be sensitive to these events."
Date created : 2013-09-20