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All eyes on Rohani and Obama as UN summit opens

© AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-09-24

The UN General Assembly was set to open Tuesday with hopes for a thaw in relations between the US and Iran and all eyes on President Barack Obama and his new Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rohani (pictured).

While the war in Syria is expected to dominate discussion at the UN General Assembly this week, all eyes will be on the leaders of arch rivals, the US and Iran, to see whether a handshake or some other gesture gives a sign of a thaw.

President Barack Obama and his new Iranian counterpart Hassan Rohani will be watched carefully at a lunch held by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday. High-level contact between Iranian and US officials has been almost unheard of for more than three decades and UN appearances by Rohani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, rarely allowed for progress.

The White House said it has not ruled out a meeting on the sidelines between Obama and Rohani, who was elected president in July.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are set to meet on Thursday alongside their counterparts from the UK, China, France, Germany and Russia.

Zarif and Kerry will be the first US and Iranian ministers to meet as part of talks over Iran’s contested nuclear programme. The meeting will be highly unusual given the United States has not maintained diplomatic relations with Iran since it cut off ties in 1980.

Nuclear sanctions in question

The encounter between Zarif and Kerry comes as Iran calls for the easing of crippling international sanctions over its uranium enrichment.

Rohani said in a US television interview last week that Iran would "never" build a nuclear bomb. But the US and its allies still believe Tehran wants that capability and are waiting for signs that Rohani is serious about better relations.

The talks "will give our ministers a sense of their level of seriousness and whether they are coming with concrete new proposals and whether this charm offensive actually has substance to it," a senior US State Department official said.

The US-educated Zarif, whose knowledge of Western culture has endeared him to foreign diplomats, confirmed Thursday's meeting on his Facebook page.

Zarif said he spoke to EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton of Iran's “political will as well as a conceptual framework to reach a solution that would ensure the Iranian people's rights and would lift the sanctions”.

“Positive initial meeting with Ashton,” Zarif tweeted after the talks. Of Thursday’s meeting at the New York summit, he wrote “need new start under new circumstances”.

Ashton, who has led Western efforts to engage with Tehran, said she was "struck by the energy and determination" of Zarif.

But Western powers said on Monday that Iran had to follow up on calls for better ties if it wants to be taken seriously.

The statements have "to be matched by concrete steps and actions" against Iran's nuclear drive and against helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said after talks with Zarif.

"To meet means exchanges, but does not mean a change of position," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters.

Syria to dominate speeches

Obama, like most leaders, was to devote a lot of his speech on Tuesday to the 30-month-old Syrian war that has left more than 100,000 dead.

The US president was to renew warnings about Syria's chemical weapons while also giving his backing to UN efforts to broker a political end to the war, White House officials said.

His call for action against the use of banned chemical arms comes as the UN Security Council struggles to agree on a plan to destroy Assad's arsenal.

"Chirac deal could have answered the nuclear question"

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has accused the West of using "blackmail" to get a resolution that approves military force.

Western diplomats deny there is a call for force or sanctions in the draft resolution currently under discussion.

The deadlock could be lifted when Kerry and Lavrov meet on Tuesday on the sidelines of the UN summit. But if they cannot agree enforcement measures then the disarmament mission could be seriously delayed, diplomats warned.

France's Fabius said he still believed a resolution can be agreed this week.

Ban will call a meeting on Wednesday of the foreign ministers of the Security Council permanent members – Kerry, Lavrov, Hague, Fabius and China's Wang Yi – to press for united action on the Syria crisis.

He will also meet with Kerry and Lavrov separately in a bid to agree a date for a Syria peace conference in Geneva. The meeting could be held on Friday, according to UN officials.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

Date created : 2013-09-24

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